Investigating a stereotype of the refugee crisis.
In the pages of The New York Times, the former U.S. ambassador to Hungary, Eleni Kounalakis, blamedHungary’s decision to leave migrants stranded at various train stations on the “xenophobic platform” that swept Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to power. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann compared an incident in Hungary on September 3—when refugees in Budapest boarded a train thinking they were headed to Austria, but instead wound up in a refugee camp in Bicske—to the Holocaust: “To put refugees in trains with the belief that they will go somewhere else brings up memories of our continent’s darkest period.”
“In Western Europe,” wrote Die Zeit columnist Martin Klingst, “everyone’s picking the Land of the Magyars to pieces.” (He declined to join in.) Perhaps the strongest condemnation has come from the Polish-born Princeton historian Jan Gross, author of a book, Neighbors, detailing the horrors perpetrated against Jews in the town of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors. In the German newspaper Die Welt, Gross asserted that the European Union’s eastern states had “proven to be intolerant, narrow-minded, and xenophobic.”
But is xenophobia really more rampant in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe—or than in the United States, for that matter? Social science turns out to be of limited value here. Few comprehensive or comparative studies on this topic have been carried out, perhaps in part because the very concept of xenophobia differs around the world, according to the University of San Francisco political-philosophy professor Ronald Sundstrom, who with David Haekown Kim authored a 2014 paper on the need for specificity with such terms: In discussing in-groups and out-groups, Europeans tend to talk about “xenophobia” while Americans tend to talk about “racism.”
In 2011, a team of researchers from the VU University Amsterdam, the University of Oslo, and the Pacifica Graduate Institute in California tried to jumpstart xenophobia studies by devising a “cross-national measure of fear-based xenophobia.” They concluded that reliably measuring just the fear-based component of xenophobia (as opposed to the equally important components of “hate or contempt”) across countries requires asking many questions.
The reason, explained Kees van der Veer, the lead author of the resulting paper, via email, is that individuals can harbor multiple fears about foreigners: personal fear (feeling personally threatened by the arrival of new people), fear of cultural change, fear of identity loss, fear of foreigners’ disloyalty, fear of losing control of the political system. As a result, it’s helpful to ask people whether they agree with a series of statements about the cultural, economic, political, and religious aspects of migration—statements such as “practicing Islam doesn’t fit within our Christian-Jewish tradition,” or the more indirect “asylum-seekers are only coming to our country to try to make a fortune.”
Furthermore, it’s worth according different weights to different questions. A statement like “‘Immigration in this country is out of control’ … is a comparatively ‘easy’ one,” the authors argued: “people can respond positively to that item when they possess only a small amount of [xenophobia].” By contrast, a relatively high level of xenophobia might be needed for an individual to agree with a statement like “Interacting with immigrants makes me uneasy.”
As Max Fisher demonstrated at The Washington Post in 2013, it’s possible to roughly compare levels of racial tolerance by focusing on one question in the multinational World Values Survey that asks respondents which sorts of people they wouldn’t want to have as neighbors, and offers “people of another race” as an option. By this metric, intolerance appears more widespread in Hungary and Romania than in Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and much of Scandinavia, but levels of intolerance are higher in France than in Hungary or Romania. Tolerance levels seem to be about the same in Poland, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic as in Italy or Finland.
Some data doesn’t directly address xenophobia, but another possible response to the same question got closer: Some respondents identified “immigrants/foreign workers” as individuals they wouldn’t want to have as neighbors. In the 2005-2009 edition of the survey— the most recent one to include a wide range of Eastern and Western European countries—France still comes across as more xenophobic than many Eastern European countries. While a greater percentage of Hungarian respondents (24 percent) said they wouldn’t want to live near immigrants or foreign workers compared with German respondents (13 percent), French respondents proved the most hostile among European respondents to sharing their neighborhood with foreigners, at just over 36 percent.
What does all this mean? It’s almost impossible to say. As the Carleton University political scientist Stephen Saideman has pointed out, levels of racial, cultural, or religious intolerance can look radically different depending on which question you ask (that was the point behind the fear-based xenophobia study mentioned above). A 2009 Pew Global Attitudes report on Europe, for example, at first blush suggested that intolerance was greater in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe: Asking whether those surveyed agreed or disagreed that it is “good to have different races, religions, and cultures” in society, Pew found that a higher percentage of respondents said no in Eastern Europe than in countries such as France, Britain, Spain, and Germany.
“One of the factors is the history of migration in a country,” wrote van der Veer, suggesting that more experience with open borders tends to produce greater ease about migration. Between their empires and their wealth, Western European countries have been immigration targets for centuries—and experienced high immigration rates for much of the 20th century. Eastern European countries have rarely been magnets for migrants, and spent much of the second half of the 20th century with their borders closed thanks to the Cold War.
But each of the scholars I spoke with suggested, in one way or another, that any discussion of xenophobia taking place in the United States or Western Europe at Eastern Europe’s expense might not be very self-aware.
“The Netherlands has an immigration tradition going back to the 16th and 17th century,” wrote van der Veer. “However, I need to add immediately that at this moment there is a movement (like in other European countries) which finds [the] Netherlands ‘too small’ for an influx of more immigrants.”
What little can be gleaned from the muddled research on xenophobia suggests that it’s worth distinguishing between government policies that are hostile to refugees—of which countries like Hungary certainly have their share—and the sentiments of the governed population. The two are connected, but the precise mechanism is not always easy to measure. Merkel should know that better than anyone right now. If the latest poll by the German public television network ARD is accurate, her open-door immigration policy has produced a notable result: In a significant shift from September, the majority of Germans now “fear” the wave of incoming refugees.