Hostile attitudes to migrants harden by short-term exposure

Short-term, transient exposure to migrants and refugees can inflame pre-existing, hostile, anti-immigrant attitudes in some places, which in turn can affect voting outcomes, according to new analysis.

The researchers, led by CSH’s Johannes Wachs examined evidence from Hungary, which held a national referendum in 2016 on European migrant quotas, shortly after the European 2015 refugee crisis, and a parliamentary election in 2018.

“Hungary was an interesting case to study because of its unique experience during the refugee crisis in 2015,” says Johannes. Within some months, more than 1 million people crossed the Mediterranean Sea to escape conflict and violence in Africa and the Middle East. On their way to Western Europe, many of these refugees walked through Hungary on various routes, quickly responding to changes in border openings and transit availability.

Unlike in other countries, where refugees were settled in camps and locals could get to know individuals over time, the encounters with large groups of migrants were rather short-lived. Johannes and his colleagues wanted to know if this fact influenced the voting outcome in Hungary where anti-immigration attitudes were stoked by both the right-wing Fidesz government in power at the time of the refugee crisis, as well as by the far-right Jobbik opposition party.


For their paper that was recently published in the Springer journal Political Behavior, the authors used a number of research methods:

They collected data on the movement of refugees through Hungary from the Hungarian state newswire MTI, then-independent online news outlet Index, and from LiveUAMap (Live Universal Awareness Map), an NGO-run crowdsourced real-time social media aggregator with geographic information. “MTI and Index are influenced by different political ideologies,” says Johannes. “By using them both, we ensured a broad coverage of the events.”

They also used data available from a third-party survey to consider the effects of exposure to the refugees at the individual level.

The researchers then plotted the refugee movements, including several long “marches” on foot.

“We found that contact with refugees was more likely to harden anti-refugee attitudes among individuals describing themselves as right wing, rather than for individuals who did not,” says Johannes. “According to our research, the exposure to refugees did not appear to change the underlying attitude.”

They also found that voters in settlements through which the refugees travelled were more likely to vote against refugee resettlement quotas in a subsequent national referendum on the topic: In the 2018 parliamentary election, people in settlements exposed to refugees were more likely to vote for Jobbik than Fidesz, despite Fidesz having a similar, anti-refugee stance. While Fidesz still won a convincing majority, the move to Jobbik was significant in these specific towns. The researchers say that these results support the idea that voters seek to “punish” the incumbent party when they do not need to compromise their own political opinions.

“The difference between the electoral results of Fidesz and Jobbik suggests that anti-refugee mobilization by governing parties may rather strengthen far-right opposition parties in exposed settlements. Some share of right-wing voters directly exposed to the crisis could not forgive even the quite credibly anti-refugee ruling government in Hungary. There are, it turns out, perhaps limits to exploiting a crisis, especially from a position of power,” the researchers write.

Other scientists have suggested that left wing voters not opposed to immigration become even more tolerant with exposure to migrants. “Our results suggest a shift within the right, rather than an expansion of right-wing views,” says Johannes.

“We can expect more refugees and irregular migration in the future. Therefore, it is valuable to understand the root causes of frictions between refugees and locals,” he adds. “From our paper one can learn that one-off contacts and a chaotic experience do not engender warm feelings towards refugees.”

The scientists now would like to look at further evidence from other countries to arrive at a better holistic understanding of how locals react to refugees.

The research paper, entitled “No Country for Asylum Seekers? How Short-Term Exposure to Refugees Influences Attitudes and Voting Behavior in Hungary,” was published in the Springer journal Political Behavior on 9 February 2021.

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