June 20 was World Refugee Day, an annual reminder that millions of people are living their lives in limbo. UNHCR data show that about 1 in every 95 people on the planet is currently forcibly displaced, either internally within their home country, or as an asylum seeker or refugee in another country. The number of refugees — around 26.4 million — hasn’t been at this level since World War II.

While refugee numbers are rising globally, the willingness of countries to accept refugees is steadily declining. In fact, 86 percent of the world’s refugees aren’t hosted by wealthier nations in North America or Europe. Instead, they’re residing in developing countries, which have their own set of problems.

The lack of cooperation from countries in the Global North is in no small part due to fears about the security risks of hosting refugees. Public opinion polls show that people in many countries around the globe directly associate refugees with heightened risks of “importing” terrorism. A January 2017 travel ban instituted by President Donald Trump, for example, explicitly alleged that terrorists were coming into the United States disguised as refugees. Similarly, Hungarian President Viktor Orban denounced the “Trojan horse of terrorism,” blaming E.U. refugee policies for allowing terrorists to infiltrate Europe.

Are these legitimate fears?

Our research, forthcoming in the Journal of Politics, found no causal link between hosting refugees and an increase in terrorist attacks from foreign groups — including from terrorist groups based in refugee origin countries. In contrast, we show that the only form of terrorism that increases in host nations in the developed world is right-wing violence against refugees and migrants, perpetrated by citizens of those countries who falsely view refugees as a security threat.

These findings suggest fears of refugees are not only unjustified but also counterproductive. They subject refugees to a double victimization in developed countries: by limiting refugees in their ability to gain shelter and by inflicting further violence on those granted refuge by developed countries.

How we did our research

To find out whether and how refugees are linked to terrorist attacks in host countries, we paired UNHCR data on the origin and destination countries of refugees with analogous data on transnational terrorist attacks. For this, we coded new data on the origin countries of perpetrators for all terrorist attacks listed in the Global Terrorism Database to test whether hosting more refugees increases the risk that foreign terrorists exploit refugee movements to carry out attacks in host countries.

And we took steps to try to be sure that the relationship we discovered wasn't simply a product of refugees preferring to go to countries that had less terrorism, or destination countries limiting refugee numbers for fear or terrorism. In short, we were able to go beyond simple correlations and assess causal effects. Yet we found no evidence that refugees are a Trojan horse for terrorism, at least in developed countries.

Refugees as the victims of right-wing violence

However, our analysis went beyond the conventional view that refugees might be the agents of violence and examined an alternative mechanism: the “scapegoat.” Linking data on the nationality of terrorist victims with data on the nationality of refugees, we showed that hosting refugees disproportionately increases the risk of right-wing attacks by domestic groups or individuals against refugees and their community. In short, our evidence showed that refugees are the victims — not the villains — of terrorism and violent attacks.

Our analyses further showed that this phenomenon is driven by fear: When people see refugees as a security threat — for example, perhaps because they come from countries where transnational terrorist groups such as the Islamic State are active — they are more likely to trigger violent responses from domestic groups or individuals. Moreover, these patterns of scapegoating persist independent of whether refugees have any actual involvement in violence in the host country.

It’s the backlash to refugees that undermines security

The violent scapegoating of refugees in developed countries is concerning for two reasons: First, fears of refugees are unjustified in developed countries, which are already protected from the risk of terrorist infiltrations by virtue of sophisticated and collaborative counterterrorism measures. Second, populist and right-wing politicians tend to exploit and amplify public fears for electoral purposes — and stoking violence against refugees makes these countries less safe overall.

The scapegoating of refugees and migrants is something that we saw on the rise during the covid-19 pandemic, with an increase in violent attacks and hate crimes targeted at migrant groups, and widespread accusations that certain groups are to blame for spreading the coronavirus.

Our research has implications also for another worrisome trend — when governments themselves, and not just civilians, target refugees and asylum seekers. Increasingly, governments, including democratic ones, are engaging in pushing back or detaining people who cross their borders fleeing violence and persecution, even in violation of international law. This tendency also includes the separation of migrant children from their parents, and the forced deportation of migrants to countries where they risk egregious human rights violations, for instance. European countries have simply refused to rescue migrants in distress at sea, which has led to the death of thousands of men, women and children in the Mediterranean.

The consequences of prejudice and hostility travel far. Refugees remain trapped in a chain of violence that starts in the countries they flee from as the result of war or persecution, continues on their dangerous journeys to find safety, and hunts them even within the countries where they seek asylum, as unwarranted public fears reignite their plight and put them in danger.

Sara M.T. Polo is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at the University of Essex.

Julian Wucherpfennig is professor of international affairs and security and core faculty at the Centre for International Security at the Hertie School in Berlin.