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Dr. Matt Buehler and Dr. Joon Han receive grant to research xenophobia in Morocco


In 2015, headlines warning of a refugee crisis took hold of the ever-changing news cycle. Photographs of migrants and refugees arriving on European shores became viral on social media and produced a global reaction. Some were concerned about the economic and cultural effects the rapid influx of migrants would have, and some were concerned for the well-being of war torn and desperate people. Over time, the crisis fostered a general disdain or skepticism towards migrants from Muslim-majority countries.

The European migrant crisis controlled the media for months and was a main topic of conversation internationally. While not entirely true, the media promoted the impression that Europe absorbed the majority of migrants from conflict areas. Data shows that Middle Eastern countries are actually receiving far more migrants than Europe, though this goes largely unnoticed. Two University of Tennessee professors, Baker Center Faculty Fellow Dr. Matt Buehler and assistant professor of Political Science Dr. Joon Han, are working in collaboration with Harvard professor Dr. Kristin Fabbe to conduct a nationally representative poll in Morocco investigating xenophobic attitudes against both Arab and Sub-Saharan African refugees.

This research originated as a pilot study funded by the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, which analyzed the attitudes of ordinary citizens towards Sub-Saharan African and Arab refugees. However, this research focused only on the Casablanca region of Morocco. To continue this research, Dr. Buehler and Dr. Han recently received a much larger grant from Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, which does research in contemporary politics in the Middle East. This grant will allow for a nationally representative survey.

It is no surprise that the Syrian civil war is contributing to the refugee crisis, but in Morocco, only approximately 20% of migrants come from Syria, with the remaining 80% coming from Sub-Saharan Africa. The makeup of the refugee population in Morocco is drastically different from some of its neighbors in the Middle East. For example, in Lebanon, close to 95% of refugees come from Syria. While it can be assumed that crisis is the primary cause of the influx of refugees to Libya or Lebanon, because of the large population of African migrants, the same cannot be said for Morocco. There is a level of conflict in Africa to consider; however, climate change, poverty, and a myriad of other issues can lead to migration. It is important to understand why migration occurs and what drives refugee movement, but this research does not seek to analyze the root of migration, but rather, why host countries and citizens have xenophobic attitudes towards migrants. Xenophobia stems from many things, such as differences in language, religion, labor market competition, or involvement in crime. However,, many of the fears or concerns regarding migrants are based on stereotypes. The survey will primarily address why there is such a strong opposition toward migrants particularly from Sub-Saharan Africa. In most cases, Middle Eastern host countries are rather supportive and empathetic toward migrants from other Middle Eastern countries.

In order to gather the most accurate understanding of xenophobia in the Middle East, Dr. Han and Dr. Buehler will carry out a national poll. The most important factor in a successful national poll is random sampling, which ensures that everyone in the population has an equal chance of being surveyed. For their research, Dr. Han and Dr. Buehler will employ multi-stage probability sampling design. Essentially, the team will begin by randomly choosing an upper-level administrative district and continue choosing lower level districts until a housing block, followed by a household, and a person are randomly selected. This process is repeated until a desired number of people have been polled in any given district of Morocco. While Dr. Buehler and Dr. Han will collaborate with a local survey firm to carry out the polling, they have been instrumental in creating the survey. Similar to studies regarding attitudes towards immigration in Western Europe, this poll will include diverse questions that will gauge local views on immigration. First, to determine the respondents general view on immigration, they are asked whether they believe there are too many or too few immigrants in the country. Next, there are a series of questions meant to determine what fuels any present xenophobic attitudes; economic, cultural, of security threats. Then, respondents are asked about the qualifications of immigrants; such as race, language, education, etc. This answer will reveal what bothers native people about immigrants. Finally, there a number of questions regarding specific types of immigrants and specific immigration policies.

Since this research has been done on a smaller scale, Dr. Buehler already has some idea of the general attitudes towards immigrants and refugees in Morocco. Unlike in Europe, where cultural differences are the main trigger for xenophobia, in Morocco, people are most concerned with economics. Religion and language are not as important to native people, likely because the culture differences are not as stark to Moroccans as they are in European countries.

There are many economic issues that fuel aversion toward immigrants. However, Dr. Han, whose research interests include the political economic effects of immigration, pointed out that there are gaps between perception and reality when it comes to the economic impacts of immigration. For example, many people assume that increased immigration will put a strain on the labor market. This is easy to believe because supply and demand would constitute that as more people compete for jobs, fewer jobs become available. However, this is not necessarily the case. While immigrants may take some jobs from the native population, this allows a business to employ cheaper workers and thus expand. Additionally, the strain on the labor market is felt by foreign workers instead of native workers. Many isolated labor markets are dominated by foreign workers, such as heavy labor or agriculture. Foreign labor dominates these industries because employers cannot find native workers willing to take these jobs. Within these labor markets, increased immigration actually put a strain on other foreign employees, not the job-seeking native population. Additionally, many empirical studies found that increased immigration reduces the wages of foreign workers, not native workers. Another common belief regarding immigration is that immigrants are eligible for social benefits and they increase the tax burden on the native population. Similar to the labor market misconceptions, this belief is not entirely true either. Many immigrants are usually allowed to receive social benefits, but they are also required to pay taxes. This proves to be a benefit to the host country because “population aging” has made excessive demands on taxpayers. “Population aging” refers to the principle that there are not enough young, working, taxpayers to provide for the increasing number of retirees receiving benefits. Immigration is actually quite beneficial in aging societies because they provide a financial cushion and alleviate the pressure on native taxpayers. Overall, most empirical research demonstrates that the financial effect of immigration is marginal. While findings do not support the perceived economic effect of immigration, it is still a major factor in xenophobic attitudes.

While fear and concern regarding immigration is not a foreign concept to the United States, there are still many differences between the manifestation of xenophobia in each respective country. The U.S. was a country founded by immigrants and traditionally accepts them, but Morocco is not. Historically, Morocco has generated immigrants. Although this study has no crucial implications regarding xenophobia in the United States, as the context is vastly different, this research will provide valuable information for the United States in terms of National security. Understanding how xenophobia manifests in the Middle East will allow policy and security professionals to predict how changes in immigration affect stability in the region. Morocco is a major non-NATO ally for the United States and it is vital that our leaders understand this region for our anti-terrorism and other security efforts. Additionally, this research can be widely beneficial for other middle eastern countries, who also deal with high levels of immigration.


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