A Surprising Finding About Refugees in Europe Amid a Political Reckoning

A new Pew survey says a significant majority in several EU countries supports accepting more people fleeing violence.

Immigrants line up for a meal distributed by the L'Autre Cantine association in Nantes, France, on September 17. (Stephane Mahe / Reuters)

Three years after an estimated 1.3 million people sought asylum in Europe, immigration remains a polarizing issue that has reshaped the political landscape across the continent. It’s almost certain to dominate the agenda at a meeting of European Union leaders that begins Wednesday in Salzburg, Vienna: Immigration policy is a priority for Sebastian Kurz, the conservative chancellor of Austria whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, as well as for his coalition allies from the far-right Freedom Party.

But the political consequences of the surge of immigrants in 2015—the rise of far-right, anti-immigrant parties—may belie a more sympathetic view of refugees, as well as more critical opinions of how the EU handled the crisis. A new survey from the Pew Research Center released Wednesday says a majority of people in several EU countries support accepting refugees fleeing violence, but large majorities in those countries also say they strongly disapprove of the manner in which the EU handled the crisis in 2015.

The survey was conducted in 10 of the 28 EU member states, including France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. It found strong majorities in favor of accepting refugees fleeing violence in seven of the 10 countries surveyed. In Germany, 82 percent of those surveyed said they would support taking more refugees; in Sweden, 81 percent said they would support such a measure. The survey also found a smaller majority in favor of refugees fleeing violence in Italy, where 56 percent said they supported taking more refugees.

Those three countries—Germany, Sweden, and Italy—have been at the forefront of the debate over how the migrant crisis sparked by the Syrian civil war has affected European politics. Pew noted that “people in these countries generally expressed negative views towards refugees following the 2015 migration surge.” Those attitudes appear to have shifted significantly with the new survey, which was conducted this summer.

Germany, with its open-doors policy, accepted more refugees than any other EU country; when measured relative to the size of a country’s population, Sweden topped that list. Because of their geography, Italy and Greece became the first points of entry for many immigrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. (Not everyone who entered Europe in the summer of 2015 was fleeing Syria: The newcomers also included economic immigrants, as well as those fleeing unrest in other parts of the world. Many of these people are in deportation proceedings or have already been deported.)

The Pew survey also found that in Poland, 49 percent of respondents said they supported refugees (36 percent said they opposed accepting more). In Hungary, which has emerged as the bastion of the anti-immigrant movement in Europe, 32 percent of respondents said they supported refugees, while 54 percent said they opposed them. (Both those countries had among the most negative views about refugees in the previous Pew survey, as well.) Hungary was the only one of the 10 European countries surveyed where a majority opposed accepting refugees.

Strong majorities in all 10 countries disapproved of the manner in which the EU handled the migration crisis of 2015, an issue the bloc is still trying to resolve amid strong pressure from Italy, which wants a more equitable distribution of immigrants. The disapproval was strong both in those places where support for refugees was high, such as Sweden (84 percent disapproval), as well in those where support for refugees was low, such as Hungary (80 percent disapproval). Pew noted that the levels of disapproval in Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Sweden are at levels similar to those of 2016, following the migration surge.

“In many countries, disapproval levels with how the EU has dealt with the refugee issue have exceeded disapproval rates of the EU’s handling of the economy, according to the Center’s spring 2017 survey,” Pew noted. “This suggests that the refugee issue is not simply a sign of broader disapproval of the EU.”

The findings follow the election of far-right, anti-immigrant parties everywhere from Germany and Italy to Sweden. In Italy, the right-wing League is the junior party in the coalition government. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany party entered parliament for the first time in 2017. In Austria, the Freedom Party is the junior coalition partner in Kurz’s government. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front took her far-right party to the presidential runoff for only the second time in its history. Right-wing parties govern in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. They are influential in Denmark, Finland, and the Czech Republic.

But their election performances have much to do with the fractious nature of the parliamentary systems in these countries, where small parties that campaign on a single issue—such as the Sweden Democrats and immigration—can have a momentous impact on the political climate. As the most recent data show, migrant flows to Europe are at a five-year low. In other words: The worst of the migrant crisis might be over, but it still resonates with voters.

In Sweden’s recent elections, for example, voters who saw immigration as the most important issue were most likely to support those parties that were immigration-centric. Among the biggest gainers were a far-right party that wants to restrict immigration and a far-left party that advocates for open borders. In other words, while immigration was a significant issue for Swedish voters, not all who saw it as significant voted for a more restrictive immigration policy.

Similarly in Italy, as my colleague Rachel Donadio noted, Italian voters aren’t opposed to immigration even if their new government wants to limit it. One study she cited found that 70 percent of Italians believed in granting asylum to some immigrants. Yet the far-right League, which won 17 percent of the vote in Italy’s March elections, is not only part of the ruling coalition but dictating Italy’s migrant policies.

The Pew survey broadly found similar results in the U.S., where 66 percent of respondents said they would support taking in refugees from countries where people are fleeing violence and war; 29 percent said they would not. Those findings come two days after the Trump administration reduced the maximum number of refugees it will accept in the upcoming fiscal year from 45,000 to 30,000. The 45,000 figure was itself a record low. U.S. presidential administrations have set a limit of 95,000 refugees annually since President Ronald Reagan signed the 1980 Refugee Act into law.

The Pew survey was conducted across a range of dates over the summer (starting in May and ending in late June or early July)—after the Italian elections in March, but before this month’s elections in Sweden. The margins of error ranged from 3.5 percentage points for the Netherlands to 4.8 percentage points in Greece and Italy. Sample sizes were representative of the country’s population.

The survey also examined attitudes toward accepting more refugees in Australia (72 percent support), Canada (74 percent), Israel (37 percent), Japan (66 percent), Mexico (79 percent), Russia (41 percent), and South Africa (48 percent).