How can we blunt prejudice against immigrants?

May 17, 2017

By Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

As summer turned to fall in 2015, Ulrich Wagner was glued to the news, watching decades of his social psychology research play out on TV.

Images beamed from Munich, Germany, more than 300 kilometers from Wagner’s home north of Frankfurt, showed thousands of refugees flooding the city’s train station. Their arrival marked the hopeful end of a journey begun in war-torn Syria and other Middle Eastern hot spots. And Wagner was impressed to see the welcome extended by his fellow Germans. Outside the station, tankards of water with plastic cups lined the sidewalk. Volunteers sorted through boxes of cereal and diapers. One photo showed a German police officer crouched and smiling, eye-to-eye with a young refugee boy who wore the officer’s forest green hat and a broad grin. The scale of the migrant influx into Munich and elsewhere in Germany was hard to fathom: one million people entering a country of 80 million. It was a test for Germany as a nation. “If we do this well,” Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted as saying, “we can only win.”

The influx also has morphed into a giant, ill-controlled social experiment. How much social support should the government provide? How can it find long-term housing for everyone who needs it? Will newcomers embrace the social norms of their adopted country, and what happens if they don’t? These are among the most pressing questions, but in the background hovers another: How can individuals, civic groups, and governments manage prejudice against refugees?

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