Does Exposure to the Refugee Crisis Make Natives More Hostile?

Dominik Hangartner, Elias Dinas, Moritz Marbach, Konstantinos Matakos, and Dimitrios Xefteris

American Political Science Review, Volume 113, Issue 2 (2019), Pages 442-455


This paper examines the impact of the 2015/16 refugee crisis on residents’ attitudes, policy preferences, and political engagement in Greece.

The authors exploit a natural experiment in which: (a) distance to the Turkish coast causes dramatic variation in the number of refugee arrivals on Greek islands; (b) islands with and without arrivals are identical across many observable and unobservable characteristics; and (c) among those islands with refugee arrivals, refugees were concentrated in particular ‘hotspots’. The analysis is based on a survey of 2,070 residents covering: attitudes toward refugees, immigrants, and Muslim minorities; preferences regarding asylum, immigration, and integration policies; and political engagement to enact policies affecting refugees. The authors use distance to the Turkish coast as an instrument for refugee arrivals to resolve the selection bias associated with refugees choosing their arrival island based on preexisting levels of hostility toward outgroups.

Key findings:

  • Residents of Greek islands that experienced large and sudden arrivals of refugees became more hostile toward refugees, immigrants, and Muslim minorities, and were more likely to support and lobby for more restrictive asylum policies than residents in similar islands that received fewer or no refugees. Respondents directly exposed to the refugee crisis were more likely to develop stronger anti-asylum seeker, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim attitudes. Compared to respondents on unexposed islands, they were more likely to oppose hosting additional asylum seekers, more likely to support the ban of refugee children from schools, less likely to donate to UNHCR, and less likely to sign a petition that lobbies the government to provide better housing for refugees. Exposure to large numbers of refugees caused residents to become more hostile not only towards refugees, but also towards economic migrants and Muslims, including resident Muslims who had been living in Greece for centuries.
  • Across all these outcomes, direct exposure to the refugee crisis had a long-term impact on natives’ hostility (almost twelve months elapsed between the passing of the last refugee in March 2016 and the survey in 2017).
  • Respondents who received their income primarily from tourism did not necessarily react more strongly to refugee arrivals. This finding supports the argument that rather than egocentric economic concerns, the chaotic management of the refugee crisis triggered hostility among the local population.
  • Proximity to refugee hotspots significantly and substantially increased respondents’ hostility towards asylum seekers and economic immigrants and increased their support for exclusionary policies. This pattern is consistent with the idea that the highly localized and spatially concentrated chaos surrounding the hotspots created a feeling of threat and triggered exclusionary reactions among residents.
  • Exposure effects are spread quite uniformly across the ideological spectrum. Those with less exclusionary attitudes reacted similarly negatively to the refugee crisis as those with already strong exclusionary attitudes. The effects were similar between right-wing/extreme-right and centrist/leftist voters.

Since refugees only passed through the Greek islands, the findings challenge both standard economic and cultural explanations of anti-immigrant sentiment and demonstrate that mere exposure suffices in generating lasting increases in hostility. Even if the transient refugee arrivals did not threaten the economic, political, or cultural prerogatives of the local population, the lack of adequate medical, sanitary and waste collection services for refugees caused chaotic scenes and disruptions at hotspots and sparked concerns about the spread of disease. The uniform effect of exposure to the refugee crisis across the sample suggest that this threat triggered exclusionary reactions not only among those already predisposed against immigration, but also among respondents who otherwise would exhibit inclusionary attitudes.