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It's not the migrants, stupid!

The ‘social health’ of a society shapes attitudes that fuel or constrain fear of migrants

Firstpost print Edition

For the supporters of multiculturalism, this is good news: anti-migrant feeling is not fed by the number of migrants. There is no “tolerance limit” in terms of migration. This is the main conclusion of an outstanding report by sociologists Vera Messing and Bence Ságvári, aimed at explaining the extreme cross-country differences in the levels of anti-migrant attitudes in European countries.

The result is both exciting and important for policy makers. The two authors note that,  in fact, “people in countries with a large migrant population,  with a high level of general  and  institutional  trust,  a low level of corruption, a stable, well-performing economy and a high  level of social cohesion  and  inclusion (including  migrants) fear migration the  least”. Conversely, “people are fearful (of migrants) in countries where the basic tissue of society is damaged, where people don’t trust each other or the state’s institutions, and where social cohesion and solidarity are weak”. In other words, anti-migrant attitudes in a country have little to do with immigrants, rather they express the people’s sense of a lack of safety and security.

Messing, a Hungarian sociologist who is a research fellow at UK-based Center for Policy Studies, and Ságvári, who is with the Centre for Social Science of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, have just produced an updated version of their report that includes data collected after the so-called “migrants crisis” of 2015, when more than one million Syrian refugees fleeing war arrived in Europe. The figures are clear and indisputable: the migratory flow of 2015 did not have a significant impact on the main conclusion of their initial report. “It is the general ‘social health’ of any given society, reflected in the level of integration, trust, cooperation, openness to others, etc. that shape those complex attitudes  that  could  fuel  or  constrain the very human fear from those threats that might be created by migration,” the duo concluded.

This key finding can be linked to another study, released a few weeks ago, which contradicts the idea that the May 23 European Parliament election will be a referendum on migration or at least “a grand showdown between those who believe in an open Europe and those who believe in closed national societies”.

The survey, conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations and the polling institute YouGov, shows that for a majority of people in the countries polled, migration is not among the two biggest concerns.

More importantly, in some countries, migration does not mean “immigration” but “emigration”.  In Greece, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Poland and Romania, citizens are deeply worried about emigration and about their own people leaving the country, leading to a decline in the national population. There are double-digit majorities in these countries who would like their governments to prevent nationals from leaving for long periods of time, including through law enforcement! As the report puts it: “in a Europe that prides itself on tearing down borders and promoting free travel, such a desire for self-imprisonment is striking—just three decades after the Berlin Wall fell…”. The survey also reveals that Europeans of all shades fear Islamic radicalism the most, even though it is a bigger concern for voters who identify themselves as Catholic or Protestant whereas nationalism is the largest concern among atheists.

Both surveys shed new light on cultural anxiety among European societies. They can contribute to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes about racism and xenophobia in Europe. Europeans citizens, and in particular, those who will vote for populist, anti-establishment and right parties in the upcoming elections for the European parliament are not mostly xenophobes nor anti-migrants. They are obsessed with the idea of their own disappearance and scared of becoming “insignificant” in a global world. And, the best way to address those fears is to address the brain-drain affecting many European countries, the fear of Islamic radicalism as well as the shortcomings of integration and social cohesion policies.

Caroline Gondaud is a French civil servant working on European issues

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