Extensive evidence shows that fostering contact between natives and immigrants decreases intergroup prejudices, anxieties, and perceived threats, which can pave the way for successful integration, social cohesion, and development.
The growing scale of human mobility worldwide has rendered immigration a salient topic with a prominent place in public discourse. European citizens, for instance, currently perceive it as the most critical issue facing the EU overall.[i] Prejudices and anxieties surrounding immigrants have reached a startling scale that fuels exclusion, discrimination, violence and a lack of support for integration policies. The ensuing risks to social cohesion and human development of both immigrants and natives should be a critical concern for policy makers.
New evidence-based action is required to address these anti-immigrant prejudices and sentiments. Policy makers can learn from recent advances in social psychology: Extensive empirical research shows that fostering contact between natives and immigrants decreases prejudices, anxieties, and perceived threats, while increasing empathy and mutual understanding. Building contact can ultimately facilitate more positive group relationships and yield high pay-offs for all involved stakeholders.
Rising Mobility Calls for Effective Inclusion
In 2015, there were 251 million international migrants, 78 million more than in 2000 and including 20 million refugees. At least three times more people migrate within countries than across borders, and about twice as many are displaced internally than internationally. Regional asymmetries, such as economic ones, as well as phenomena such as conflict and climate change will drive voluntary and forced migration further in the future. As more people move internally and internationally, better integration could yield significant benefits to migrants, host societies and governments (and even to sending regions)[ii]: Inclusion facilitates self-sufficiency and human development, which in turn reduces welfare costs, raises tax income, and improves social cohesion.[iii]
Successful integration, however, is a challenging two-way street between immigrants and host communities. Immigrants have different capacities to integrate, and host communities have different abilities and willingness to absorb them. The ability of host communities depends on various economic and institutional variables; their willingness or social receptiveness, in contrast, is shaped by beliefs and attitudes about immigrants. Thus, perceptions and social attitudes held by natives are highly important for integration dynamics; they form one of the two pillars of a host society’s absorption capacity.
Among many misperceptions, host societies tend to err by wide margins in the pace, scale, and impacts of immigration. Even if data proves different,[iv] this can elevate a sense of anxiousness and perceived threats. Such feelings complicate integration needlessly for two reasons. First, they directly fuel exclusion, discrimination, and violence that undermine social cohesion, as witnessed in various regions of the world. In Germany, for instance, more than 200 asylum seekers were injured in attacks in the first half of 2016 alone, a more than threefold increase as compared to midyear 2015.[v] Such violence and less manifest exclusion threaten integration drastically. Second, negative perceptions and sentiments can indirectly lead to restrictive policies that obstruct more positive immigration outcomes. For instance, studies by the OECD and EU show how restrictions can prolong labor market integration of refugees by years. Similarly, harsh asylum policies not only violate human dignity, but can also largely increase financial costs for governments.[vi]
Thus, intergroup prejudices and negative sentiments resulting in exclusion and inhospitable policies ultimately impose costs on all societal stakeholders. They imperil social cohesion as well as human development. Mitigating prejudices and anxieties should therefore rank high on the agenda of policy makers, which holds also true from a legal viewpoint: Public international law establishes inclusion rights for both displaced persons and migrants.[vii]
Contact as a Potent Win-Win-Win Tool
While a variety of factors shape attitudes towards perceived ‘outgroups’, extensive empirical evidence shows that contact is one of the most effective entry points to counter prejudices and negative emotions. A meta-review of 515 experimental studies involving 250,000 participants in 38 nations finds that intergroup contact significantly lessens prejudice across nations, genders, and age groups, by reducing anxiety and enhancing empathy. The synthesis of 50 years of research shows how individuals generalize their positive contact experiences to the entire perceived ‘outgroup’ and even other ethnic groups. Contact also positively changes attitudes towards social policies critical to integration.[viii]
These laboratory findings are confirmed in a meta-review of 123 real-world contact interventions with more than 11,300 participants, showing that contact effectively reduces prejudices and tensions between ethnic groups.[ix] Contact works in direct face-to-face settings, but also in indirect formats, such as through a friend knowing immigrants, observing how others interact with, and even reading about or imagining contact with immigrants. Optimal conditions such as institutional support for the contact facilitate particularly positive outcomes, yet are not necessary prerequisites for success. That said, negative contact in involuntary and threat-producing encounters can exacerbate prejudices and anxieties and need to be avoided as much as possible. Yet even where negative contact cannot be averted, it can be neutralized by previous experiences of positive contact.[x]
To illustrate these findings, a UNHCR study showed that only 20% of Austrians in personal contact with displaced persons described their experiences as negative, as opposed to 68% of the rest of society.[xi] Thus, while no panacea, evidence shows that contact can be a powerful tool for increased trust and reduced anxieties for both immigrants and natives. For policy makers, building contact is a win-win-win tool: It simultaneously helps immigrants, natives, and governments by providing more fertile grounds for integration that ultimately yields pay-offs for the whole society (and even sending regions).
Creating contact constitutes a powerful, flexible, and highly adjustable policy tool that has proven successful in many real-life interventions. To tap the potentials of contact, a three-pronged approach is detailed below. Civil society, donors and interested public institutions should jointly pursue a multi-level approach to create more contact between natives and immigrants. Interventions should be adapted to local contexts, build on good practices, and embrace sound sequencing and timing.
First, contact strategies should aim to ‘tap the untapped’, i.e. to map and cater to existing interest in contact through tailored matchmaking efforts. In Germany in 2014, for instance, as much as 42% of natives were interested in getting to know asylum seekers and 66% ready to support them; yet only 22% were in relevant contact with, while 47% had never met asylum seekers.[xii] Established good practices to foster direct contact include early integration at community-level, equal access to education, language training, productive activities, and integrative housing, as well creating platforms for structured intergroup contact. Conditions known to enhance the benefits of such contact include institutional support for the contact, pursuing joint goals, cooperation, and equal status in the encounter.[xiii]
Second, prejudices, anxieties, and perceived threats lead to the avoidance of direct contact. Where strong biases exist, structured direct contact techniques have proven beneficial. In these cases, it is also highly important to ensure that indirect contact is positive. Indirect contact may be increased by educational and community interventions, information campaigns, supportive public framing and media reporting, as well as giving immigrants voice and visibility themselves. Indirect vehicles have a wide reach across society, and public institutions hold significant leverage in shaping them. Providing accurate data and information is a proven policy instrument to counter misbelieves, as embraced by the World Bank’s Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD), IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) and others.
Third, segregation is often perpetuated by systematic barriers. Lifting such institutionalized obstacles could broaden contact opportunities across the board. Barriers to contact include segregated housing such as large asylum reception facilities, time spent in isolating reception processes, and constraints on employment. Such obstacles can (re-)produce detachment on the side of natives, but also exacerbate impediments on the part of immigrants, such as linguistic and cultural barriers. These systematic barriers thus constitute key entry points for policy makers seeking to break cycles of segregation and alienation.
Conclusion and Outlook
In conclusion, with human mobility likely to increase further and surrounding prejudices and anxieties reaching a startling scale, new evidence-based action is needed. Building contact between natives and immigrants has a strong empirical track record in improving attitudes and in creating demand for better policies. It is adjustable to numerous contexts and allows for a flexible multi-level implementation. Ultimately, contact can be an effective win-win-win-tool yielding benefits for all stakeholders.
Recognizing the need for better approaches to large movements of refugees and migrants, the UN will convene a summit on 19 September 2016. In line with the recommendations given here, the UN Secretary General has launched a global campaign ‘emphasizing direct personal contact between host communities and refugees and migrants.’[xiv] In the latest Draft Declaration, all heads of state pledged support to this contact-building strategy and promised ‘a range of steps to counter [xenophobic] attitudes and behavior’.[xv] It would be an important and much needed leap forward if tangible action followed.
[i] European Commission, ‘Standard Eurobarometer 83: Public Opinion in the European Union’ (2015).
[ii] Daniel Cervan-Gil, ‘Host Society Integration as a Development Vector: A Literature Review’ (2016). KNOMAD Working Paper 9.
[iii] Oecd, Making integration work: Refugees and others in need of protection (2016).
[iv] Ipsos MORI, ‘Perceptions and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration’ (2014); GMF, ‘Transatlantic Trends: Mobility, Migration and Integration’ (2014).
[v] Amadeu Antonio Stiftung and Pro Asyl, ‘Neue Dimension der Gewalt’ (30 June 2016) <https://www.mut-gegen-rechte-gewalt.de/news/reportagen/neue-dimension-der-gewalt-2016-06> accessed 25 July 2016.
[vi] Oecd (n 3); E. R Thielemann, Richard. Williams and Christina Boswell, ‘What System Of Burden-Sharing Between Member States For The Reception Of Asylum Seekers?’ (2010).
[vii] UN General Assembly, ‘In safety and dignity: addressing large movements of refugees and migrants: Report of the Secretary-General, A/70/59’ (2016).
[viii] Thomas F Pettigrew and Linda R Tropp, When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact (Psychology Press 2011).
[ix] Gunnar Lemmer and Ulrich Wagner, ‘Can we really reduce ethnic prejudice outside the lab?: A meta-analysis of direct and indirect contact interventions’ (2015) 45(2) EJSP 152.
[x] Stefania Paolini and others, ‘Positive and extensive intergroup contact in the past buffers against the disproportionate impact of negative contact in the present’ (2014) 44(6) EJSP 548.
[xi] UNHCR, ‘Stimmungslage der österreichischen Bevölkerung in Bezug auf Asylsuchende’ (2011) <http://medienservicestelle.at/migration_bewegt/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/IBIB_UNHCR_Asyl_%C3%96sterreich_2011.pdf> accessed 21 July 2016.
[xii] Robert Bosch Stiftung, ‘Asyl und Asylbewerber: Wahrnehmungen und Haltungen der Bevölkerung 2014’ (2014).
[xiii] Pettigrew and Tropp (n 8).
[xiv] UN General Assembly, ‘In safety and dignity: addressing large movements of refugees and migrants’ (n 7) 11, 15.
[xv] UN General Assembly, ‘Draft Declaration For High-Level Meeting To Address Large Movements Of Refugees And Migrants’ (12 July 2016) Para. 1.11 <http://www.un.org/pga/70/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2015/08/High-Level-Meeting-on-addressing-large-movements-of-refugees-and-migrants.pdf> accessed 25 July 2016.
Jonas Bergmann is a consultant for the KNOMAD Thematic Working Group on Migration and Environmental Change as well as for the Climate Policy Team at the World Bank. Prior to this, Mr. Bergmann worked and interned with the Institute for the Study of International Migration, Human Rights Watch, the Berkeley Center, the Global Public Policy Institute, the International Human Rights Unit of the German Foreign Service, and the Chilean National Human Right Institute. Mr. Bergmann has also participated in various refugee and migration networks and co-founded two local empowerment NGOs in Germany and the USA. Migration, Human Rights, and Sustainable Development have constituted key areas of interest in both his graduate studies as a Fulbright/DAAD fellow in the M.Sc. in Foreign Service at Georgetown University and in his B.A. in International Affairs in Dresden, Valparaíso, and Lyon.
The author wishes to thank Dr. Sylvie Graf, Dr. Stefania Paolini, and Prof. Dr. Uli Wagner for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.