The more Australians feel threatened by terrorism, the more they support anti-immigration policies

The emergence of the Islamic State and the broadcasting of terrorist attacks and violence from Europe and the Middle East have provoked unprecedented concern of an imminent attack in Australia.



An increase in the public concern about terrorism is confirmed by data from the Essential Report opinion poll.[1] According to data collected in September 2014, 57% of Australians thought that the threat of terrorism in Australia had increased ‘over the last few years’. In a similar survey that took place in November 2015, 76% of Australians indicated that the threat of terrorism had increased in the last few years.


We wanted to investigate the effects of the increase in perceived threat of terrorism. We drew on previous research from the US and the EU to hypothesise that: a higher perception of terrorism threat would be associated with higher support for restrictive policies against immigrants above and beyond other important factors like political orientation, gender and age.

We collected data with the help of the Wallis Group in January 2016. The sample was composed of 423 Australians (41.4% females) distributed across all states: 31.4% of the participants was from NSW, 26.5% from Victoria, 19.1% from Queensland, 7.3% from WA, 10.4% from SA, 3.1% from Tasmania and 2.1% from ACT.

We measured perceived terrorism threat using 3 items, that is, participants were asked to indicate on a scale from 1 to 5 (where 1 indicated “strongly disagree” and 5 “strongly agree”) their agreement with the following statements: “I am concerned that there will be a terrorist attack on Australian soil in the near future”, “I am concerned about myself, a friend, or a relative being the victim of a future terrorist attack in Australia”, “I am concerned that terrorists will attack Australians overseas like in the 2002 Bali bombing in the near future” (α = .85).

For support for anti-immigration policies we used two items asking participants to indicate on the same 1 to 5 scale their agreement with the following statements: “Australia should receive more asylum seekers from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries affected by the current conflict”,  and  “All boats carrying asylum seekers should be turned back”.

Finally, we collected information about the political orientation of our participants (“Where would you place yourself politically on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 means the left and 10 means the right?”), political engagement (“Do you ever discuss politics with others?”), age and gender.

By regressing perceived threat of terrorism on the three items indicating support for anti-immigration policies, we found that perceived terrorism threat is a significant predictor of anti-immigration policies above and beyond other significant predictors (see Table 1).

Table 1. Standardized coefficients (and p-value) of the regression models.

“Australia should receive more asylum seekers from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries affected by the current conflict” “All boats carrying asylum seekers should be turned back”
Perceived terrorism threat (composite measure) -.43 (<.00) .40 (<.00)
Age -.12 (.01) .09 (.06)
Gender .02 (.72) -.00 (.96)
Political orientation -.20 (<.00) .28 (<.00)
Political engagement -.09 (.04) .12 (.01)
Adjusted R Square .27 .30

This analysis shows that perceived threat of terrorism is a determinant of support for anti-immigration policies across partisan and ideological lines.

What does this mean current context of the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Western countries, like the one that just happened in Brussels? Australians (as well as citizens from all multicultural Western countries) will most probably increase their fear of terrorism even more, which will likely lead to more support for anti-immigration policies.

Our research shows that increased perceptions of the risk of a terrorism threat undermines social cohesion and intergroup trust, which in turn will lead to an increased sense of perceived exclusion by Muslim minorities and immigrants. This is particularly worrying in the current context of the refugee crisis, where populist and conservative political leaders have already been capitalising on terrorism fears and advocating the curtailment of refugees’ rights.

More research is needed to more completely uncover the effects of perceived terrorism threat, in order to make people reflect about their ‘gut reaction’ to terrorism and hopefully pursue more rational, cohesive and positive policies.

Matteo Vergani, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

Ana-Maria Bliuc, Monash University

[1] The opinion poll summarizes the results of weekly omnibus conducted by Your Source on a representative panel of Australian citizens. Data and methodology can be found here.