Queen's Policy Engagement

Welcome home? Attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees

Dr Paula Devine and Dr Lucy Michael look at how welcoming Northern Ireland is to people who arrive here as asylum seekers or refugees.

Welcome home? Attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees

For asylum seekers and refugees, Northern Ireland is the new home that they are looking for, as they escape persecution in their home country.  Although these terms are often used interchangeably, there are important legal distinctions between them.  An asylum seeker is someone who has entered Northern Ireland and claims asylum from persecution in their home country. While their claim is being assessed, the person is considered to be an asylum seeker. If permission to stay is granted, that person is considered a refugee.

Data on the number of migrants in general, and on refugees and asylum seekers specifically, can be hard to disaggregate.  However, it is estimated that there are 200-300 new asylum seekers from around the world per year in Northern Ireland.  In addition, in October 2018, it was confirmed that 1,181 people from Syria had arrived in Northern Ireland between 2016 and 2018 under the United Nations Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.

But how welcoming is Northern Ireland to people who arrive here as asylum seekers or refugees?  There is much evidence that asylum seekers and refugees in Northern Ireland experience repeat harassment in their neighbourhoods, including arson and criminal damage, with some forced to leave their homes. The collective impact of these experiences has demonstrable negative effects on health and wellbeing.

Europe-wide, research from the Pew Research Center indicates that there is an average support rate of 77 percent for refugee acceptance, although some countries vary widely from this, particularly those with a recent history of conflict.

Every year, the Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) Survey has explored attitudes to minority ethnic communities, as has the Young Life and Times (YLT) survey of 16 year olds. These provide valuable indicators of the vulnerability of Northern Ireland to xenophobic discourses which understate the value of diversity and migration, and emphasise self-segregation and exclusion.  However, focussing on minority ethnic communities overall does not provide an accurate picture of attitudes to asylum seekers and refugees.  Our recent Research Update uses data from NILT and YLT to reflect on the attitudes of adults and young people towards refugees.


Our duty?

There was general agreement that we have a duty to provide protection to refugees who are escaping persecution in their home country – six out of ten respondents in either survey felt this.  As we might expect, attitudes varied across different groups, with highest support among 55-64 year olds, among those describing themselves as Northern Irish, and among Alliance Party supporters.

One key finding was that attitudes to immigration were strongly associated with this sense of duty.  Nine out of ten NILT respondents who believed that immigration should be increased also felt that we have a duty to protect refugees, but only three out of ten of those who favoured a decrease in immigration felt this.  We also found that respondents self-reporting prejudice against people from minority ethnic communities were less likely to think that we have a duty to protect refugees, compared to those saying that they were not prejudiced (68%).  These patterns were also evident among YLT participants.


A welcome for Syrians?

When we asked specifically about the current situation from Syria, a slight majority of people taking part in NILT and YLT agreed that people from Syria should be allowed to come to Northern Ireland.  Highest levels of support were among nationalists and among Alliance party supporters, although there was no variation in attitudes according to age.  Again, attitudes were linked to general views on immigration: among NILT respondents, nearly nine out of ten of those who support increased immigration were supportive of allowing people from Syria to come here, compared with only 23 per cent of those who favour cutting immigration levels.

We could interpret this latter figure as anti-immigration, or anti-refugee sentiment.  However, the situation is not clear-cut.  Importantly, Syrian refugees arriving through the United Nations scheme arrive in Northern Ireland with refugee status, rather than seeking asylum. Media coverage of the numbers fleeing Syria during the conflict has produced much public awareness and elicited more public sympathy for this group than others fleeing conflict such as in Somalia.  Yet only DUP supporters in the NILT survey and Protestant sixteen year olds in the YLT survey showed lower support for Syrian refugees than for refugees generally.  This is consistent with higher suspicion of Muslims amongst these groups that has consistently been found in NILT data.


A welcoming society?

There were very mixed opinions about whether Northern Ireland is a society that welcomes refugees escaping persecution in their home country.  Just over half of NILT respondents thought that Northern Ireland was welcoming, but only 25% of 16 year olds taking part in YLT thought this.  Perhaps this is reflective of pupils at school mixing with refugees and asylum seekers, whilst many adults may not have any contact.

Overall, the data paint a complicated story about Northern Ireland attitudes towards a complex and emotive subject. Recent events in Moville, Co Donegal indicate just how highly charged the arrival of asylum seekers and refugees can be.  Such events, alongside the survey data, emphasise the complexity of public attitudes, which necessitates a nuanced political, policy and service response.


About the Authors

Dr Lucy Michael is a Lecturer in Sociology at Ulster University. Her research expertise is in the sociology of race and ethnicity, minority experiences of crime and victimisation, and ethno-racial leadership.

Dr Paula Devine is coordinator of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, and Co-Director of ARK.



  1. The questions on refuges were funded by The Executive Office.
  2. The Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) and Young Life and Times (YLT) surveys are carried out annually and document public opinion on a wide range of social issues. NILT and YLT are joint projects of the two Northern Ireland universities and provide an independent source of information on what the public thinks. For more information, visit the survey websites at www.ark.ac.uk/nilt and www.ark.ac.uk/ylt
Dr Paula Devine
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Dr Paula Devine is Co-Director of ARK, which aims to make social science information on Northern Ireland available to the widest possible audience. Paula is based in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen's University Belfast.

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