THE ISAFIS GAZETTE #13: Feeling So Alien: The Phenomenon of Anti-Immigrant Sentiments in Europe

Published by Annisa on

Written by: Annisa Nur Aulia

The migrant discourse is amongst the most controversial and strenuous one in Europe. From the common practice of passing the buck, EU’s agreement to restrict procedure, to prejudice. Immigrants in Europe had to face these sentiments against them. The views of European citizens today on the matter are built upon the contributions of many factors.

As the world is faced with ever-increasing humanitarian crises, the need for provision of safe shelter becomes imperative. Should there not be a thorough policy to smoothen this process, people would be left with no other choice but to resort to unsafe routes. We’ve seen many occurrences of migrant boats being turned away at sea, putting many lives at risk. Even the ones who finally reached another land are welcomed in a limbo of legal procedures. It becomes a privilege to feel any glimpse of certainty.

According to the UN Regional Information Center for Western Europe, there were 23.8 million non-EU citizens residing in the EU, representing 5.3% of the inhabitants as of January 2022. There were almost 3.7 million new residence permits issued in European Union (EU) Member States with 875,000 new asylum applications in the year 2022, 52% higher than the previous year. That alone didn’t include immigrants from Ukraine. Although, it is important to remember the dynamic nature of migration and that this number changes from time to time. It should also be noted that immigration was driven by a variety of reasons and it can either be voluntary or involuntary. According to the International Organization for Migration, the involuntary movement/displacement—or also referred to as forced migration—is a migratory movement in which an element of coercion exists, including threats to life and livelihood. Understanding this term is essential to comprehend the situation endured by refugees and asylum-seekers.

The migration issue has always been a hot seat of huge debate in Europe, splitting governments and public opinions across countries. Politicians often use it as a hypnotizing pendulum that sways supporters to left and right. The promise of security and tagline of an ‘end all be all’ solutions to all problems that occur in a nation, most often used by right-wing politicians. The media helps fan the flames regarding this. As Fitzpatrick (2005) mentioned briefly by deriving from Berry (2001), this frames further the prejudice that immigrants are inferior and a burden to society waiting to enjoy governmental benefits from the tax of the citizen’s pockets. Terms like “bogus asylum-seeker” could be one such example. This term was coined in the UK’s longstanding debate to refer to asylum-seekers who ‘fake’ their way through the system to gain economic opportunities without paying taxes under the guise of people in need. An article by James Souter from an independent media outlet, openDemocracy, also called upon the judgemental nature of the term, relating it to ethics in the asylum system. Seeing how these kinds of terms stir the public, we can also see that it carries out a harmful narrative that can lead to distrust and lack of protection which can further endanger fundamental rights of migrants and refugees in society. Of course, name-calling is just one of many anti-immigrant sentiments experienced by immigrants. One comes to wonder, What could have encouraged these views?

If we were to take a trip back in time, immigration to Europe isn’t exactly something new. The noted wave of immigration dates back to Post-World War II, the end of colonization across Asia and Africa, and perhaps way before that, as is suggested by Britannica Encyclopedia. This resulted in exchange of culture that will impact Europe’s civilization. It was safe to say that immigrant and guest workers played a huge role in rebuilding Europe’s infrastructure after the WWII. The treatment towards them however is not always the same. They were systematically discriminated against and isolated in some societies. On the other hand, other societies were more inclusive and even embraced diverse cultures.

Another important event related to migration in Europe is none other than the 2015 migrant crisis in which more than 1 million people arrived in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean Sea. According to UNHCR, 75% of migrants that arrived in Europe during that crisis were escaping conflict and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Conti et al (2019) mentioned that this high influx of immigrants had political repercussions in the EU and public opinion towards immigrants in general. Neumayer (2005) found that economic and political conditions in the country of origin are significant determinants of the asylum migrations. Along with the unfamiliarity of immigrants, people often draw connections between immigration, crime and terrorism (Fitzgerald et al., 2012). This has contributed to spreading moral panic within society and to immigration issues becoming more prioritized.

Clash of Culture

According to Polovina’s article in Berkeley Political Review, countries like France, Switzerland, and Italy adopt strict citizenship laws and the policies are rooted in the view of immigrants as a threat to their national cultures. They believe that immigration could undermine the cultural values of their ethnically homogeneous countries and that some immigrants are unassimilable because their cultures are seen as incompatible with Western norms and ideals. This was the reason identity is a huge part of the treatment towards immigrants. Some migrants are more susceptible to discrimination than others. If they were still seen as similar in values and culture, local citizens may act more favorable towards them.

Specifically in France, the government emphasizes maintaining French cultural superiority and secularism. Some regulations we might be familiar with include the face covering ban on public settings, headscarf and abaya ban in school, and more. Fitzpatrick (2005) regarded this as cultural insecurities, a concern usually upheld by Conservatives. They feel as though their nation is threatened both internally (disrespect of authority, property, and law) and externally (people from outside the nation and what they bring). This external threat includes people who are different from their national traditions. Which brings us back to our main point, the attitude towards immigrants. The rapid pace of immigration and the prospect of assimilation of alien cultures, like Fitzpatrick put it, leave one feeling protective of one’s identity and afraid of uncertainties the others may bring. However, countries like Portugal welcome high-skilled immigrants and have an easier path to citizenship to fill labor shortages. In general, anti-immigration views in Europe are more common on the political right and stem from fears of being economically and culturally displaced by immigrants. As we know, adapting to new changes is not always a smooth process.

Related to the theme of change, MIT News reported about a study on European public opinion, co-authored by David Caughey, which explained the positive shift of views towards immigrants. The author suggested that the generational replacement might be a contributing factor to the positive shift in views on immigration in Europe. As older citizens, who may view immigration less favorably, are replaced by younger, more pro-immigrant generation, it has led to an overall liberalizing trend on immigration. Additionally, for some people, being pro-immigrant is seen as a statement of progressive identity. The rise of anti-immigrant sentiment may also be accompanied by pro-immigrant views and increased polarization.

Psychology of Immigration

When talking of attitude in human’s social interaction, we must not forget the role of psychology that comes into play. Deriving from Berry’s work on Psychology of Immigration (2001), there are 2 key takeaways. Berry emphasizes on acculturation and intergroup relations that exist between receiving society and immigrants. The acculturation domain encompasses contact between cultural groups and involves maintenance of cultural characteristics and interactions between groups. The intergroup relations domain concentrates on attitudes and behaviors toward immigrants and ethnic diversity within the receiving society. Intergroup relations helps us understand how the host society perceives and interacts with newcomers. Analyzing attitudes and behaviors within the intergroup relations domain is crucial for understanding the social dynamics that contribute to either acceptance or alienation of immigrants in European societies.

The Role of Media

Fitzpatrick (2005) refers to the media as an ideological agency that mirrors and perpetuates power dynamics, even though it exists independently as an institution. Instead of brainwashing or deceiving, the media connects people to a specific interpretation of social reality. For example, news doesn’t directly instill a fear of crime, but it does steer public perceptions away from intricate, structural explanations because those are more challenging to simplify into easily understandable pieces.

The media plays a role in painting a certain image of immigrants. The immigrant issue is often presented as a problem instead of opportunity. It often puts them into boxes of the dutiful and loyal immigrants and the ones undeserving of help. Hadji-Abdou and Pettrachin (2021) dove into the shift in the EU countries’ attitudes towards Afghan migrants from “bogus” asylum-seekers to “genuine” which was mostly the result of how the media portrayed the situation. This impacted not only the public opinion, but also policymakers’ way of making sense of the situation. Hadji-Abdou and Pettrachin also mentioned that attitudes towards immigrants could be determined by the way they came, whether it is a regular and more orderly arrival or a chaotic one. However, it is also mentioned that the migration issue hasn’t been the top priority in the public eye ever since the COVID-19 pandemic.

EU’s latest Pact on Migration: What it means for Migrants and Asylum-Seekers

On December 20th 2023, the European Commission, the European Parliament, and EU member states came to an agreement covering major pieces of EU legislation relating to border management, asylum procedures, and data collection. The changes are based on deterrence, an approach proven to be both ineffective and abusive (HRW, 2023). According to Human Rights Watch, the reforms will severely restrict the rights of migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees by curtailing safeguards like legal aid, especially towards irregular arrivals, and placing children as young as 6 in accelerated asylum procedures. Critics say the changes do little to address failures in responsibility-sharing between EU states and may violate human rights obligations. The agreement prioritizes deterrence over protection and will allow discretionary restrictions of rights during claimed emergencies.

Amnesty International said the agreement will make it harder for people to access safety in Europe and is designed to put more people in de facto detention and reduce protections for asylum seekers. The reforms allow countries to opt out of EU asylum rules during times of increased arrivals or incidents and reinforce the EU’s dependence on externalizing border control.

Moving Forward

The discussion above are only some of many factors that contribute to the issue of migration. This could just be the tip of the iceberg as the coverage on some countries and issues are more prominent than others. A multifaceted approach is necessary in discussing immigration in their social, cultural, economic, politics, and security aspects. As both receiving society and immigrants are mutual in a sense that they both are put in a position of uncertainties, it is all the more important to accommodate and adapt to each other. Governments and regional organizations in Europe must encourage a more inclusive discussion, while staying true to their human rights commitments as well as the best interest of their citizens and other possible variables.


Amnesty International. (2023, December 20). EU migration pact agreement will lead to a surge in suffering. 

Berry, J. W. (2001). A Psychology of Immigration. Journal of Social Issues, 57(3), 615–631. 

Conti, N., Di Mauro, D., & Memoli, V. (2019). Citizens, immigration and the EU as a shield. European Union Politics, 20(3), 492-510.

Fitzgerald J, Curtis KA and Corliss CL (2012) Anxious publics worries about crime and immigration. Comparative Political Studies 45(4): 477–506.

Fitzpatrick, Tony. (2005). New Theories of Welfare. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hadj-Abdou, Leila and Pettrachin, Andrea. (2021). From “bogus” asylum seekers to “genuine” refugees : shifting discourses and attitudes towards Afghan migrants, Oxford : The University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (Compas). Retrieved from Cadmus, EUI Research Repository

HRW. (2023). EU’S Migration Pact is a Disaster for Migrants and Asylum-Seekers. Human Rights Watch. 

International Organization for Migration. (n.d). Key migration terms. 

MIT News Office. (2019). Public opinion study in Europe shows drop in anti-immigration sentiment, among other changes. Peter Dizikes, MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Neumayer, E. (2005). Bogus Refugees? The Determinants of Asylum Migration to Western Europe. International Studies Quarterly, 49(3), 389–409.

Parry, S. (2024, January 10). Immigration. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Polovina, E. M. (2022, December). What is driving the rise of anti-immigration sentiment in Europe?. Berkeley Political Review. 

Souter, J. (2016, October 26). “Bogus” Asylum Seekers? The Ethics of Truth-telling in the Asylum System. openDemocracy. 

UNHCR. (n.d.). 2015: The Year of Europe’s refugee crisis. 

UNRIC. (2023, December 14). Migration to the EU: Facts, not perceptions. United Nations Western Europe. 


Annisa Nur Aulia is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Social Welfare at the University of Indonesia. Her curiosity drives her to continue exploring knowledge across disciplines to enrich her perspective. Alongside social development and policies, she sharpens her key interests in humanitarian issues, environment, and arts & culture. Her passion pushes her to contribute in making positive impacts and finding new ways to learn things. For discussion and collaboration, contact through


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