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Can Terrorism Abroad Influence Migration Attitudes at Home?

Image courtesy of Dmitriy Nushtaev/Unsplash

This article provides an overview of the forthcoming article “Can Terrorism Abroad Influence Migration Attitudes at Home” by Vincenzo Bove, Tobias Böhmelt  and Enzo Nussio. It was originally published by the American Journal of Political Science on 6 December 2019.

Over the past few years, political leaders in Europe and elsewhere increasingly link the risk of terrorism to immigration. This includes moderate politicians in countries targeted by terrorism such as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as leaders of states that are less frequently hit by terrorist attacks, such as the Polish president Andrzej Duda.  In this context, our article investigates the impact of terrorism on immigration attitudes across Europe. Specifically, we ask whether terrorist attacks can propagate migration concern from targeted countries to their neighbors.

Although terrorist attacks are rare events, and only a minority of countries are directly and frequently targeted by such violence, we show that all countries are indirectly exposed to attacks in their neighborhood. Moreover, previous studies overwhelmingly focus on the most sensationalist events, with large numbers of victims and unusual media coverage, although the majority of terrorist events is of smaller scale and receives less attention. We highlight that they can still shape public attention on immigration beyond national borders. Finally, existing evidence suggests that public opinion positively correlates with policy outputs. As such, politicians are likely to respond to citizens’ concerns through legislative actions, such as more restrictive immigration policies. One implication of our work is that it is of secondary importance whether the public is “right” about the link between terrorism and migration.

To address our research question, we use the Eurobarometer surveys to capture the salience of immigration from 2003 to 2017. We also compiled data on foreign states’ level of terrorism, which are reasonably exogenous as terrorism abroad is driven by factors that unlikely have a direct link with the timing and scope of the interviews.  We estimate spatial models, which allow us to investigate whether a more elevated concern with migration is observed in the geographic vicinity of the targeted country. Our analysis suggests that the proximity to terrorism, by stimulating emotional public responses, not only affects the salience of immigration within a country, but also diffuses across European states and intensifies immigration-salience attitudes in nearby states.

The “European migrant crisis” has created divisions within the EU and has challenged its commitment to hosting foreign-born individuals, including refugees from war-torn regions. As politicians often respond to public opinion through policy decisions, a poor understanding of what drives public sentiment, particularly the unsubstantiated fear of a migration-terrorism link, can lead to unnecessarily more stringent immigration policies. As all European citizens are exposed to terrorism, even when their country is neither directly targeted nor at imminent risk, our results suggest a more careful consideration of external factors and can help inform the current reforms to Europe’s asylum policy. Our findings are also relevant for other world regions and are one further step in the direction of gaining a better and more general understanding of what affects public opinion, domestic policies, and political reforms.


About the Authors

Tobias Böhmelt is Professor of Government at the University of Essex, Colchester.

Vincenzo Bove is Professor of Political Science at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick.

Enzo Nussio is Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zürich. 

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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