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Explaining Public Attitudes Toward Refugees

December 09, 2022
Burcu Pinar Alakoc


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Burcu Pinar Alakoc, an associate instructional professor at the University of Chicago, analyzes what we can learn from the Turkish case about public attitudes toward refugees, including lessons in compassion fatigue, shared religion, and perceived economic costs.

Political discourse around refugees and forced migration matters. Research shows that elite discourse can be powerful in setting the tone for broader public debates on issues like social integrationresettlement, and naturalization. As the numbers of forcibly displaced people grow at an alarming rate, so do discriminatory policiesxenophobic attitudes, and anti-refugee political rhetoric. Today, many populist leaders oppose refugee and immigrant communities on the grounds that they constitute threats to national security, culture, and economic well-being, as highlighted in recent comments by politicians like Alexander GaulandVictor OrbanAlexander Lukashenko, and Donald Trump.

A different, but complex, dynamic took place in Turkey in response to the Syrian civil war. Following the outbreak of the war in March 2011, Turkey initially adopted an open-door policy, and has since admitted more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, the highest number of refugees hosted by any single country. Referring to them as “guests,” the Turkish government placed Syrian refugees under a temporary protection regime, which granted them access to a number of public services like education and healthcare. Furthermore, a pro-refugee political discourse emerged centered around three main themes: humanitarianism, common religion, and economic contributions.

As Turkey continued to shoulder the brunt of the refugee crisis over several years, anti-refugee sentiment was running high across the country. In July 2016, when it was announced that Syrian refugees could eventually be given citizenship, the issue became a trending topic on Twitter as thousands of Turkish citizens voiced their concerns with the hashtag, “#I don’t want Syrians in my country.” As incidents of violence flared up in cities with large refugee populations, it became clear that public discourse and attitudes toward Syrian refugees had diverged significantly from the dominant political discourse. What can we learn from the Turkish case about public attitudes toward refugees, and specifically, what explains this gap between political discourse and public attitudes?

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.