By James Nicol

James Nicol explores the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in western countries.

Whatever our feelings on the matter, we cannot escape the fact that the question of immigration has become the defining political issue of our time. International migration continues to rise year upon year, largely from poor countries to rich, exacerbated by a global refugee crisis.[1] The West, in particular, is witnessing an epidemic of emboldened nativist political parties and politicians, flaunting overtly anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy. What is more: they are winning. The protracted battle over Trump’s border wall rolls on. The European Union continues to slash its refugee acceptance rates in a rush for populist appeasement. [2] A far-right political party has cemented its place in the German Parliament for the first time since WWII.[3] All the while, far-right and white nationalist attacks are on the rise around the world.[4] What is causing this wave of anti-immigrant sentiment?

In academic circles, there are two major theories which are generally used to explain why immigration causes so much animosity and violence around the world. One, broadly referred to as the ‘competitive threat’ model, is based upon understanding how locals and migrants compete for resources. While the other focuses on structural and cultural prejudice, such as ideologies of racism and xenophobia.[5]

Anastasia Gorodzeisky and Mashe Semyonov, in their article ‘Not only a competitive threat but also racial prejudice’, offer a particularly useful overview of the basic theory behind ‘competitive threat’. In essence, as more immigrants settle in an area, the existing population becomes increasingly fearful of having to compete with these new immigrants over social, economic and political resources. This fear is then transformed into negative attitudes which are subsequently directed back at the newly arrived immigrants.[6] The simple and attractive logic in this has made it a favourite among researchers of political science and sociology. In fact, one widely cited review, conducted by Alin Ceobanu and Xavier Escandell, examining a number of studies on public attitudes towards immigrants and immigration found that ‘competitive threat’ has been the overwhelmingly dominant approach used by researchers in studying anti-immigrant attitudes.[7] Of course, this has not been without reason. As both Gorodzeisky and Semyonov, and Ceobanu and Escandell note, ‘competitive threat’, as an explanation for anti-immigrant sentiment and violence, has been consistently backed up by the data.[8] Studies across a variety of societies have repeatedly shown that discrimination and negative sentiment towards immigrants and racial minorities increases as minority populations increase; and, is higher in areas where economic conditions are poor. Additionally, people with vulnerable socio-economic standing are more likely to feel threatened by increased competition and are more likely to hold antipathy towards immigrants.[9]

Despite this, neither pair of researchers believes that ‘competitive threat’ offers a complete, or even the best, explanation for anti-immigrant attitudes. Ceobanu and Escandell found across their review that cultural-symbolic factors like ideology and identity appeared to be the most consequential and important elements in explaining anti-immigrant attitudes.[10] Similarly, Gorodzeisky and Semyonov stress the importance of considering prejudice and ideologies of racism and xenophobia. Data from ‘Not only a competitive threat but also racial prejudice’ suggests that racial prejudice has an effect on anti-immigrant views that is entirely independent of any actual or perceived social, political or economic competition.[11] Furthermore, the effect of racial prejudice on anti-immigrant views does not change across socio-economic levels.[12] Put bluntly, racists, rich and poor, dislike immigrants equally regardless of any competition they may actually face. Additional research by these same two authors found that Europeans are more likely to show anti-immigrant sentiment towards some racial and ethnic groups than others. For example, immigrants from non-European countries face higher levels of antipathy than immigrants from within Europe.[13] Interestingly, a recent IPSOS study found that people in the UK and France overestimate the number of Muslims in their respective countries by almost 400%.[14] While Eurobarometer data has shown that countries with low rates of immigration actually have some of the highest levels of anti-immigrant sentiment.[15] ‘Competitive threat’ really may not be telling us the full story.

As with anything as complicated as human interactions, we are unlikely to find the answers to anti-immigrant sentiment by pitting one theory against another. Economic, social and political competition, of course, plays some role. The evidence is there, at least in certain areas and circumstances. However, as Ceobanu and Escandell argue, there is potentially huge ground to be gained by academics by looking beyond just competition. Gorozeisky and Semyonov perhaps sum it up best – we must look not only at ‘competitive threat’ but also prejudice. By incorporating elements of each theory, we might stand to gain a more unified and nuanced understanding of where anti-immigrant attitudes come from, and why it is causing so much antipathy and harm.


[1] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, International Migration Report 2017, 4.

[2] European Asylum Support Office, “Latest Asylum Trends – 2018 overview”.

[3] Calamur, “The Nativists Won in Europe”.

[4] Farley, “The Facts on White Nationalism”.

[5] Gorodzeisky & Semyonov, “Not only a competitive threat but also racial prejudice: sources of anti-immigrant attitudes in European societies, 2.

[6] Gorodzeisky & Semyonov, 2.

[7] Ceobanu & Escadell, “Comparative analyses of public attitudes towards immigrants and immigration using multinational survey data: a review of theories and research”, 310.

[8] Gorodzeisky & Semyonov, 3; Ceobanu & Escadell, 311.

[9] Gorodzeisky & Semyonov, 2-3.

[10] Ceobanu & Escadell, 323.

[11] Gorodzeisky &Semyonov, 20.

[12] Gorodzeisky &Semyonov, 17.

[13] Gorodzeisky & Semyonov, “Terms of exclusion: public views towards admission and allocation of rights to immigrants in European countries”, 401-423.

[14] Kentish, “British people hugely overestimate the number of Muslims in the UK, says new survey.”

[15] Strupczewski & Echikson, “Immigration, terrorism top concern list of Europeans: poll.”

James Nicol is a postgraduate student in the Master of Conflict and Terrorism Studies programme within the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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