The science of hate: Why we fear refugees
Share this on

The science of hate: Why we fear refugees

WHEN the arrival of a group of Yemeni refugees in South Korea sparked an unprecedented wave of xenophobia, the anti-refugee sentiment that has swept Europe and the United States openly reared its ugly head in Asia-Pacific.

Despite only 552 Yemenis applying for asylum – a mere fraction of the more than a million that have arrived in Germany since 2015 – the reaction from locals was unforgiving.

Angry protests were staged in Seoul urging the government to get rid of the “fake refugees” and a record setting 700,000 signed a petition to tighten refugee laws.

“Is the government crazy? These are Muslims who will rape our daughters!” was one of the top comments, liked by thousands, on Naver, the country’s top Internet portal.

The reaction was nothing short of hysteria in a country where only four percent of the population are foreigners.

In response to the outcry, Justice Minister Park Sang-ki pandered to one of the oldest tropes in the migrant handbook by implementing drug tests and criminal record screening to weed out those deemed undeserving.


Anti-immigration activists attend a protest against a group of asylum-seekers from Yemen, in Seoul on June 30, 2018. South Korea will tighten its refugee laws, it said June 29, after protests over the arrival of hundreds of asylum-seekers who fled war-ravaged Yemen for its southern resort island of Jeju. Source: Ed Jones/AFP

This common misconception of refugees as violent and dangerous is far from restricted to South Korea, with populist politicians in both Europe and the US stoking this concern for political gain.

But studies on refugee crime figures rarely support this idea.

While the reasoning behind US President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” was a fear of terrorism perpetrated by radicalised refugees, the figures tell a very different story.

Analysis from Cato Institute found that not a single fatal terror attack had been carried out by a refugee since the Refugee Act of 1980 set up systematic procedures for accepting refugees into the United States.

In fact, the odds are so low that Americans are at more risk of being killed by their own clothes than by a refugee terrorist.

As UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, recently pointed out, this irrational fear and confrontational approach to refugees is standing in the way of states developing practical solutions to the growing global crisis.

“Let’s stop shouting about invasion, crisis, threats and walls, so we can start working seriously to find solutions to refugee crises and better manage migration movements,” Grandi said on Twitter. “It’s more complicated and less popular, but it’s possible – and urgent.”

So, what is it that makes us disregard the facts and rise to the baiting calls of politicians? What makes humans so passionately hate the outsider?

It’s natural to fear the “other”

A fear of the “other” likely has a deep-seated biological basis dating back to prehistoric times.

Back then, it paid to have a healthy distrust of outsiders; it’s what kept us safe. These days, however, it tends to manifest itself as bigotry and drives the toxic racism and xenophobia bubbling under the surface.

“An us-them mentality is unfortunately a really basic part of our biology,” Eric Knowles, a psychology professor at New York University who studies prejudice and politics, told The Washington Post. “There’s a lot of evidence that people have an ingrained even evolved tendency toward people who are in our so-called ‘in group.’”

Defining the “other” based on race or religion, however, is not biological but social.

“We can draw those lines in a number of ways that society tells us,” Knowles says.

SEE ALSO: Online polls show 97pc of Chinese reject accepting refugees

Fear leads to dehumanisation

Once people perceive themselves to be part of a specific “team,” regardless of how arbitrary, it becomes surprisingly easy to turn people against one another.

This is especially true when we have quick, minimal exposure to them — as we do today via the media. These thin slices activate the us-versus-them conflict encoded in our minds.

There have been many terrifying examples throughout history to show how effective dehumanisation can be – the Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust, more recently, the Rohingya crisis. But this mentality is not exclusive to conflicts.

“Dehumanisation doesn’t only occur in wartime,” leading psychologist, Nick Haslam, told Vox. “It’s happening right here, right now. And every day, good people who don’t see themselves as being prejudiced bigots are nevertheless falling prey to it.”

While very few of us would ever consciously condone violence towards others, history has taught us that even the most “normal” of people are capable of atrocious acts. Dehumanisation provides the mental loophole needed to carry out this violence, free from personal and societal judgement.


Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017. Source: Reuters

Fake news and anecdotes trump facts

Far-right groups have flooded the internet in recent years with anti-immigrant, anti-refugee propaganda. Even the mainstream media has been guilty of disproportionately representing stories involving refugee violence over that of locals.

These stories of violence, tales of refugees stealing jobs, and accounts of them being provided houses over local people, all resonate with people whether they’re true or not.

Anecdotes of personal experiences and tales of danger are extremely powerful in dictating beliefs; more so even than facts and data.

Our minds have evolved to think in mental shortcuts — heuristics — but in the modern age, they can be deceiving. And once formed, impressions are remarkably perseverant.

SEE ALSO: There are now 1.2 million Rohingya refugees

Fear of losing out

The hardwired prejudices people hold are tightly linked to survival and natural selection, meaning when outsiders come in, people are not programmed to share.

“At the end of the day, we’re motivated by resource-distribution,” University of California-Berkeley psychology professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, who studies stereotypes and intergroup relations, told Pacific Standard. When newcomers arrive in the midst of a stable population that’s already worked out who gets what, “the most common human reaction is to hog resources, not to share.”

Due to humans’ past dependence on group membership for food, shelter and security, we care deeply about our “in-groups,” Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske found. “But the downside is that you’re then excluding people who are not in the in-group.”

This is a social pattern that can be mapped in our bodies, down to a molecular level. Threat centres in the brain light up on perceiving an out-group member, while neurotransmitters like oxytocin seem to facilitate both in-group bonding and out-group exclusion.


US President Donald Trump’s border wall prototypes stand near the US-Mexico border. July 16, 2018 in San Diego, California. Source: Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP

Populist leaders

It’s no secret that stoking anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment has proven popular in politics. Not just in recent years, but throughout history.

Whether capitalising on already simmering tensions, or radicalising discourse themselves, populist Messiah’s need only offer simplistic revolutionary-sounding solutions to change the way things are to get people on side. More often than not, this involves appealing to national values, national identity, national borders, and national interests.

This appeal to national identity inevitably ends up creating the “other,” those that don’t belong or those who are different.

SEE ALSO: China, UK, Germany most welcoming to refugees, says Amnesty International index

With the out-group created, it’s not a far-stretch to hate and, as Claudia Postelnicescu of the University of Tubingen Germany points out: “Hate is a unifying factor… it is the common denominator capable of putting together the most different people.”

These leaders, whether it be Trump in America, Viktor Orban in Hungary, the military in Burma, appeal to people’s emotions and exploit fear.

This power, coupled with their ability to appeal to the masses, makes them capable of saying and doing things people would have once believed unthinkable. And stopping them can be difficult.

“Trump himself has no shame in spreading violent messages against Muslims, women and others, endorsing torture and promising to solve jihadist terror once and for all,” says Postelnicescu.

“Anything goes once you’ve got the popular endorsement with emotions, not rationality.”