Understanding, connection and acceptance. These are fundamental human needs that everyone, including refugees, works to fulfil. Whether they can be satisfied depends on the public's attitudes to refugees in their host country (the country they arrive in). Public attitudes determine how refugees are treated as community support is crucial for their successful integration. Politicians' perception of public opinion towards refugees has an additional effect - it shapes government rhetoric and policy towards them. Some politicians and media outlets, who are often the 'loudest' voice against refugees, claim that they represent public opinion. Whilst this may prompt us to assume that the public is largely against refugees - this is not the case. Public opinion data and the individual experiences of refugees show a (mostly) accepting and welcoming public.
What does the data suggest the public's attitudes towards refugees are
It's important to note that the UK is one of the most supportive countries of refugees (behind only New Zealand and Spain according to a 2023 Ipsos study). (https://www.ipsos.com/en-uk/world-refugee-day-2023-despite-decline-support-refugees-2022-support-principle-refuge-remains-high). The same study also found high support for the concept of refugees. An average of 74% of respondents in 28 countries agreed with the statement that "people should be able to take refuge in other countries, including in my own, to escape from war or persecution".
The War in Ukraine largely explains why this number is relatively high. Using the same data from Ipsos, support for refugees increased globally by 8% from 2021 to 2022 (before and after the invasion). The war also seems to have (at least in the medium-term) improved attitudes towards refugees in the UK as well. Increased awareness of the many Ukrainians who were forced to evacuate as a result of the war, a widespread political consensus and sympathetic media coverage towards Ukrainian refugees have seemed to increase support for refugees. Both polling and other real-world data corroborate this claim.
Ipsos found that more than 8 in 10 British people agreed that Britain should take Ukrainian refugees, and Britons hosted over 100,000 Ukranians in their homes via the Homes for Ukraine Scheme. Therefore, it seems fair to conclude that refugees entering the UK (or other similar countries) in 2023 will encounter a largely supportive public.
There are methodological challenges with polling (meaning it is hard to precisely measure an individual's attitude towards refugees). However, the recorded actions of individuals towards refugees help validate the conclusion reached from the polls. The choice-revealed preference of people in host countries (where people have largely chosen to support refugees) helps illustrate that the public is tolerant of refugees.
Examining a variety of different refugee experiences (collected by the Refugee Council) further demonstrates that refugees are largely able to feel accepted in the UK. Ali Martin, a refugee from Sierra Leone, claimed that "the UK society has been very nice, very supportive" noting the helpful work of food banks. Lillia, a Ukrainian refugee, also felt the "love and friendliness" and the "generosity and support" from her community in Doncaster. Monad, a Sudanese refugee, notes that even though "sometimes I experience racism" he notes that "most people are open minded" (https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/stories/). Ali Martin, who sought asylum in 2019, told the Refugee Council that he wants the UK to remain "welcoming to asylum seekers". For now, his wish seems to be granted, the UK (and the rest of the world) remains a country that is relatively tolerant of refugees and enables refugees to integrate into society and feel accepted.
A further examination of public attitudes to refugees.
It would be too simplistic to just characterise the UK (or the rest of the world) as broadly sympathetic towards refugees - additional context is needed. Firstly, attitudes towards refugees vary widely between different countries. According to the ODI, (The Overseas Development Institute) there is a greater opposition towards refugees in certain countries, such as Turkey and South Africa. (https://odi.org/en/publications/public-narratives-and-attitudes-towards-refugees-and-other-migrants-uk-country-profile/) In Turkey, hostility towards refugees seems to have emerged because it has the world's largest refugee population in the world (nearly 4 million people). Turkey has a high number of refugees because of the Syrian Civil War which resulted in the mass migration of Syrian refugees to Turkey - and EU border policies which kept refugees from entering Europe. Though there are no official records of violence against refugees in Turkey, according to experts, it seems to be increasing. The increasing violence reflects both the negative public attitudes towards refugees and the brutal consequences of what happens if the public in a host country distrusts refugees.
Other factors also influence attitudes towards refugees and suggest that the public may not be as supportive of refugees as the initially presented data suggests. The ODI report notes that many people perceive most current migrants as not legitimate asylum seekers. Instead, they are viewed as 'economic migrants' who should not be entitled to asylum as they are not fleeing danger but just seeking to increase their earnings. Furthermore, people are more hostile to refugees who enter the country via irregular means (popularly referred to as 'illegal' immigration). Older people and people who have obtained lower levels of educational attainment are generally more likely to be hostile towards refugees - relative to the general population. People's attitudes towards refugees are also shaped by other concerns - which tend to be unrelated to people's self-interest but instead emerge from their views about the country. (SIDES, J. and CITRIN, J. (2007). European Opinion About Immigration: The Role of Identities, Interests and Information. British Journal of Political Science, 37(3), pp.477–504.) Economic and cultural concerns seem to motivate hostility to refugees - specifically if refugees will have a negative fiscal impact or if they will integrate into society. These factors are especially important for those who hold moderate views on refugees. Dubbed by the ODI as the 'anxious middle', people in this group hold the most malleable views towards refugees. They recognise that refugees need help but are worried about the impact of large-scale immigration. Their support is crucial if policymakers want to change attitudes towards refugees. Therefore, to maintain the on the surface quite high (but potentially fragile) support for refugees, politicians need to directly appeal to this group and address their concerns.
Racism, the Media, and Politicians
Whilst we have 'unpacked' current public attitudes toward refugees there are wider contextual factors that have lowered past public support for refugees and will shape future attitudes towards refugees. In a variety of countries, politicians and the media have been able to shape public opinion by 'politicising' the arrival of refugees. In the UK, increased media coverage of immigration (specifically by some more right-leaning newspapers) made it a more salient political issue that politicians felt forced to respond to. Though this does raise a slight 'chicken and egg' problem - what came first negative media coverage towards refugees or increased public hostility? What does seem more clear though is that some politicians co-opted this rhetoric (for their own political purposes) which increased public opposition to refugees. The ODI notes that across Europe the far-right, such as Lega Nord in Italy and Fidez in Hungary has portrayed refugees as a threat which probably lowered support for refugees (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/07/italy-election-far-right-lampedusa-refugees-matteo-salvini)/(https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/28/hungary-election-viktor-orban-far-right-stokes-migration-fears-far-from-border). Acts of violence towards refugees, such as the recent attack on a migrant centre in Dover, show that there is at least some non-trivial segment of society who were and, still are, extremely hostile towards refugees. However, thermostatic public opinion (where public opinion often responds in the opposite direction to public policy or government rhetoric) might mean that hostility towards 'refugees' has peaked. The co-option of anti-refugee (and anti-migrant rhetoric generally) by more establishment politicians and political parties, may actually increase current and future public support for refugees. The public (at least some part of it) may become 'negatively polarised' - strengthening their views in response to attacks on refugees and becoming more supportive.
Furthermore, it seems that racism has had a pernicious effect on public opinion towards non-white refugees which has historically reduced support for refugees. The European Network against Racism has provided evidence documenting the number of hate crimes and other racist instances towards refugees. (https://ec.europa.eu/migrant-integration/library-document/racism-and-discrimination-context-migration-europe_en). Racism seems to also partially explain why public support towards refugees has currently increased. The public is less hostile to 'white' Ukrainian refugees (the group of refugees that now dominates public perceptions of refugees) compared to refugees of other races who are non-European.
Racism creates a unique challenge that impacts how much refugees can truly integrate into their new communities. The possibility of racist discrimination not only impacts how well a refugee is accepted into their host country but also (in the most extreme cases) poses a potential threat to their physical security.
Overall, the public is generally and increasingly supportive of refugees in principle. There are some factors, however, which mean this support is not as solid as initially presented. Moreover, racism, the far-right and the media have all decreased support for refugees - though they may not continue to decrease support for refugees.