The power of narratives: How framing refugee migration impacts attitudes and political support towards refugees

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The issue of humanitarian migration has been among the most debated and divisive topics of 2023 in Germany and beyond, boosting the performance of right-radical parties, such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Perceptions of the topic are, among other things, shaped by public discourse frames, which often either appeal to a humanitarian responsibility to provide protection or highlight potential immigration-related threats for host societies. This research aims to contribute to a better understanding of the impact of these popular frames on humanitarian concerns, threat perceptions and preferences for refugee policies of Germans and on how these frames relate to demographic characteristics of the migrants. For this purpose, we analyze original data from a large-scale online survey experiment conducted in May 2023 in Germany with 2,012 respondents, in which different frames are presented in the form of short videos on Syrian refugees in Turkish refugee camps. We find that str essing the humanitarian plight of the refugees drives up various forms of humanitarian concerns and the support for a petition advocating for more on-site assistance, while our threat frame impacts mainly perceived cultural threat. Increasing the salience of young men among the refugees leads to an erosion of support for refugee admissions. The treatment effects differ largely between respondents from East and West Germany. Our findings shed light on the nuanced dynamics of public opinion on humanitarian migration and stress that solidarity with refugees is not merely a function of sheer numbers, but also depends on the representation of refugees in the public discourse and the media.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 23 Apr 2024

Publication series

SeriesUNU-MERIT Working Papers

JEL classifications

  • o15 - "Economic Development: Human Resources; Human Development; Income Distribution; Migration"
  • a13 - Relation of Economics to Social Values
  • d63 - Equity, Justice, Inequality, and Other Normative Criteria and Measurement
  • i31 - General Welfare
  • j15 - "Economics of Minorities, Races, and Immigrants; Non-labor Discrimination"


  • refugees and migrants
  • humanitarian concerns
  • threat perceptions
  • survey experiment
  • attitudes towards refugees


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