Building Contact between Immigrants and Host Communities is Vital to Integration –And Should be a Central Goal of the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants


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Negative Beliefs and Attitudes Towards Immigrants Threaten Effective Integration

The growing scale of human mobility worldwide has rendered immigration a salient topic. Better integration could yield significant benefits to migrants, host societies and governments (and even to sending regions) (Cervan-Gil, 2016): Inclusion facilitates self-sufficiency and human development, which in turn reduces welfare costs, raises tax income, and improves social cohesion (OECD 2016).

Successful integration, however, depends partially on the willingness of host communities to absorb immigrants. This willingness is shaped by beliefs and attitudes about immigrants that often misrepresent reality. Among many misperceptions, host societies tend to err by wide margins in the pace, scale, and impacts of immigration. Even if data proves different (Ipsos, 2014; GMF 2014), this can elevate a sense of anxiousness and perceived threats.

Such beliefs and feelings complicate integration needlessly for two reasons. First, they directly fuel exclusion, discrimination, and violence that undermine social cohesion, as witnessed in various regions of the world. Second, they can indirectly lead to restrictive policies that obstruct more positive immigration outcomes.

Prejudices and anxieties surrounding immigrants have recently reached a startling scale and make new evidence-based action necessary. Policy makers can learn from recent advances in social psychology: Extensive empirical evidence shows that fostering contact between natives and immigrants is an effective tool to increase empathy and mutual understanding. A UNHCR study, for instance, found that only 20% of Austrians in personal contact with displaced persons described their experiences as negative, as opposed to 68% of the rest of society. Building contact can ultimately facilitate more positive group relationships and yield high pay-offs for all involved stakeholders.

The UN has recognized this potential: For the upcoming UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, it has launched a global campaign ‘emphasizing direct personal contact’ between natives and newcomers. In the latest Draft Declaration (Para 1.11), all heads of state pledge support to this contact-building strategy. It would be a much needed leap forward if tangible action followed.

Contact as a Potent Win-Win-Win Tool

A meta-review of 515 experimental studies involving 250,000 participants in 38 nations confirms that intergroup contact significantly reduces prejudices and negative emotions. The synthesis of 50 years of research demonstrates that individuals also generalize their positive contact experiences to the entire perceived ‘outgroup’ and even other ethnic groups. Furthermore, contact positively changes natives’ attitudes towards social policies critical to integration. These findings are confirmed in another meta-review of 123 real-world contact interventions with more than 11,300 participants of different ethnic groups.

Contact works in direct face-to-face settings, but also in indirect formats, such as through a friend knowing immigrants, observing how others interact with, and even reading about or imagining contact with immigrants. While negative contact in involuntary and threat-producing encounters can exacerbate prejudices and anxieties, previously experienced positive contact can neutralize these negative effects (Paolini and others, 2014).

Building Contact

Thus, while no panacea, contact is a powerful, flexible, and adjustable policy tool for increased trust and reduced anxieties between immigrants and natives that has proven successful in many real-life interventions. Civil society, donors and interested public agents should jointly pursue a multi-level approach to build more contact.

To this end, first, they should aim to ‘tap the untapped’, i.e. to map and cater to existing interest in contact through tailored matchmaking efforts. In Germany in 2014, for instance, as much as 42% of natives were interested in getting to know asylum seekers and 66% ready to support them; yet only 22% were in relevant contact with, while 47% had never met asylum seekers (Robert Bosch Stiftung, 2014). Established good practices to foster direct contact include early and equal access to education, language training, productive activities, and integrative housing, as well creating platforms for structured intergroup contact. The benefits of such contact are enhanced when there are institutional support for the contact, joint goals, cooperation, and equal status in the encounter (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2011).

Second, prejudices, anxieties, and perceived threats lead to the avoidance of direct contact. Where strong biases exist, structured direct contact techniques have proven beneficial. In these settings, it is also important to ensure that indirect contact is positive, which may be increased through educational and community interventions, information campaigns providing accurate data, as well as supportive public framing and media reporting. Indirect vehicles have a wide reach across society, and public institutions hold significant leverage in shaping them.

Third, segregation is often perpetuated by systematic barriers. Institutionalized obstacles to contact include segregated housing such as large asylum reception facilities, time spent in isolating reception processes, and constraints on employment. Such obstacles can (re-)produce detachment on the side of natives, but also exacerbate impediments on the part of immigrants, such as linguistic and cultural barriers. These systematic barriers constitute key entry points for policy makers seeking to break cycles of segregation and alienation.

Conclusion and Outlook

In conclusion, with human mobility likely to increase further, new evidence-based action is needed to counter surrounding prejudices and anxieties. Building contact between natives and immigrants has a strong empirical track record in improving attitudes and in creating demand for better social policies. The recommendation is adjustable to numerous contexts and allows for a flexible multi-level implementation. Ultimately, contact can be an effective win-win-win-tool yielding benefits for all stakeholders by providing more fertile grounds for integration. The UN has recognized this potential, and it is hoped that states and other stakeholders will follow suit with concrete action.

* The author wishes to thank Dr. Sylvie Graf, Dr. Stefania Paolini, and Prof. Dr. Uli Wagner for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.



Jonas Bergmann

Consultant, World Bank

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