Everybody knows Europe is divided on migration. Between Sweden, Hungary, Italy and Germany lie vast chasms of disagreement on who should be allowed into Europe, how many, what they should be allowed to do when they’re here and how much financial support they should be given. It’s the issue dividing the continent.
A new study questions this. It suggests actually the populations of Europe agree on far more than generally thought when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers.
The study was conducted by researchers at the European University Institute (EUI) and the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), and presented through the Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration. The focus was on European attitudes to refugees and asylum seekers, which is a surprisingly under-researched field.
“There’s a lot of research on what people think about immigration and migrants in general,” says Martin Ruhs, Deputy Director of the Migration Policy Centre at the EUI, and a co-author of the paper: “There’s much less research on attitudes to refugees and asylum seekers, who are quite a specific group. There’s almost no research, despite the huge public debate about how to reform Europe’s asylum refugee policies. We know very little about what the public think about how asylum issues and refugee protection should be regulated.”
The study surveyed people in eight countries: France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden. It found that across the continent Europeans broadly support admitting asylum seekers, but within the context of conditional and limited protection. This is a more nuanced research approach than often is taken: not so much yes or no, but how and how many.
“One thing we wanted to do is go beyond this common idea of the binary, that it’s all about whether we support policies or whether we don’t support policies,” says Ruhs. “Because in practice, policy-making is not only about whether you support it or not but also what kind of policy and what kind of regulations you want to have in place.”
The research shows most Europeans are moderate in their opinions about what rights should be given to refugees and asylum seekers, favoring neither totally closed nor totally open doors.
For instance, when asked whether those denied asylum should always be sent back to their home countries, should never be sent home, or should not be sent home if the home country was unsafe, Europeans tended to go with the latter.
In another example, when asked whether they thought family reunification should be allowed in all cases, not allowed at all, or allowed but only so long as the refugee already there could financially support their family, respondents once again chose the more moderate option.
Ruhs points out that he and his colleagues were not looking for specific policy choices from respondents, but rather their preference about conditions and limits of those policies. The result show a nuanced response, the doors neither totally opened nor totally closed.
And this moderate attitude towards refugees and asylum seekers is far more widespread across various Europes than generally thought.
“I suppose one could say that the findings of this study can be used to push back a little bit against this stereotypical idea that we sometimes have in Europe that Europeans are hopelessly divided on the issue of asylum and refugee policy,” says Ruhs. “We find there is some common ground, there is generally a willingness to offer protection but what matters is the policy design.”
“I think the debate now needs to be what those limits and conditions should be, and to what extent we think those limits and conditions are compatible with our fundamental values.”