This article examines the impact of a large influx of refugees on natives’ political attitudes and behavior in Greece, which received more than half of all refugees arriving in Europe in 2015. Most refugees left the islands of first arrival within a very short period, typically less than 48 hours. The (a) Greek islands were differentially exposed to the influx of refugees because they were closer to or farther away from the Turkish coast; (b) refugees tended to be housed within specific areas on each island; (c) during the study period, the first election took place on January 25, 2015 just before the onset of the refugee crisis and a second election took place on September 20, 2015at the height of the refugee crisis; and (d) many islands belong to the same electoral and administrative district, which ensures that they are identical across many observable and unobservable characteristics. Placebo tests suggest that pre-crisis trends in vote shares for exposed and non-exposed islands were virtually identical, enabling the authors to obtain unbiased estimates of the electoral consequences of the refugee crisis. Applying both a difference-in-differences strategy and an Instrumental Variables approach (using distance from the Turkish coast as an instrument of refugee exposure), the authors find:
- Among islands that faced a massive but transient inflow of refugees passing through just before the September 2015 election, vote shares for Golden Dawn (GD), the most extreme-right party in Europe, increased by 2 percentage points (a 44 percent increase at the average).
- These effects are further amplified by the intensity of exposure to refugees, measured by the number of refugees per resident who arrived in the treated islands. The authors arrive at this result by employing within-island variation in proximity to refugee hotspots and measuring the number of refugee arrivals per resident.
- The increase in the vote shares for GD did not affect the vote shares for the governing leftist coalition parties. Rather, voters turned away from the major opposition party, the centre-right Nea Dimokratia, whose electoral agenda was dominated by economic issues and the financial bail-out negotiations. Additionally, overall turnout increased in treated islands, which suggests that the refugee crisis also enabled GD to mobilize new voters who previously had not participated in elections.
The authors note that the refugees’ transitory presence on the island eliminated most avenues for sustained interactions between locals and refugees, a prerequisite for the contact theory to work (Allport, 1979). Additionally, given the temporary presence of the refugee population on most islands, the results are difficult to reconcile with theories of realistic group conflict (Campbell, 1965), which posits that conflict between the outgroup and dominant group emerges over scarce resources such as access to jobs, housing, or education. Therefore, the authors conclude that mere exposure to refugees is sufficient to fuel prejudice and change political behavior.