No Country for Asylum Seekers? How Short-term Exposure to Refugees Influences Attitudes and Voting Behavior in Hungary

Theresa Gessler, Gergo Toth, and Johannes Wachs

January 2019


This paper investigates how short-term contact with refugees during the 2015 European refugee crisis affected political behavior in Hungary. Refugees passed through Hungary in an irregular manner and their interactions with locals were transient (many Hungarians were only exposed to refugees on a single occasion); this contact occurred in the context of strong anti-refugee sentiment among the governing elites, which actively promoted fears of refugees. The analysis relies on data on the presence and movement of refugees during the crisis, and results of a 2016 national referendum on proposed EU refugee quotas. Key findings:

  • Settlements through which refugees traveled showed significantly higher anti-refugee voting in a national referendum on refugee quotas in 2016. The effect, estimated between 1.7 percent and 3.6 percent, decreased sharply with distance from points of exposure.
  • Settlements exposed to refugees voted more for the far-right Jobbik party in the 2018 parliamentary elections, while the ruling Fidesz party, also right-wing and anti-refugee, lost votes. This result suggests that incumbents are punished by voters in these settlements skeptical of immigration regardless of their policy position.
  • Survey data suggests that exposure to refugees seems to galvanize anti-refugee attitudes only for right-wing partisans. Survey data supports the finding of competition among right- wing parties, as individuals in exposed settlements are more fearful of immigrants and support more restrictive policies, though only if they identify as right-wing partisans.

In their conclusion, the authors suggest that that the length and conditions of contact are decisive mediators in the formation of public opinion about refugees. While left-wing voters may become more tolerant with long-run exposure, they conclude that right-wing voters are significantly less tolerant of refugees after transient encounters. While most work on improving refugee integration outcomes focuses on the long-term and through targeted interventions, the finding that transient short-term contact inflames anti-immigrant attitudes indicates the value of improving crisis management policy.