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Westerners don’t want to take in more refugees, survey says

A Syrian refugee raises her arms in surrender after mistaking the camera lens for a gun. (Credit: Osman Sağırlı)

Despite the record number of refugees and displaced people around the world today, rich countries appear to be increasingly reluctant to provide them safe haven.

Many Westerners do think that most refugees and displaced people are ‘innocent victims,’ according to a new survey commissioned by humanitarian organization Islamic Relief Worldwide, yet only a minority of those surveyed thought their countries were morally or politically responsible for taking them in.

The surveyors contacted people living in Britain, Lebanon, Germany and U.S. their attitudes about refugees. More than 40 percent associated refugees with terrorism. Asked what their countries should do about the refugee crisis, most people want to take in fewer people.

Those in favor of taking more represented just 19 percent in the U.S., 14 percent in the U.K. and only 4 percent in Germany.

The results were roughly the same for Lebanon, but the country is home to more than 2 million Syrian refugees. The difference is that both aid groups and UNHCR say Lebanon is going above and beyond to take in so many people while most wealthy countries are not doing enough.

On the other hand, half of the respondents from the three Western countries viewed refugees as ‘innocent victims.’ And it turns out that younger people are more welcoming. Young Germans and Brits were twice as likely to say their countries should admit more refugees than the average person in their respective country.

“The findings of this poll suggest there are high levels of empathy with the plight of refugees as vulnerable people and innocent victims, yet few of those surveyed seem willing for their own countries to play a fuller part in accommodating them,” Islamic Relief head Naser Haghamed said.

Islamic Relief selected the three Western countries for the survey because of its presence in each and their global significance. Lebanon was included to serve as a point of comparison because it is the country with the most number of Syrian refugees in the world. The total is so significant that one out of every six people in Lebanon is a refugee.

More than 5 million Syrians are refugees. The country is responsible for the majority of the world’s refugees, followed by Afghanistan and South Sudan. An even greater problem is the 40.3 million people who are displaced from their homes but did not leave their home country. Syria again tops the list of internally displaced persons, with Iraq and Colombia home to second and third largest populations.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi pointed to conflict as the main driver of displacement. He called on world leaders to take action to stop ongoing fighting and ensure safety in countries where war no longer occurs but people fear returning to their homes.

The 65.6 million people displaced from their homes is more than the population of the United Kingdom.

“By any measure this is an unacceptable number, and it speaks louder than ever to the need for solidarity and common purpose in preventing and resolving crises, and ensuring together that the world’s refugees, internally displaced and asylum seekers are properly protected and cared for while solutions are pursued,” Grandi said.

“We have to do better for these people. For a world in conflict, what is needed is determination and courage, not fear.”

Doing better in part means wealthy countries providing asylum and humanitarian assistance. However, the burden continues to fall on low- and middle-income countries. They host more than 80 percent of the world’s refugees. UNHCR says the “huge imbalance” must be addressed and a consensus formed as to how wealthy countries can do more.

The Islamic Relief survey reveals that there is cost when countries step up. Germany received 722,400 asylum claims in 2016, more than any other country in the world. Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted in the fall that her party suffered a political defeat due to her open door policies.

The anti-refugee sentiment is reflected in the survey. Nearly 70 percent of Germans want fewer refugees and only 4 percent want to take in more. Further, more than 40 percent of Germans associate terrorism with refugees – 15 percentage points higher than U.S. respondents.

Germany, Australia, Norway and Canada are the only wealthy countries taking in their ‘fair share’ of refugees according to Oxfam. Meanwhile, the U.S. and U.K. are two of the worst-performing countries taking in less than 20 percent of what they should, based on population and economy.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]