Taking in Refugees Has Almost No Influence on Xenophobia in East German Communities

Research team investigates 236 communities: xenophobia widespread – local refugee numbers make hardly any difference

Press release, 9 September 2020
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The reception of refugees in East German communities has not led to changes in voting behaviour or attitudes to migration. This was found by a study conducted by Max Schaub (WZB), Johanna Gereke (MZES), and Delia Baldassarri (New York University). In the over 200 East German communities they examined, negative attitudes to migration were widespread. The arrival of refugees in the immediate neighbourhood had hardly any influence on these attitudes.

“Widespread reservations about migration appear to have less to do with the local situation than with the impact of migration on society as a whole,” explained Max Schaub, research fellow at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center.

236 East German Communities with and without refugees

The social scientists looked at 236 communities in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg, Thuringia, and Saxony where there had been relatively few foreigners before the so-called refugee crisis of 2015: fewer than 1.5 per cent of the total population. Xenophobic attitudes were widespread in all the communities under study. Migrants were taken in by only half of these otherwise comparable communities. This allowed the researchers to examine how attitudes and behaviour developed in communities with and without immigration. In addition to analysing local election results between 2013 and 2017, they carried out extensive interviews with over 1,300 people in these communities.

Personal experience with refugees does not appear to the deciding factor

“Our aim was to discover whether the attitudes and behaviour of locals towards immigrants changed when they were living side by side. It was conceivable that direct contact could both boost xenophobia and lead to more positive attitudes towards foreigners,” as Johanna Gereke of the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES) explained. Neither proved to be the case. The researchers drew the conclusion that personal experience with refugees appears not to be the deciding factor for general attitudes and voting behaviour.

But this does not mean that the arrival of refugees had no influence at all on the voting behaviour and attitudes of the established population: “On the one hand, it is plausible that the reception of numerous refugees since 2015 led to growing ill feelings and to the rise of the AfD in recent years. But our study shows that it did not depend on whether people are confronted with refugees in their immediate context,” Gereke and Schaub explain.

“Right-wing” and “left-wing” viewpoints come a little closer

The research team made another interesting observation: although attitudes towards refugees in the communities under study had not changed significantly, opposing positions came a little closer. They found that the presence of refugees had a somewhat moderating effect on people with more right-wing, anti-migration attitudes. Vice versa, people with more left-wing, migration-friendly attitudes became more critical in this regard when refugees settled in their community.

The study has appeared in the journal Comparative Political Studies (in advance online).

Further information and contact:

Max Schaub, Johanna Gereke, Delia Baldassarri (2020): Strangers in Hostile Lands: Exposure to Refugees and Right-Wing Support in Germany’s Eastern Regions

Dr. Johanna Gereke
MZES Fellow and project director
Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES)
University of Mannheim
Email: johanna.gerekemail-uni-mannheim.de

Dr. Max Schaub
Research Fellow of the Research Unit
Migration, Integration, Transnationalization
WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Email: max.schaubmail-wzb.eu

Nikolaus Hollermeier
Public Relations
Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES)
University of Mannheim
Phone: +49 (0) 621 181 -2839
Email: nikolaus.hollermeiermail-uni-mannheim.de