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Xenophobia in Europe

November 14, 2009

A new study has found that anti-foreigner sentiments are widespread in the EU, although the forms in which they appear vary from country to country. The best way to get rid of them? Friendship, researchers say.

Three female friends posing with arms around one another
Prejudices can be eliminated in a very simple way: friendshipImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

One in two Europeans believes there are too many immigrants in Europe. But if you look more closely, it is clear that opinions vary broadly across the continent.

In Italy, 62 percent of respondents agree there are too many immigrants, while in Poland, which has very few foreigners, only 27 percent think so. But when it comes to jobs, three in four Poles say those born in the country should be given preferential treatment.

Another, seemingly contradictory, example from the study comes from the Netherlands. The Dutch are tolerant when it comes to jobs - only one in four of the 8,000 respondents think natives should be favored over immigrants. But on the other hand, they are the least willing to invest in neighborhoods inhabited by immigrants.

Friendship as a way to understanding

Prejudices such as those prevalent in the EU can be eliminated in a simple way, according to the study, which was conducted by researchers from eight countries. People from different groups must simply come in contact with one another.

Woman wearing veil with colors of the German flag
31 percent of Muslims feel discriminated against in Europe, according to pollsImage: dpa

"We have clearly figured out by research over the past ten years that friendships are most effective. If I myself have a friend in another group, that is the best scenario. But when I see that a friend of mine has a friend in another group, that is also very effective," said Miles Hewstone of Oxford University.

While that may sound rather simple, there are still many obstacles to making it happen in reality, says Anetta Kahane of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation in Berlin. The organization, which contributed funding to the study, says right-wing violence and racism in the east of Germany and Europe is widespread. And it is difficult to bring different groups together in places where there is a low immigrant population, said Kahane.

Still a lot of work to be done

But having contact with people of another background is not sufficient, said Cem Oezdemir, head of Germany's Green party.

"If simply having encounters and friendships with people of different groups were enough to get rid of racism and prejudices, then we should actually be the country where there are no problems, when I think of the many travelers to Turkey and to other countries," he said.

However, the study says encounters form the basis on which greater understanding can develop.

The study also found that discrimination was strongest in Poland and Hungary. So the West cannot just sit back, says Oezdemir.

"About 200 years after the Age of Enlightenment, we have still not reached the highest stage of human civilization. Barbarism is all around us. It exists in the European Union," Oezdemir said.

However, he views the role of the EU positively. He says it has made substantial progress on the issue of discrimination, for example, by implementing anti-discrimination directives, which many individual countries had long refused. It is at least on the right track.

Author: Marcel Fuerstenau (vj)
Editor: Andreas Illmer