How economic, humanitarian, and religious concerns shape European attitudes toward asylum seekers

Kirk Bansak, Jens Hainmueller, and Dominik Hangartner

Science, Volume 354, Issue 6309 (2016), pages 217-222


This article examines the impact of different asylum seeker attributes on public support for granting asylum in Europe. The analysis is based on an online survey of 18,000 eligible voters in 15 European countries. The respondents were asked to evaluate different profiles of asylum seekers that varied randomly across nine attributes, including: (1) consistency of asylum testimony; (2) gender; (3) country of origin; (4) age; (5) previous occupation; (6) vulnerability; (7) reason for migrating; (8) religion; and (9) language skills.

Main findings:

  • Respondents favored asylum seekers with higher employability. Asylum seekers who worked in higher-skill occupations in their country of origin were more likely to be accepted compared to asylum seekers who had been unemployed.
  • Respondents attached importance to language skills. Asylum seekers were less likely to be accepted if they did not speak the host country language or had limited host language proficiency compared to those who were fluent in the host country language.
  • Age of the asylum seekers mattered to respondents. Asylum seekers who were close to retirement age (62 years) were less likely to be accepted than younger applicants (21 years).
  • Asylum seekers were more likely to be accepted if they were deserving, had more consistent asylum testimonies, or were highly vulnerable. Asylum seekers who applied because of fear of political, religious, or ethnic persecution were more likely to be accepted compared to persons who migrated to seek better economic opportunities. Asylum seekers were also less likely to be accepted when they had major inconsistencies in their asylum testimony, compared to those who did not have any inconsistencies. Moreover, those who had been the victim of torture were more likely to be accepted than are those with no special vulnerabilities.
  • Religion of asylum seekers affects preferences. Muslim asylum seekers were significantly less likely to be accepted than otherwise similar Christian asylum seekers, however Christian asylum seekers were only slightly preferred over agnostic asylum seekers, indicating a strong anti-Muslim bias rather than a pro-Christian bias.
  • Country of origin plays only a minor role in shaping attitudes.
  • Attitudes did not differ according to respondents’ political ideology, age, education and income, with a few exceptions. Respondents on the ideological left had stronger humanitarian concerns and weaker anti-Muslim bias than respondents on the right. The premium for asylum seekers with special vulnerabilities and penalty for asylum seekers who migrated in search of economic opportunities were larger among respondents on the left than among those on the right.
  • Preferences were largely consistent across the 15 surveyed countries. However, the magnitude of the anti-Muslim bias varied somewhat, and the penalty against asylum seekers who migrated for economic reasons was smaller in poorer countries than in richer countries.

Overall, asylum seekers have a higher probability of being accepted when they are more employable and skilled, have special vulnerabilities, have more consistent asylum claims, and are Christian rather than Muslim. Moreover, these effects are similar across sociodemographic subgroups of respondents and across countries.

The authors conclude that; (1) evaluations of the expected economic contribution or potential economic burden of asylum seekers (sociotropic concerns) play an important role in structuring asylum preferences; (2) public preferences are also highly sensitive to humanitarian concerns about the deservingness and legitimacy of the asylum request, as well as the severity of the claimants’ vulnerabilities; (3) anti-Muslim sentiment is an important factor that structures asylum preferences; (4) respondents are concerned about the economic impact on the host country as a whole (sociotropic concerns) rather than the impact on the respondents’ personal economic situation (egocentric economic concerns); and (5) although humanitarian concerns are shared among the left and the right, those concerns play a somewhat stronger role in structuring attitudes toward asylum seekers for the left.