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Published online 15 October 2019
An analysis of US public views on Syrian refugees reveals religious, gender and age biases.
When asked to imagine themselves as officials evaluating Syrian refugee admissions, surveyed Americans preferred highly skilled, English-speaking, Christian females, according to a study1 by political scientists at the University of California, San Diego, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, and New York University Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
The timing of the survey is significant. Based on responses gathered in October–November 2016, the weeks leading up to the US presidential election that saw Donald Trump take office, the study serves as “a unique lens into the attitudes of the American public before the implementation of a set of more extreme exclusionary policies with respect to refugees under the Trump administration,” the researchers say.
For the coming fiscal year, Trump has cut annual refugee admissions to 18,000, down to fewer than a fifth of Barack Obama’s target of 110,000 for 2017. This is the lowest figure since the USA began its refugee resettlement programme in 1980. The UNHCR estimates that 6.6 million Syrians remain internally displaced.
The study’s respondents were a nationally representative sample of 1,800 American adults. They were asked to consider gender, religion, job before leaving Syria, English fluency, and age of fictional Syrian refugees.
Each respondent was presented with three pairs of refugee profiles, with a total of 10,800 profiles evaluated. The pairing system enabled the researchers to perform a conjoint analysis — one that allowed direct comparison of a particular attribute, for example, male or female, or Christian or Muslim.
The findings showed a preference for middle-aged, highly skilled, female refugees, and a religious bias against Muslim refugees. This bias prevailed across all demographics of respondents, although to varying degrees across subgroups. Participants who self-identified as Democrats demonstrated less anti-Muslim bias than those who self-identified as Independents and Republicans.
The researchers point out that the preference for female refugees did not appear to be related to a desire to exclude Muslim men, “casting doubt that American preferences at the time were motivated by security concerns.”
“These findings are consequential for academics, policymakers, and stakeholders alike,” says Nazita Lajevardi, a political scientist at Michigan State University, who co-authored a study examining the impacts of divisive campaigns on daily life for Muslims in the USA2 . “They causally demonstrate that the public discriminates against Muslim Syrian refugees, in line with the Christian Syrian refugee exemption to Trump’s travel ban. Christian refugees appear to have public support even when from Syria. Together, this study highlights that anti-Muslim bias is an important determinant of refugee policy support — a critical policy arena.”
Corresponding author Adeline Lo of the University of Wisconsin-Madison says that the study underlines the importance of knowing public views and biases about refugees, specifically at the time of a polarizing election. “We’re interested in how attitudes and behaviours can be encouraged to reduce bias towards individuals from identities other than one’s own,” she says.