Contact Matters: Exposure to Refugees and Voting for the Far-Right

Andreas Steinmayr

An earlier version of this paper was circulated under the title: “Exposure to Refugees and Voting for the Far-Right: (Unexpected) Results from Austria”, available as IZA Discussion Paper No. 9790.


This paper investigates how exposure to refugees in Upper Austria affected voting for the far right Freedom Party of Austria. In state elections in September 2015, at the peak of the refugee crisis, the Freedom Party doubled its share of the vote with nationalistic, anti-immigration, and anti-asylum campaigns. Upper Austria experienced two different types of exposure to refugees: (a) very short-term exposure to transiting refugees in municipalities bordering Germany; and (b) more prolonged exposure in municipalities that hosted refugees who applied for asylum in Austria. These two types of exposure permit empirical testing of the intergroup contact theory (Allport, 1954), which predicts that contact between an in-group (native population) and an out-group (refugees) reduces prejudice provided certain conditions are met, namely: equal status of the groups in the situation; common goals, intergroup cooperation; and the support of authorities, law, or custom. To account for the endogeneity in the distribution of refugees, the author uses pre-existing accommodation suitable for hosting large groups as an instrumental variable (buildings were constructed for purposes other than hosting refugees). Key findings:

  • Hosting refugees in a municipality dampens the positive overall trend in support for the Freedom Party by 3.45 percentage points in state elections. Votes predominantly go to the conservative, center-right Austrian People’s Party. Local authorities and NGOs facilitated interactions between natives and refugees, and competition for local economic resources was limited (refugees were not permitted to work until their asylum application was approved, they stayed in organized accommodation and did not compete with natives for real estate, and financial assistance for refugees was funded from the state budget). The presence of refugees also decreased support for the Freedom Party in neighboring municipalities.
  • Municipalities on the border that experienced the transit of refugees on their way to Germany, show an above average increase in Freedom Party vote shares by 2.7 percentage points in state elections. Refugees only stayed for a few hours before continuing their journey, in chaotic circumstances. This suggests that short and unmediated exposure without possibility for contact can lead to increased far-right voting.

The author concludes that the findings are in line with the predictions of the intergroup contact theory that maintains that contact can improve attitudes towards refugees provided certain conditions are met. However, micro-level exposure can have the opposite effect if these conditions are not met. The author notes that macro-level exposure to the refugee situation (e.g. through social media and political rhetoric) might also affect voting decisions; insofar as the refugee crisis is the cause for the strong increase in support for the Freedom Party, macro-level exposure seems to be the primary mechanism.