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Study on influence of social engagement for refugees on sense of justice

Questions of justice always become the center of attention whenever social conflicts arise. This is also true for the refugee issue and the connected challenges in the hosting countries. Which standards of justice are applied when it comes to the allocation of resources and the willingness for personal commitment? The KU professorship of Social and Organizational Psychology carried out a non-representative online survey on this topic with approximately 300 participants – including people who are active in refugee aid but also those who have not yet become involved.

KU language course for refugees at summer school. (Photo: Klenk/Press Office)

In their study, the researchers Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Kals and Isabel T. Strubel made use of the so-called “Scope of Justice” concept from the field of social psychology. “This concept uses the analogy of an imaginary ribbon that we tie around our family, our nation or even all other living beings (animals and plants). The same standards of justice apply for all beings inside this circle – which automatically means that all others are excluded. We are willing to share resources with those in the circle or are prepared to make personal sacrifices”, explains Kals.

The participants of the study were questioned whether refugees should have the same entitlement to fair treatment as all other fellow citizens and whether the same standards of justice should apply to them. The survey revealed that while also those not actively involved in refugee aid were largely in favor of equal standards being applied to all; the comparison with the group of persons actively engaging in refugee relief, however, showed that these had an even wider scope of justice. The same was found with regard to the willingness of making personal sacrifices or the allocation of state resources.

“This study constituted a voluntary survey, which means that especially people who take a neutral or even hostile stance towards refugees are hard to motivate to participate in a survey focusing on refugee aid”, explains Stubel with regard to the available data pool. Still, the ‘Scope of Justice’ approach was of great relevance for the current refugee debate. Different perceptions of justice must be taken seriously in connection with refugee aid in order to be able to defuse conflicts. The concept offers starting points for a mutual understanding of refugees and hosting society but also of different groups within a society representing entirely different opinions regarding their perception of welcoming and integrating refugees in a political and private context.

This raises the question of how the subjective sense of justice could be expanded on refugees? Kals thinks that amongst others the systematic promotion of empathy in accordance with educational and moral pedagogy is a key factor. This could be achieved by establishing personal contact, sharing personal stories or by actively working towards common goals and projects deliberately involving people who are excluded from your personal scope of justice. A field study carried out by other researchers found that many residents were initially opposed to the construction of a refugee home in their neighborhood, but every form of contact, including coincidental encounters, helped to reduce this negative attitude towards refugees. “This means that basically, experiences and methods of discourse are able to influence cognitive, emotional and motivational structures on an individual level and thus broaden your scope of justice”, concludes Strubel.

On a political level, perception of justice regarding how we deal with refugees must be taken seriously in order to be able to increase acceptance and foster possible measures for integration. It is important to develop a system for allocation of financial resources but also find strategies to integrate refugees on the labor market. In the end, this would be a huge gain for both the labor market and the country as a whole. “Such a stance would certainly take the focus off the perspective of ‘deprivation’ or even the feeling of being threatened”, says Professor Kals.