Another Story: What Public Opinion Data Tell Us About Refugee and Humanitarian Policy

by Brad Blitz


Executive Summary

The global reaction to US President Donald Trump’s executive order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”[1] of January 27, 2017, revealed great public sympathy for the fate of refugees and the principle of refugee protection. In the case of Europe, such sympathy has, however, been dismissed by politicians who have read concerns regarding security and integration as reason for introducing restrictive policies on asylum and humanitarian assistance. These policies are at odds with public sentiment. Drawing upon public opinion surveys conducted by Amnesty International, the European Social Survey (ESS), and Pew Global Attitudes Survey across the European Union and neighboring states, this article records a marked divide between public attitudes towards the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and official policies regarding asylum and humanitarian assistance, and seeks to understand why this is the case.

The article suggests that post-9/11 there has been a reconfiguration of refugee policy and a reconnecting of humanitarian and security interests which has enabled a discourse antithetical to the universal right to asylum. It offers five possible explanations for this trend: i) fears over cultural antagonism in host countries; ii) the conflation of refugees and immigrants, both those deemed economically advantageous as well as those labelled as “illegal”; iii) dominance of human capital thinking; iv) foreign policy justification; and v) the normalization of border controls. The main conclusion is that in a post-post-Cold War era characterized in part by the reconnecting of security and humanitarian policy, European governments have developed restrictive policies despite public sympathy. Support for the admission of refugees is not, however, unqualified, and most states and European populations prefer skilled populations that can be easily assimilated. In order to achieve greater protection and more open policies, this article recommends human rights actors work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its partners to challenge the above discourse through media campaigns and grassroots messaging. Further recommendations include:

  • Challenging efforts to normalize and drawing attention to the extreme and unprecedented activities of illegal and inhumane practices, e.g., detention, offshore processing, and the separation of families through the courts as part of a coordinated information campaign to present a counter moral argument.
  • Identifying how restrictive asylum policies fail to advance foreign policy interests and are contrary to international law.
  • Evidencing persecution by sharing information with the press and government agencies on the nature of claims by those currently considered ineligible for refugee protection as part of a wider campaign of information and inclusion.
  • Engaging with minority, and in particular Muslim, communities to redress public concerns regarding the possibility of cultural integration in the host country.
  • Clarifying the rights of refugees and migrants in line with the UNHCR and International Organization for Migration (IOM) guidelines and European and national law in order to hold governments to account and to ensure that all — irrespective of their skills, status, nationality or religion — are given the opportunity to seek asylum.
  • Identifying and promoting leadership among states and regional bodies to advance the rights of refugees.

[1] Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, Exec. Order No. 13769, 82 Fed. Reg. 8977 (Jan. 27, 2017).




DOI: https://doi.org/10.14240/jmhs.v5i2.89


ISSN 2330-2488 (Online), 2331-5024 (Print)  © 2017 by the Center for Migration Studies of New York

Journal on Migration and Human Security: a publication of The Center for Migration Studies of New York
307 E 60th Street New York, NY 10022