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The Importance of Contact Between Refugees and Host Communities

Exhausted and uncertain about the future, a line of Syrian women and a young girl queue to register at an impromptu registration centre set up by UNHCR and partners just outside Arsal. UNHCR/ M. Hofer/ November 2013

The following analysis appears in the Special Issue on Refugees & Migrants in Volume 4 of the Peace Science Digest. 

CitationGhosn, F.; Braithwaite, A.; & Chu, T. S. (2019). Violence, displacement, contact, and attitudes toward hosting refugees.Journal of Peace Research, 56(1), 118-133.

Keywords: contact theory, refugees, host communities, relationship-building

In this age of widespread hostility towards immigrant and refugee populations, it is important to consider what factors can positively shape host populations’ attitudes towards them. In particular, attitudes towards Syrian refugees in Lebanon — the country with the highest per capita number of refugees globally — have largely become more negative over the past several years as more and more Syrians have crossed the border to flee the civil war in their country. Trying to understand what explains differences in attitudes that persist among Lebanese citizens, the authors ask whether and how individuals’ own conflict-related personal experiences and/or the extent of their contact with Syrians influence their attitudes towards hosting refugees.

Noting the legacy of violence in Lebanon, the authors begin by considering whether personal experiences with violence and/or displacement during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) may affect Lebanese attitudes towards refugees. Previous scholarship provides contradictory expectations. On the one hand, war-time experiences could predispose people to exclusionary world views in order to cope with the insecurity and disorientation that accompany violence, hardening their in-group/out-group categories and making them less likely to welcome outsiders. On the other hand, these same experiences could engender greater empathy for others facing similar circumstances of violence and displacement. The first two hypotheses in this study reflect these contending possibilities: that individuals who have previously experienced violence and/or displacement are less likely (Hypothesis 1a) or more likely (Hypothesis 1b) “to support hosting refugees” than others. Hypothesis 2 derives from “contact theory,” suggesting that “[c]ontact with Syrian immigrants is associated with individuals’ support for hosting refugees.”

Contact theory: The theory, widely credited to the social psychologist Gordan Allport in his 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice, that under appropriate conditions interpersonal interactions with people of another group decrease prejudice and improve attitudes towards them. 

More broadly, the authors are interested in whether these personal experiences facilitate the development of the sort of “mutual regard” that builds the trust and empathy necessary to cooperate for the common good and redistribute resources where they are needed (e.g., from citizens to the refugees they are hosting). Developing such “mutual regard” can be a challenge, especially given the dehumanizing language often used in the media to discuss refugees. Even calling them “illegal immigrants” rather than “refugees” or “asylum-seekers” can negatively affect public attitudes.

The data used to test these hypotheses comes from a survey of 2,400 Lebanese citizens in 2017. To determine their attitudes towards Syrian refugees, respondents were asked three questions: how much they support “the Lebanese government’s decision to host refugees,” whether they would be willing to “hire a refugee,” and whether they would “allow their child to marry a refugee.” To identify the personal experiences that may have contributed to their attitudes, respondents were asked four questions: whether they were “exposed to violence during the Lebanese civil war,” whether they “left their homes” (i.e., were displaced) during the civil war, whether they have Syrian friends, and whether they have “had any contact with a displaced Syrian.”

Through statistical analysis, the authors find no clear relationship between previous exposure to violence or experience of displacement and the likelihood that someone will support refugees (Hypotheses 1a and 1b). This could indicate that these personal experiences have no bearing whatsoever on attitudes towards refugees or that these experiences have opposite effects on different people — making some more likely to welcome refugees and others less likely to welcome them — effectively canceling each other out in the statistical analysis. Another possibility is that these previous war-time experiences might have made Lebanese citizens more empathetic to Syrian refugees initially but that this effect wore off as the years went by (by the time of the survey in 2017) and greater numbers of Syrians arrived in the country.

The authors do, however, find strong evidence for Hypothesis 2. Whether Lebanese citizens have Syrian friends or simply have had contact with displaced Syrians, they are more likely than others to “support hosting, hire, or allow their children to marry refugees.” Put simply, while someone who has no Syrian friends and no contact with displaced Syrians has only a 16% chance of strongly supporting the country’s hosting of refugees, that likelihood rises to 24% for someone who does have some form of contact with Syrians. And when it comes to more personal forms of support, respondents who have some form of contact with Syrians are more than twice as likely to be willing to hire or to allow their children to marry Syrian refugees than those who do not have such contact. In short,“contact with Syrians has the effect of reducing prejudice and hostility.” This finding suggests that greater contact between refugees and host  communities should be encouraged, and governments should reconsider where they locate refugee communities, moving them “out of isolated…camps and into local communities.”

Talking Points 

In the context of Syrian refugees in Lebanon:

  • Contact with refugees “reduc[es] prejudice and hostility” towards them.

  • Contact with refugees is associated with a 50% increase in one’s likelihood to strongly support the country’s hosting of refugees and a doubling of one’s likelihood to be willing to hire or to allow one’s children to marry refugees compared to someone who does not have such contact.

  • There is no clear relationship between previous experiences of violence or displacement and the likelihood that someone will support refugees.

Informing Practice 

Although the findings of this study may not be surprising, sometimes it can be powerful to have evidence for common-sense conclusions: individuals who have direct contact with refugees (or with those from the same country as refugees) are more likely to have favorable attitudes towards refugees and to welcome them. The question becomes, then, how do we create opportunities for refugee communities and host communities to come together, especially in countries where these communities are segregated and/or where negative or even hostile attitudes towards refugees and immigrants prevail? Current programs provide some idea of what is possible. In the United States, civil society groups coordinate everything from host families for arriving immigrants and refugees to ESL tutors to dialogues between new arrivals and host communities. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the relationships that can be formed through these initiatives can be transformative and long-lasting: newcomers find community and become oriented to their new surroundings, while hosts may have preconceived notions shattered as they get to know individuals from a place they may have only heard about in the news.

One problem to overcome, however, is the fact that those who have negative attitudes towards refugees are unlikely to seek out such opportunities for contact in the first place. How is it possible to engage people who are not already predisposed to meet refugees in their communities? The answer to this question will necessarily be different in each context, depending on the patterns of interaction in a locale and the opportunities that exist. Perhaps doing so involves building links between refugee communities and traditional institutions like houses of worship or Rotary Clubs, places where individuals are more likely to be moved by the welcoming ethos of their fellow congregants or club members. In any case, as recommended by the online resource for refugees called USA Hello, a good place to start is by listening to the “fears and worries of non-welcoming community members.”1 Even if their concerns —about the economic burden, possible security threats, or cultural difference of incoming refugees — are unfounded, it is important to meet people where they are in order to then open them up bit by bit to the real people behind whatever rumors or inflammatory news reports they may have heard.

1. USAHello. (N.d.) How to welcome newcomers to the USA. https://usahello.org 

Continued Reading

Maclin, B. (2017). Little by little: Exploring the impact of social acceptance on refugee integration into host communities. Baltimore, MD: Catholic Relief Services.https://www.crs.org/sites/default/files/little- by-little-study-results-brief.pdf

de Richoufftz, C. (2018). From research to outreach to action: Community-based approaches to the integration of refugees and asylum seekers in Montreal. Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness. http://www.socialconnectedness.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Community-based-approaches-to-the-integration-of-refugees-and-asylum-seekers-in-Montreal-1.pdf

USAHello. (N.d.). How to welcome newcom- ers to the USA. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from https://usahello.org/help-refugees/how-can-i-welcome-refugees/

Organizations/Initiatives

Welcoming America (Welcoming Refugees): https://www.welcomingrefugees.org/

Portland Meet Portland: http://www.portlandmeetportland.org

American Friends Service Committee (Sanctuary Everywhere): https://www.afsc.org/sanctuaryincities

 

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