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Politicians are afraid of refugees. But their citizens are much more welcoming.

A German citizen hugging a refugee at a "welcome fest" in Hamburg, Germany, in 2015.
A German citizen hugging a refugee at a "welcome fest" in Hamburg, Germany, in 2015.
Adam Berry/Getty

The world is facing a refugee crisis unlike any it's seen in 70 years, and possibly ever. Millions of people have fled their home countries due to war or persecution. But in many of the rich countries that could help, attempts to take in refugees are politically controversial at best. Often, the fear of a populist backlash leads officials to limit, or outright abandon, the refugees they could help.

But what if that fear of backlash is overblown? What if people in these countries are actually more supportive of refugees than their politicians are?

That's the implication of a survey conducted by the pro-refugee human rights group Amnesty International, released this week. Amnesty surveyed people in 27 countries — 27,000 people overall — about how they felt about refugees and how comfortable they'd be with refugees settling near them. The results make it pretty clear: Some people are inhospitable to refugees, but a lot more are interested in doing more to help them.

At the core of the Amnesty survey was a question about how closely respondents would be willing to take in refugees: in their country, their town, their neighborhood, or inside their home. If you're used to months of debate about whether to accept refugees at all — in countries from the US to the UK and Germany to Australia — the results are pretty darn surprising.

A 2016 survey asked residents of 27,000 countries how closely they'd be willing to accept refugees.
Pretty welcoming!
Amnesty International/GlobeScan

The US ranks pretty low on this list: Americans are less willing than most of the other groups surveyed to accept refugees into the country at all. But if you add up those numbers, 71 percent of Americans would be willing to accept refugees into the country — which is surprising given how pitched the debate over refugees from Muslim countries has been since last fall.

Surprisingly, in several other countries where refugees have become a political issue, residents are even more welcoming. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been under attack from a rising populist right wing over her willingness to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other countries. But 96 percent of Germans surveyed by Amnesty are comfortable letting refugees into Germany — and nearly two-thirds would be comfortable letting refugees settle in their neighborhoods.

In the UK, where fear over refugees and other immigrants is a major issue in the campaign to get Britain out of the European Union, 87 percent of residents are fine with welcoming refugees into the country — and more than three-quarters would be fine with a refugee in the neighborhood.

And in Australia, whose government runs ads telling would-be asylum seekers not to come to the country (and sends those who try to miserable conditions in offshore detention camps), 86 percent of people are more welcoming than their government appears to believe.

One of the most interesting things about the Amnesty survey, though, is that it covered some of the countries that are being hardest hit by the current refugee crisis: Greece (which has been overwhelmed by asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean), Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey (which are all housing huge numbers of Syrian refugees), and Kenya (which houses the largest refugee camp in the world).

You might expect that people living in countries that are already strained trying to help refugees might be more resentful of them, or would at least feel they're already doing enough. But that's not the case. Amnesty asked respondents whether they felt their country should do more to help refugees; here's each country's net response (the percentage who agreed that more needed to be done, minus the percentage who disagreed).

In almost all of the countries hardest hit by refugees (with the exception of Turkey), people feel that even more needs to be done. Jordan is hosting nearly 780,000 refugees and asylum seekers (mostly from Syria and Iraq), yet Jordanians overwhelmingly want their government to do even more. And in Lebanon, which is currently hosting 1.4 million refugees and asylum seekers, public opinion is only a little less overwhelmingly in favor of action to help refugees.

Of course, fears of populist backlash aren't usually about how broad the backlash will be, but how loud. In countries where the refugee crisis has become a domestic political issue, the populist opposition can be very active indeed (just look at the resurgence of the far right in Germany, France, and, to a lesser extent, the UK).

But such groups, by claiming to speak for the well-being of native-born citizens, usually imply they're speaking for a silent majority. If the Amnesty survey doesn't singlehandedly prove them wrong, it's certainly a case for taking seriously the idea that citizens of most countries are actually far more pro-refugee than their governments are.