Labels for Immigrants Can Shape Prejudice

In public discourse, displaced people are interchangeably labeled as "refugees", "asylum seekers" or "migrants." An international study led by the University of Bern comes to new conclusions about how these labels influence prejudice against immigrants.

Text: Sylvie Graf 2023/08/02

Menschen aus Syrien auf der Flucht während der sogenannten «Flüchtlingskrise» 2015 © Wikicommons, Bild: Mstyslav Chernov
Women and children among Syrian refugees during the so-called refugee crisis, September 2015. © Wikicommons, Image: Mstyslav Chernov

In 2022, the number of displaced people reached 100 million for the first time on record, a dramatic milestone unimaginable for experts a decade ago (UNHCR, 2023). The unparalleled arrival of immigrants to Europe started in 2015 and was coined the “refugee crisis” by the mass media.

Lack of comparability of previous findings

In public discourse, people fleeing to Europe since 2015 have been interchangeably described as "refugees", "asylum seekers", or "migrants". "Asylum seekers" and "refugees" refer to people who have been forced to flee their home country on political grounds such as a warlike conflict or persecution as members of an ethnic minority. The more general term "migrants" does not have a clear legal definition. "Migrants" subsume not only refugees and asylum seekers but also persons who left their countries on economic grounds.

Politicians, policy makers, and journalists were criticized for the imprecise use of such terms describing people on the move. But the evidence about the impact of such terms on audience’s attitudes toward immigrants was inconclusive. This was due to the fact that earlier studies

  • were carried in single countries (e.g., Germany)
  • compared different sets of labels (e.g., "refugees" with "asylum seekers" while others compared "refugees" with "immigrants")
  • examined the effect of labels on different outcomes. This means that some studies focused on how labels for immigrants influenced liking of the given immigrant groups (i.e., prejudice), while others investigated the effect on perception of their typical characteristics (i.e., stereotypes) or people’s solidarity toward these groups (i.e., behavioral intentions to help).

Consequently, the findings could not be generalized across different contexts, for different labels, and aspects of attitudes toward immigrants.

Innovative study design

To provide more generalizable and valid answers on the importance of labeling, we initiated an international research project with colleagues from eight European countries and Australia at the University of Bern. First, we analyzed public discourse in these countries to extract and subsequently compare the most frequently used labels for immigrants during the “refugee crisis.” Next, employing an experimental design, nearly 3’000 participants were randomly allocated into one of three conditions. In the first condition, participants indicated their attitudes toward "refugees", in the second toward "asylum seekers", and in the third toward "migrants".

Importantly, we have used distinct aspects of attitudes to capture the nuanced effect of these labels. Participants also shared whether they felt that "refugees", "asylum seekers", or "migrants" represent a threat for them and their country.

Innovatively, we did not only employ negative perception of threat that prevailed in past studies but also positive perception in terms of benefits that "refugees", "asylum seekers", or "migrants" bring to the receiving countries – in terms of the country’s economic competitiveness, cultural enrichment, or positive image.

Sylvie Graf (im Bild) hat zusammen mit Sabine Sczesny – beide forschen am Institut für Psychologie der Universität Bern – das internationale Forschungsprojekt initiiert und mit Forschenden in neun Ländern durchgeführt. © zvg
Sylvie Graf (pictured) initiated the international research project together with Sabine Sczesny - both researchers at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Bern - and conducted it with researchers in nine countries. © Courtesy of Sylvie Graf

"Migrants" preferred over "refugees" and "asylum seekers"

The study revealed that "refugees" and "asylum seekers" evoked the most negative attitudes across nine countries. Participants were less likely to favor "refugees" and "asylum seekers" as their neighbors, colleagues, or friends, as compared to "migrants". In contrast, the distinct labels did not influence participants’ opinions about immigration policies or their liking of immigrants.

The reason why participants favored "migrants" more than "refugees" and "asylum seekers" was because they believed that "migrants" bring more benefits to their countries. In their view, "migrants" “made participants’ country economy more competitive,” "enriched their country’s culture with different traditions", and "improved a global positive image of their country due to providing them abode".

Past research has documented that people in receiving societies are more inclined to accept immigrants who were forced to leave their countries. In other words, immigrants with political reasons for migration were preferred to those with economic reasons. This finding is at odds with the results of the current study where participants favored "migrants"—who include also those with economical concerns—to "refugees" and "asylum seekers."

 The reason why "refugees" in the present research were favored less than "migrants" is probably the “negative contamination” of the label with associations suggesting that "refugees" do not deserve solidarity. Terms like "economic refugees", used especially in anti-immigration discourses, delegitimize refugees’ reasons for leaving their countries. Thereby, populist politicians push their anti-immigration agenda by equaling refugees with "immoral"immigrants who want to improve their living at the expense of others.

Conclusions for communication on immigrants

Currently, European countries are witnessing increase in political radicalization and ideological polarization. Immigration is one of the central topics that divides society, thereby undermining democracy. The outcomes of the current research suggest that the content of labels for immigrants can change as a result of their use in negative contexts.

From this, recommendations for communication about immigrants can be derived: A viable strategy against the trend of deteriorating attitudes toward refugees is precise communication.

We suggest to explain labels used in immigrant-related discourse, for instance, by specifying characteristics and reasons for migration of the given immigrant group. Another promising way of increasing the acceptance of immigrants is, in our view, to emphasize the benefits that immigration offers for receiving societies which could counteract the negative perception of immigration prevailing in many current societies.

About the study

Publication in the European Journal of Social Psychology

Graf, S., Rubin, M., Assilamehou-Kunz, Y., Bianchi, M., Carnaghi, A, Fasoli, A., Finell, E., Gustafsson Sendén, M., Shamloo, S., Tocik, J., Lacko, D., & Sczesny, S. (2023). Migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees: Different labels for immigrants influence attitudes through perceived benefits in nine countries. European Journal of Social Psychology.

Social Neuroscience and Social Psychology

About the Division of Social Neuroscience and Social Psychology

The Division is located at the Institute of Psychology of the University of Bern and focuses on human behavior and experience in a social context. In addition to deepening basic knowledge, researchers incorporate into their research biological foundations of social experience and behavior as well as the application of behavioral economic paradigms. Their research approach is empirical-quantitative. Foci of the division are: Social Neuroscience, Neuroeconomics, Cooperation, Social Conflict, Prosocial Behavior, Self-Regulatory Skills, and Stereotypes/Bias.