Western Europeans have a more positive attitude towards refugees from Ukraine than from outside Europe, according to new research. 16,000 people in four countries were asked about refugee integration with results showing that about half have had no contact with refugees at all.

In an EU-funded project, researcher Nahikari Irastorza examined opinions on refugee integration in four European countries: Sweden, Austria, Italy, and Germany. A representative sample of 4,000 people who have lived in each country for at least ten years were asked how they felt refugees had successfully integrated.

The study is part of a wider research project exploring the integration of migrants after 2014 in 49 small and medium-sized towns and rural areas in eight EU countries, and, in addition, Turkey and Canada.

“It is clear and consistent across all questions that attitudes towards people from Ukraine are more positive. We don't know why, but one can assume that the fact that Ukrainians are Europeans plays a role. If we think about Sweden, there are not many and they do not have the same rights as refugees,” says Irastorza, associate professor at Malmö University's Research Centre for Migration, Diversity and Welfare Studies (MIM).

In the survey, 1,000 of the respondents in each country came from larger cities (with a population of 250,000 or more) and 3,000 from smaller towns. Questions were asked about how well integrated the respondents perceive each refugee group to be, and what relationship they have with refugees.

When it comes to opinions, there are very small differences that have to do with the size of the locality. One difference compared to smaller towns is that in larger cities, tensions between residents and non-European refugees are perceived as greater. This was especially the case in Austria and Sweden, while more people in Italy think relations are good. Opinions were generally more positive in Italy than in other countries.

“I am surprised that the attitude in Italy is so positive. Italy has taken in many refugees and there is a lot of populism there. Perhaps the results show a discrepancy between the political discourse and what people actually think,” says Irastorza.

Regardless of refugee group, country and size of locality, the study also shows that about half of the respondents have virtually no contact with refugees. With few exceptions, 50 per cent or more say: 'There are almost no relations, but people respect each other, and there is very little conflict.'

So, what should be done to create more contact and interaction between different groups? Daily contact with non-European refugees in sports and cultural activities increases the likelihood of refugees being seen as well integrated, believes Irastorza, who adds:

“Contact with non-European refugees as neighbours or colleagues does not lead to a more positive view of how integrated they are. The only contact that matters for positive attitudes is when people spend time doing leisure or cultural activities or sports together. Public support for associations and similar activities can therefore be important for integration.”

More about the study

The study, Exploring the integration of post-2014 migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees from a whole of community perspective (Whole-COMM), was conducted in collaboration with researchers at Malmö University's Research Centre for Migration, Diversity and Welfare Studies and European partners.

Whole-COMM is a three-year research project exploring the post-2014 integration of migrants in 49 small and medium-sized cities and rural areas in eight EU countries, Turkey, and Canada. Whole-COMM aims to make a concrete contribution to the design of innovative and effective policies, involving stakeholders at European, national, and local levels. This is to build more cohesive and resilient communities that can proactively embrace change.