Crowd of people holding up banners in Japanese and English
Article/journal, East Asia, Migration & borders, Human rights & justice, Centre for the Study of Global Japan, Munk School

The Role of Humanitarianism in Shaping Public Attitudes Toward Refugees

Most studies that explore attitudes towards immigration conceptualize immigrants as economic migrants. The limitation of this approach is that it emphasizes economic costs and benefits while ignoring the humanitarian logic that forms the basis of refugee admission. To date, few studies have developed and tested theories that explain public support for admitting humanitarian migrants. Our article fills this gap. We argue that dispositional and situational triggers related to humanitarianism shape public attitudes towards refugees: When natives are predisposed to help others in need (humanitarianism) and/or refugees are seen to be victims of randomly occurring events, the public is more likely to support refugee admission.

We test this theory using observational and experimental data from a country that accepts few resettlement refugees, Japan. Our study uses a rating-based conjoint which randomized crisis event, place of origin, access to public housing, and degree of political support for receiving refugees. We find that humanitarianism predicts public support for admitting refugees more strongly than it predicts support for economic migrants. Moreover, we show that people with a higher level of humanitarianism prefer to admit refugees who flee natural disasters and wars as opposed to those who escape from political repression.