In the wake of Russia’s invasion, millions of refugees are fleeing Ukraine. Support for these refugees is currently very high: Recent polls have found residents of other European countries overwhelmingly support taking in Ukrainian refugees, including 77 percent in Estonia, 80 percent in France, 85 percent in Austria, 89 percent in Italy and 90 percent in Germany.
This level of support is different from the last sudden influx of refugees in Europe in 2015, when 1.3 million people from several Middle Eastern and African countries sought asylum in Europe, many fleeing the Syrian civil war. In that instance, public support for refugees was much lower. For example, 27 percent of Brits said in a 2015 poll that they didn’t think the U.K. should accept any Syrian refugees, while a recent poll from early March shows just 11 percent saying the same about Ukrainians. In Poland, support for accepting Ukrainian refugees is over 90 percent now, which stands in stark contrast to where the country has historically stood on the question of whether to accept refugees. Even 74 percent of Americans say they support accepting Ukrainian refugees, although Americans have long been reluctant to accept refugees from various international conflicts.
Racism and anti-Muslim sentiments explain, at least in part, why many Europeans were less willing to accept refugees from Arab and predominantly Muslim countries, as studies have found that race and religion are very important in determining which refugees are accepted versus which refugees are turned away. But public opinion toward Syrian refugees also ebbed and flowed in Europe, with some countries initially very supportive.
In fact, that trajectory is not uncommon in humanitarian crises: Support for refugees can start relatively high in the immediate aftermath of a disaster to only crater as news cycles change, anecdotal accounts of difficulties emerge and sympathies move on. It’s one reason why support for Ukrainian refugees may ultimately prove to be short-lived, too.
There is one point in the scientific literature on public opinion toward asylum seekers that is quite clear, however: Not all refugees are welcome.1 In a huge, 18,000-person, 15-country European survey, political scientists Kirk Bansak, Jens Hainmueller and Dominik Hangartner found a number of characteristics ranging from refugees’ religion to their ability to speak the language that made people less — or more — willing to accept them.2
In particular, Bansak, Hainmueller and Hangartner found that people were 11 percentage points less likely to say they would accept a Muslim refugee than a Christian one. They also found people were less willing to accept men seeking asylum than women. How “deserving” people thought refugees were also played a role, with refugees seeking asylum for economic opportunity being far less accepted than victims of political, religious or ethnic persecution. Victims of torture were also more likely to be accepted, as were asylum seekers without inconsistencies in their stories. You can see in the chart below all the different metrics Bansak, Hainmueller and Hangartner asked about, and how that affected support for refugees.
And at least a couple of these factors help us better understand why support for Ukrainian refugees is so high. First and foremost, Ukrainian refugees are likely perceived to share a great cultural similarity with other Europeans, particularly because they are largely white and Christian. Indeed, non-white people fleeing Ukraine have faced much bigger obstacles. The gender breakdown of Ukrainian refugees is also just very different from the wave of refugees who arrived in Europe in 2015. Men under the age of 60 are prohibited from leaving Ukraine, which has meant the vast majority of Ukrainian refugees are women and children. In 2015, 54 percent of asylum seekers were men, 17 percent were women and 29 percent were children, in part because the journey, often from the Middle East to Europe, was longer and more dangerous.
Ukrainian refugees’ perceived “deservingness” is also especially clear: With graphic images of Russian violence dominating the media and European public opinion overwhelmingly on the side of Ukraine, many Europeans are sympathetic to Ukrainian refugees. Bansak, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, told me that another component at play here could be a sense of European solidarity with Ukraine against Russian aggression. Russia’s invasion is seen as a more direct threat in Europe than the Syrian civil war. Hangartner, another of the study’s authors, stressed the perceived cultural similarity, plus the fact that most refugees are women and children, was driving solidarity. Public opinion in Europe, Hangartner told me, is just more favorable toward the typical Ukrainian refugee profile — which tends to be, at this point, Christian and female.
But research has also found that how people feel toward refugees often changes, especially as time wears on. This may in part be because people start worrying that refugees may be an economic burden, though there is evidence that even refugees’ mere presence in a country can cause a backlash, suggesting that support for Ukrainian refugees may go down as they look to different countries for shelter.
Once again, what happened when hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq sought asylum in Europe may be instructive here. When the number of refugees arriving via the Mediterranean Sea first rose sharply in August and September of 2015, public opinion in many, particularly western, European countries initially responded positively to media coverage, with many Europeans saying they’d welcome refugees. For example, after photos of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned while crossing the Mediterranean, received heavy coverage in traditional and social media, France saw a 9-point swing toward accepting refugees in the span of a week, while the number of daily donations to a Red Cross refugee fund in Sweden briefly increased over 100-fold. In Germany and Austria, cheering crowds welcomed refugees at train stations, while tens of thousands marched in support in Britain.
But this effect was short-lived, and public sentiment soon shifted. A German poll found in September that 38 percent of respondents were worried by the number of refugees arriving, but by October, that number had risen to 51 percent. By 2016, Germans were even less supportive of refugees. In the U.K., meanwhile, 60 percent of respondents said in September that they thought the country should admit similar or higher numbers of Syrian refugees than it had previously, but by November, that had dropped to 44 percent. Ultimately European countries did accept many refugees — over 1 million from Syria alone, 59 percent of whom were taken in by Germany — though many were turned away, and continue to be.
So while there are a number of reasons why Ukrainian refugees are being broadly accepted at this point, there’s no guarantee that will continue to be true, especially if history is any indication.
One instructive example might be what happened during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956. As Soviet tanks entered Budapest after days of demonstrations, around 180,000 Hungarians fled to Austria. As the Ukrainians do today, they had many of the hallmarks of refugees that would be welcomed — they shared a skin tone and a religion with Austrians and the source of their persecution was evident. Not to mention, Hungary not only shares a border with Austria, but was in fact part of the same country less than 40 years prior. But similar to what happened to refugees in 2015, initial supportiveness toward Hungarian refugees soon gave way to dislike, and Austria ended up urging other countries to accept over 90 percent of those fleeing.
That’s why the welcome Ukrainian refugees receive in many parts of Europe may ultimately prove short-lived. Bansak told me that he would expect people’s attitudes toward Ukrainian refugees to be very positive now — but he’s not convinced they’ll stay that way. “[P]eople in different countries have shown a very, very common propensity to get worn out by things,” Bansak said. A year from now, he said, attitudes toward Ukrainian refugees may look very different than they do now.