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Longstanding attitude toward Muslims stokes Europeans' fears over refugees

Posted July 28

Europeans fear the recent influx of refugees will contribute to local acts of violence and economic unrest, a new survey found, but those fears had little to do with recent terrorist attacks like the one in Brussels or the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union.

According to a Pew Research Center study released Monday, more than half of all people surveyed in eight out of 10 European countries believe refugees increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks. And in five of the 10 nations surveyed, more than half of those polled said refugees take away jobs and social benefits from native citizens.

Pew's associate director of research Katie Simmons helped conduct the study and said she and her fellow researchers were surprised to find this fear of terrorism was more based on longstanding feelings toward Muslims than on recent acts of terrorism.

"We did find a little bit of an increase in terms of negative attitudes toward Muslims, but it really wasn’t that large." Simmons said. "Instead, what we found is that existing attitudes towards Muslims … are driving their attitudes toward refugees. So people who have negative attitudes toward Muslims are much more likely to have negative attitudes toward refugees."

Data showed there is already a prominent feeling of distrust toward Muslims among Europeans — at least one-in-four from each country say they “have an unfavorable opinion of the Muslims in their country” — and that the high number of Muslim refugees is beginning to increase negative perceptions.

Countries in eastern and southern Europe, such as Hungary, Italy, Poland and Greece, have the highest population of people who reported having negative feelings toward Muslims living in their country.

Gaps in feelings toward refugees and minority groups in general could come from differences in age and educational background as well, Simmons said.

“On a range of questions about diversity and how you define nationality, as well as attitudes about refugees, we found older people and less educated people are much more restrictive in their definition of national identity,” Simmons said. “They’re also much more concerned about the impact of the refugees.”

But a divide in feelings toward refugees and Muslims could, in part, be attributed to partisan politics. The report stated that in almost every question asked, "people on the ideological right express more concerns about refugees, more negative attitudes toward minorities and less enthusiasm for a diverse society.”

That belief that increased diversity can have an impact on national identity resonated in many European countries, a trend Simmons said is contributing to negative feelings toward refugees and minority groups.

“It was interesting to us that there are really mixed views about national and ethnic diversity, but very few people actually say increasing diversity within their country makes their country a better place to live,” Simmons said.

The majority of people in Hungary, Greece, Italy and Poland all said that increased diversity would have a negative impact on their country, while the majority of people polled in the remaining six countries said it would have no impact. Sweden had the largest amount of people — a third of people polled — who said increased diversity could have a positive impact on their country.

"More people either say it doesn’t make a difference, or say it actually makes the country a worse place to live," Simmons said. "This may speak to some of the concerns about refugees and minority groups."

The one area where most people agreed refugees were not contributing negatively is local crime.

"Majorities or pluralities in most countries believe that refugees are no more to blame than others," the report said. "The exceptions are Sweden and Hungary, where the publics are divided, as well as Italy, where the prevailing view is that refugees are responsible for more crime than other people."

The study was conducted between April 4 and May 12, 2016, before the Brexit vote and the recent Istanbul terrorist attack, by surveying more than 11,494 European and United States citizens.

Email: sweber@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @sarapweber

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