COMMUNITY

Rekindling family history can trigger empathy for refugees, study shows

HARRY VAN VERSENDAAL

Child refugees from Asia Minor wait for temporary accommodation outside Parliament in central Athens in the fall of 1922.

TAGS: Survey, Migration, Society

Descendants of refugees are more likely to back measures in support of incoming asylum-seekers if they are reminded of their forefathers’ experience, according to a new study which suggests that leveraging past experience can be an effective way of increasing empathy and reducing out-group discrimination.

“Our study shows that perspective-taking, in other words making someone see the world through the eyes of an out-group, actually does work and that it works better – and more cheaply – when we are able to harness history and family background,” said Elias Dinas, political scientist at the European University Institute (EUI) currently on leave from Oxford University, who conducted the survey with Vasiliki Fouka of Stanford University.

The survey was carried out in Greece’s northern Macedonia region, which received the largest numbers of Greek Orthodox refugees from Asia Minor after the defeat of Greek troops in August 1922 and the compulsory exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. About 1.3 million displaced people resettled in Greece at the time, amounting to nearly 25 percent of the country’s 5 million population.

The study was based on a sample of 1,928 people, of whom 927 were found to have a forced relocation background.

The researchers arrived at the conclusion that descendants of Asia Minor refugees were overall more likely to display positive attitudes toward today’s refugees from war-torn Syria, than non-descendants were.

More specifically, when researchers mentioned the parallels between the two historical events, Greek refugee descendants were up to 8 percent more likely than other Greeks to support more binding measures, such as donating money to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) or contacting their local MP to take action to help refugees.

Furthermore, when prompted with the similarity between 1923 and the current situation, Asia Minor descendants were 8 percent more likely to admit that refugees had left their countries to escape war than to claim that they had traveled to Europe in search of economic opportunity or to milk the continent’s welfare states.

The mention of the Asia Minor catastrophe, as it is known in Greece, was found to trigger no measurable effect among respondents without a refugee background.

Another key finding was that out-group bias among people who did not directly have a family background of forced relocation dropped as the share of 1923 refugees in their community increased.

More than 1.5 million refugees have streamed into Europe since 2015 fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Asia. The influx has angered sections of society and galvanized the far-right – Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn party has 18 lawmakers in the 300-seat Parliament – a trend that has left policy makers scrambling to find remedies.

The findings of the survey suggest that intervention campaigns that highlight Europe’s tormented past could have a significant impact on public opinion, not only regarding descendants of forced migrants, but their neighbors too.

“We know that Europe’s population is already the product of extensive refugee flows. We use this fact to see how a very subtle and cheap intervention could help in fostering perspective-taking,” Fouka said, adding that the study found effects of similar magnitude to those reported by expensive large-scale interventions.

The idea is that governments and other institutions that want to fight xenophobia and promote integration schemes such as the incorporation of refugee children in Greek schools could build on these findings and invest in cultivating perspective-taking by reminding people that their ancestors also experienced similar challenges.

“This, we think, is a cost-effective way of mitigating the problem,” Dinas said, adding that researchers were investigating whether the conclusions could be utilized in communities outside Greece.

“It is possible that we would get the same results if instead of targeting the descendants of 1923 refugees, we targeted those of Finnish refugees from the USSR after the end of the Second World War or Sudeten Germans,” said Dinas in reference to the 3 million ethnic Germans expelled from then-Czechoslovakia after the war.

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