Why Americans appear more likely to support Christian refugees

An estimated 70 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced, according to the United Nations. Every two seconds, someone in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar is being forced to leave their home. Although 24.5 million of these people have fled their countries to escape conflicts and persecution, room for them isn’t opening up at the same pace. That’s creating a global crisis at a time when the number of refugees stands at record levels.

Governments are taking actions that address the refugee crisis but are failing to fully meet the need. Charities, such as Mercy Corps, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee continue to play a role. That work is funded by donations.

About half of refugees who entered the U.S. in 2016 and 2017 were Muslim, as were more than three-quarters of refugees who arrived in Europe between 2010 and 2016. Because most Americans identify as Christians, and Islamophobia appears to be on the rise among Americans, we wanted to see whether anti-Muslim sentiment or religious identity might be affecting the willingness in this country to support nonprofits that help refugees abroad.

A protester held a sign saying ‘Islamophobia is not the answer’ at an Oklahoma City rally for Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Studying these perceptions

To find out, we – two professors who study nongovernmental organizations – conducted an experiment. We modeled how likely Americans would be to say they would donate US$20 to a charity that runs refugee camps abroad if they were told, directly or indirectly, that most of the refugees in the camps were Muslims.

In the first of two parts of this survey, the participants saw information about a charity and responded to questions about it and about whether they would donate to it. In the second part, they answered questions about themselves, such as their gender, educational background, income, religion and political affiliations.

Nearly half, 46.5%, of the 1,089 participants identified as Christians, 10.3% identified as non-Christians – mostly Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Buddhists, and 43.2% did not identify with any of the denominations we listed.

We posted our survey online on the Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) website. Anyone can register on this platform and perform the assorted odd jobs they will find on a list. The 1,089 participants who chose to complete our survey are a random group but the religious beliefs of these people are not representative of the U.S. population at large. Nevertheless, this approach made it possible for us to survey a much more diverse and broader set of people than if we had asked, say, college students to participate in our experiment.

Each participant saw the profile of a fictitious nonprofit we called “Refugee Helpers.” Everyone was assigned randomly to see one of the 11 different versions of the profile we created, so about 100 people saw each one.

One profile suggested that the charity was serving mostly refugees who were Muslims. Another version described the refugees as belonging to all faiths. A third said the group mostly helped Christian refugees.

We referred to the religion of refugees in other ways. Some profiles stated that the refugee camps were located in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon – three Middle Eastern and largely Muslim countries. Others placed the refugee camps in the predominantly Christian African countries of Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.

We used imagery to simulate this distinction as well, with a picture of women wearing hijabs that showed up in one of the profiles but not the rest. Finally, some people were told that the charity was secular. Others were led to believe that it was a Muslim-led group.