New research in US reveals anti-Muslim bias towards Syrian refugees

Study found American citizens were more sympathetic towards individuals who were Christian, female and English-speaking

FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators hold placards in support of Syrian refugees during a protest against Turkish government's recent refugee policies in Istanbul, Turkey, July 27, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo
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New research into America’s attitude towards Syrian refugees has revealed a distinct bias against Muslims.

The study showed United States citizens were more sympathetic towards individuals who were Christian, female and English-speaking.

Researchers also found that the extent of bias varied, with those describing themselves as white, Republican and Christian most likely to hold anti-Muslim sentiment.

There's been polarisation in the attitudes towards refugees in general. We see this in the difference in policy between the presidents

“This anti-Muslim sentiment with respect to refugees and migrants has been documented in Western Europe,” said Dr Melina Platas, an assistant professor of political science at NYU Abu Dhabi and a co-author of the research.

“We’ve seen some evidence of anti-Muslim sentiment in other contexts in the United States, so we were kind of expecting we would find something similar in the evaluation of refugees.

“The finding with gender we hadn’t anticipated to the same extent. It wasn’t clear which direction it would go.

“That result perhaps reflects that Americans view women as more vulnerable and gives them preference.”

The study, based on a survey carried out in 2016 prior to President Donald Trump's election, was recently published in the academic journal PLOS One.

A total of 1,800 respondents were each shown photographs of three pairs of Syrian refugees with varying characteristics and asked to grade them on a score of one to seven.

Selected by the polling organisation YouGov to be representative of the American population in terms of gender, race, political outlook and other variables, the respondents were also asked whom among each pair they would prefer to admit to the United States.

Muslims were, on average, ranked 0.5 points lower than Christians, the largest preference in the study.

Weaker biases were found against refugees who were male, did not speak English and were unskilled.

Since the research was undertaken, Dr Platas said opinion polls indicated US views on refugees had hardened further along party lines, with anti-refugee sentiment becoming more entrenched among Republicans.

“There’s been polarisation in the attitudes towards refugees in general. We see this in the difference in policy between the presidents,” she said.

During his time in office, former president Barack Obama raised the cap on the number of refugees allowed to enter the US, while President Trump has lowered the figure.

In Obama’s last year as president, the limit on the number of refugees admitted to America was 110,000.

By comparison, it was announced in September that in the current US fiscal year, the limit would be 18,000 people, an all-time low for the country’s refugee programme, which began in 1980.

epa07938831 Syrian refugees wait to receive aid and food supplies, at the Bardarash refugee camp, South of Duhok, Kurdistan region, Iraq, 21 October 2019. According to camp officials, more than 1200 refugee arrived to the camp on 21 October after fleeing the Turkish military operation in Syria. Turkey has launched an offensive targeting Kurdish forces in north-eastern Syria on 09 October, days after the US withdrew troops from the area.  EPA/GAILAN HAJI

Dr Platas said she and her co-authors were continuing to survey the American public with respect to their views towards migrants.

With much recent rhetoric focused on asylum seekers coming primarily from Latin America, researchers are interested in whether these people are viewed differently to, for example, Syrian refugees.

An ultimate goal is to identify ways in which the public might be encouraged to develop empathy towards migrants.

“Divisive political rhetoric was certainly a motivation for the study,” said Dr Platas.

“What work in political science does show is that political elites can influence attitudes towards refugees.

“I’m interested in what’s driving that [polarisation], what’s underlying these beliefs and concerns about the issue and the consequences of these beliefs which, you could argue, translate into voter behaviour and policies which impact refugees.

“This has real consequences for thousands of refugees. It’s really just trying to understand why people hold the beliefs they do and what, if anything, can promote more inclusion towards these groups.”

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