Attitudes toward Migrants in a Highly Impacted Economy: Evidence from the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Jordan

Ala’ Alrababa’h, Andrea Dillon, Scott Williamson, Jens Hainmueller, Dominik Hangartner, and Jeremy Weinstein

Comparative Political Studies, Volume 54, Issue 1 (2020)


Most of the evidence on factors influencing attitudes toward migrants has emerged from research in developed countries (mainly Europe and the United States), which finds: (1) little evidence that egocentric economic concerns about labor market competition drive attitudes towards migrants in developed countries, where unemployment is low, welfare states are expansive, and migrants typically don’t speak the same language and are lower-skilled than natives; (2) sociotropic concerns about the negative impact on the host country’s economy, welfare system, and public services shape attitudes toward migrants; (3) attitudes toward migrants are substantially shaped by perceived cultural threat and concerns that migration will change the host country’s dominant culture and identity; and (4) humanitarianism may also influence attitudes.

The authors posit that in developing countries, which host the majority of refugees, egocentric economic concerns about labor market competition and sociotropic concerns about the host country economy are likely to be stronger (due to weaker economies, welfare systems and public service delivery), cultural concerns are likely to be weaker (due to the increased likelihood of shared cultural and religious identities), and humanitarianism is likely to be weaker (since developing countries have a much larger refugee burden).

To address this geographical limitation, the authors conduct a large-scale representative survey of public attitudes toward migration in Jordan, one of the countries most affected by the Syrian refugee crisis. The survey covered 1,500 Jordanians in regions with both high and low concentrations of Syrian refugees.

The authors find:

  • Economic concerns do not drive Jordanians’ attitudes toward Syrian refugees. Jordanians who have been more economically impacted by the crisis, either personally or in their communities, are not more likely to hold negative attitudes.
  • Humanitarian and cultural factors drive Jordanians attitudes towards Syrian refugees. Jordanians who are more exposed to refugees’ challenging living conditions and who are less sensitive to cultural threat demonstrate more positive attitudes toward refugees.
  • Both humanitarian vulnerability and cultural similarity outweigh egocentric and sociotropic economic threats in determining which Syrian refugees Jordanians prefer to host.

These results undermine egocentric arguments about attitude formation toward migrants, and call into question an emerging consensus around the importance of sociotropic economic factors. However, in line with existing research focused on Europe (e.g., Basak et al) the results highlight the potential for humanitarian concerns to sustain public support for hosting refugees over extended periods of time, even in challenging economic circumstances. Most Syrian refugees in Jordan share cultural similarities with their hosts. If these similarities were replaced by cultural differences, the results suggest that Jordanians would be much less likely to let humanitarian motives override the perceived economic costs of hosting so many refugees. This paper therefore reinforces the consensus on the importance of cultural factors in shaping attitudes toward migration.