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The Social Virus: Social Cohesion between Syrian Refugees and the Host Community in Turkey in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Social cohesion is an important pathway to creating societies where people can live together despite their potential differences. A socially cohesive society is characterized as one where “there is a common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities; the diversity of people’s different backgrounds and circumstances are appreciated and positively valued; those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities; and strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, in schools and within neighborhoods.”[1] Social cohesion matters because it contributes to growth, poverty reduction, stability, peace, conflict resolution, and sustainable development.[2] To achieve social cohesion, it is crucial to ensure immigrants’ social and economic inclusion, particularly through improving their access to health care, education, and employment.[3]

Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees (3.6 million) in the world. At the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Turks have seen Syrians as victims who escaped the war and demonstrated initial hospitality and humanitarian concerns toward Syrian refugees.[4] However, later perceptions of threats increased, and perceptions of cultural similarity diminished.[5] Moreover, COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened anti-immigrant attitudes toward Syrian refugees in Turkey.[6]

As part of a large social cohesion project carried out in Turkey by the World Bank in collaboration with the Ministry of National Education (MoNE)[7], we conducted a study in which we used qualitative methods to explore whether the COVID-19 has affected various aspects of social cohesion between Syrian refugees and Turks, and if so, why.[8] Between December 2020 and January 2021, we conducted key informant interviews with a few Syrian families and 18 NGO workers from 7 local and 2 international organizations working directly with Syrian refugees, as well as 7 relevant local government representatives.[9]

The main findings suggested that COVID-19 has negatively contributed to social cohesion between Syrian refugees and Turks. Given that social cohesion mostly involves psychological processes of human behaviors, perceptions, attitudes, and emotions taking place between different social groups, we used studies in intergroup relations as a theoretical framework to understand social cohesion better. Responses to social cohesion (before and during the pandemic) are largely derived from one’s social group memberships rather than personal characteristics. We found that the pandemic affects social cohesion in three main aspects of intergroup relations: (1) perceived threat of the ingroup (Turks) from outgroup members (Syrian refugees), (2) social stigma related processes, and (3) social distance and fewer intergroup interactions between Syrian refugees and the host community. We summarized challenges in promoting social cohesion in general and specifically during COVID-19 in Table 1.


1. Perceived Threat from Syrian Refugees

Social identity theory suggests that individuals identify with social groups (e.g., gender group, ethnic group, etc.) and define themselves in terms of group memberships.[10] People are motivated to maintain a positive social identity, and consequently, when people perceive a threat to their social identity, they may become more defensive about that identity. Such defensive responses, then, can bolster stereotypes (shared beliefs about social groups) and negative attitudes toward outgroups such as immigrants and refugees[11] and ultimately undermine social cohesion.

In the qualitative study, we found that Turkish people’s responses regarding social cohesion during the pandemic are predominantly driven by a sense of perceived threat from Syrian refugees (see Table 1). Integrated threat theory of prejudice[12] suggests that four types of perceived threats increase prejudice against minority groups: realistic threats (perceived threats to one’s economic or physical well-being); symbolic threats (perceived group differences in social values and morals, perceived threat to one’s worldviews), negative stereotypes (e.g., believing that outgroup members are dangerous), and intergroup anxiety (e.g., feeling threatened by intergroup interactions). 

Although all types of intergroup threats seem relevant to harming social cohesion, realistic threats regarding economic issues and economic aid seem most relevant in the ongoing pandemic. Realistic threats derive from intergroup competition for scarce resources.[13] When resources (e.g., job opportunities, provision of scarce health care) are in short, social groups may believe that they compete with other groups for the resources. Perceptions about intergroup competition are important because, in the context of migration, such perceptions bolster prejudice toward immigrants.[14] This happens because perceptions regarding intergroup competition involve zero-sum beliefs, referring to the thinking style that “the more the other group obtains, the less is available for one’s own group.”[15] Such thinking style is part of a significant component of ethnic prejudice.[16]

In line with this, our research shows that perceptions regarding economic competition between Syrian refugees and Turkish people emerged as an important factor in current relations between Syrian refugees and Turkish people during the pandemic. In particular, the more realistic threat Turks perceive, the more negative attitudes toward Syrians they have.[17] NGO workers shared how intergroup competition interrupts social cohesion:

There is an assumption in the local community that Syrians came and took their jobs. This situation causes conflict and interrupts social cohesion.” (NGO Worker, Ankara)

“Most of the tension on the street that we observe between Syrians and Turkish people is work related. When a Syrian opens a new shop, when a Syrian take the daily job of Turkish because they get paid less, the tension increase.” (NGO worker, Gaziantep)

“We were going to take a food package to the Syrian family who stayed in the shop. We couldn't distribute it just because [Turkish] people would react. People gather and ask for help too! It causes a mass reaction.” (NGO Worker, Gaziantep)

At the same time, a realistic threat conveys beliefs associated with danger to an individual’s or group’s physical health, and such beliefs are common during the pandemic.[18] Higher perceived vulnerability to infection is associated with higher levels of xenophobia and ethnocentrism.[19] During the pandemic, some have blamed minorities for increasing the virus’s transmission around the world.[20] Likewise, in the case of Turkey, our study suggests that perceiving risk for contagion of COVID-19 from Syrian refugees also played a role in undermining social cohesion between Turkish and Syrian populations.[21] Such perceptions may happen because of negative stereotypes about Syrians in Turkey (see Erdoğan, 2020 for stereotypes about Syrian refugees). This means that the more the locals perceive health threats from Syrian refugees the more negative stereotypes about them increase; these together then may bolster prejudice and undermine social cohesion. For example, some participants emphasized prejudice toward Syrians:

“The owner of our house prevents us from having any guests by the fear of COVID-19, he says that Syrians do not know how to protect themselves from the virus and believes that if the disease hits us, it will affect all residents in the district.” (Syrian Family Member, Istanbul)

“We always worried refugees get blamed spreading the diseases, taking the jobs out away from Turkish people.” (International Institution, Ankara)

“At the beginning of the pandemic, the neighbors in the building were very helpful to keep the building clean and sterilized until one Turkish neighbor came to tell us that our children use a lot of hand sanitizers while entering and leaving the building, despite knowing that our children never go out because of lockdown." (Syrian Family Member, Gaziantep)”


2. Social Stigma Related Processes

Negative responses of advantaged groups can induce a vicious cycle that also triggers negative responses to social cohesion in disadvantaged groups.[22] A great number of studies showed that encountering prejudice toward one’s group reduces one’s sense of belongingness, motivation to integrate with the other social groups, performance, and well-being.[23] To cope with social rejection and exclusion, disadvantaged group members sometimes conceal their stigmas, but this response can induce anxiety, depression, guilt, and shame in them.[24] Our study shows that Syrian refugees are aware of general and pandemic-specific negative evaluations toward their group (see above for prejudice toward Syrian refugees during the pandemic), and all these may negatively affect their attempts for social cohesion (see Table 1). For example, a Syrian participant emphasized their responses to prejudice:

“I don't tell anyone in the school that I am Syrian because I might become rejected by the students. Rather, I say that I am from Gaziantep." (Syrian Family Member, Istanbul)

An NGO official mentioned concerns about prejudice toward Syrians:

“Refugees have concerns about prejudices. We meet with refugees who say I cannot go out because I am Syrian.” (NGO Official, İstanbul)


3. Social Distance and Intergroup Interactions

Our study also shows that physical isolation may also play a role in shaping the reactions of Turkish and Syrian communities to social cohesion during the pandemic (see Table 1). Physical isolation is necessary to limit infections on the one hand, but this isolation may negatively affect the social cohesion process on the other. According to the intergroup contact hypothesis,[25] a positive intergroup contact (having positive interactions between groups) can be an effective strategy to reduce stereotypes and prejudice and foster positive relations between social groups.[26] Schools, for example, can provide an opportunity for positive intergroup contact, such as cross-group friendships. However, decreased social interactions between Syrians and locals due to lockdown measures, usual language barriers, job losses, and school closures emerged as a negative factor that undermines social cohesion. Moreover, interventions aiming at improving social cohesion through fostering intergroup contact are interrupted during the pandemic. In our study context, the role of intergroup contact in social cohesion is emphasized by NGO workers:

“During this period, there was no social interaction between Turkish people and Syrians. Therefore, adaptation strategies within the social cohesion process were interrupted.” (NGO Worker, Ankara)

“I don't think the social adaptation process will accelerate without interaction.” (NGO Worker, Ankara)



Taken in conjunction, social cohesion between Syrians and local people in Turkey was adversely influenced by COVID-19. The current study suggest that perceived intergroup threat (mostly realistic threat), social stigma-related processes, and lack of social contact between Syrian and Turkish populations are major socio-psychological obstacles to social cohesion during the pandemic (see Table 1).

However, our study has limitations worth mentioning. Our results came from a qualitative study, and we neither measured nor manipulated the social psychological constructs we mentioned above. Therefore, we could not speak about correlations and causality, respectively. In addition, our study was conducted at one point in time, namely at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. Future studies should use various research methods and look at the long-term effects of the pandemic to better understand the social cohesion between Syrian refugees and the host community.

In conclusion, identifying obstacles to social cohesion during the pandemic can not only help us improve our theoretical understanding of the issue but also guide effective psychological interventions for fostering social cohesion. Therefore, interventions among Syrian refugees and the host society in Turkey should be developed and executed in a way that acknowledges the roles of social identities of each group and the need for belongingness as well as the prejudice, intergroup threats, social stigma, and social contact.



Table 1. Challenges in promoting social cohesion in general and specifically during COVID-19


General challenges in promoting social cohesion 

Specification and amplification of challenges during the pandemic

Majority/Advantage group


Perceived threat from disadvantage groups


  • Perceived realistic threat
  • Perceived symbolic threat
  • Negative stereotypes
  • Intergroup anxiety


Greater zero-sum perception regarding resources and increased perceived realistic threats

Minority/ Disadvantage Group

Encountering social stigma leads to:

  • Low sense of belongingness
  • Low motivation to integrate with the other social groups
  • Low performance and well-being

Increased awareness of general and pandemic-specific negative evaluations targeted in-group

Both groups

Social distance and a lack of intergroup contact

Physical isolation that decreases positive intergroup contact





[1] Cantle, T. (2005). Community cohesion: A new framework for race and diversity. Palgrave Macmillan; Demireva, N. (2019). Briefing: Immigration, diversity and social cohesion (6th revision). The Migration Observatory at University of Oxford, 3-4.

[2] Foa, R. (2011). The economic rationale for social cohesion-The cross-country evidence.In International Conference on Social Cohesion, OECD Conference Centre, Paris.; Kolev, A. (2017). Enhancing social cohesion as a means of sustainable poverty eradication. In Background paper prepared for the expert group meeting (8-11 May) UN Headquarters, New York. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/viewer.html?; OECD (2011): Perspectives on global development 2012: Social cohesion in a shifting world. OECD Publishing.

[3] International Organization for Migration (IOM). 2017. Integration and social cohesion: Key elements for reaping the benefits of migration. IOM Global Compact Thematic Paper.

[4] Yitmen, Ş., & Verkuyten, M. (2018). Positive and negative behavioural intentions towards refugees in Turkey: The roles of national identification, threat, and humanitarian concern. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 28(4), 230–243.

[5] Erdogan, M. (2020). Syrians barometer 2019. A framework for achieving social cohesion with Syrians in Turkey. Oreon Kitabevi; Topal, M. H., Özer, U., & Dokuzlu, E. (2017). Public perception of Syrian refugees in Turkey: An empirical explanation using extended integrative threat theory. Problemy Polityki Spolecznej, 38 (3), extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/viewer.html?

[6] Adam-Troian and Bagci (2021) found that perceived COVID-19 threat was indirectly associated with negative attitudes toward Syrians through perceptions of immigrants threat in Turkey. However, at the same time, they found that perceived COVID-19 threat was associated with positive reactions toward Syrians through common ingroup identity. Adam-Troian, J., & Bagci, S. C. (2021). The pathogen paradox: Evidence that perceived COVID-19 threat is associated with both pro- and anti-immigrant attitudes. International Review of Social Psychology, 34(1), 1–15. 

[7]The World Bank is collaborating with the Ministry of National Education to develop virtual reality training for teachers and principals working in middle schools with a high percentage of Syrian students in Turkey. The overall goal of this training is to promote social cohesion in schools integrating Syrian students by improving their sense of belongingness: World Bank & MoNE (2021).Virtual reality-based training for teachers to support social cohesion in schools hosting Turkish and refugee Students [The study is in progress]; World Bank (2019). Qualitative field work report on social cohesion at schools with large numbers of Syrians students. Unpublished report.

[8] World Bank (2021). Virtual reality-based training for teachers to support social cohesion in schools hosting Turkish and refugee students: Rapid qualitative assessment. Unpublished Report.

[9] Interviewees were located in four provinces (İstanbul, Ankara, Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa) with a high prevalence of the Syrian population. The detailed findings of this study can be found in the report entitled “Virtual reality-based training for teachers to support social cohesion in schools hosting Turkish and refugee students: Rapid qualitative assessment” (See reference 8).

[10] Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Brooks/Cole.

[11] Riek, B. M., Mania, E. W., & Gaertner, S. L. (2006). Intergroup threat and outgroup attitudes: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(4), 336-353.

[12] Stephan, W. G., & Stephan, C. W. (2000). An integrated threat theory of prejudice. In S. Oskamp (Eds.), Reducing prejudice and discrimination (pp. 23-45). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[13]  Stephan, W. G., & Stephan, C. W. (2000). An integrated threat theory of prejudice. In S. Oskamp (Eds.), Reducing prejudice and discrimination (pp. 23-45). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[14] Stephan, W. G., Ybarra, O., Martnez, C. M., Schwarzwald, J., & Tur-Kaspa, M. (1998). Prejudice toward immigrants to Spain and Israel: An integrated threat theory analysis. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 29(4), 559-576.

[15] Esses, V. M., Jackson, L. M., & Armstrong, T. L. (1998). Intergroup competition and attitudes toward immigrants and immigration: An instrumental model of group conflict. Journal of Social Issues, 54(4), 699-704.

[16] Esses, V. M., Dovidio, J. F., Jackson, L. M., & Armstrong, T. L. (2001). The immigration dilemma: The role of perceived group competition, ethnic prejudice, and national identity. Journal of Social Issues, 57(3), 389-412.

[17] A correlational study by Adam-Troian and Bagci (2021) demonstrated similar findings. They found that perceived threat from Syrian refugees (measured as a combination of a safety threat, symbolic threat, and economic threat) negatively predicted positive outgroup attitudes, outgroup helping intentions, and support for pro-immigration policies. Likewise, Karakulak (2022) demonstrated that perception of COVID-19 as a realistic and symbolic threat was associated with more negative feelings about refugees in Turkey. Adam-Troian, J., & Bagci, S. C. (2021). The pathogen paradox: Evidence that perceived COVID-19 threat is associated with both pro- and anti-immigrant attitudes. International Review of Social Psychology, 34(1), 1–15.; Karakulak, A. (2022). Between challenge and chance. Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on attitudes toward refugees in Turkey and Germany. IPC-Mercator Policy Brief. Sabancı University.

[18] Kachanoff, F. J., Bigman, Y. E., Kapsaskis, K., & Gray, K. (2020). Measuring realistic and symbolic threats of COVID-19 and their unique impacts on well-being and adherence to public health behaviors. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12 (5), 603-616.;  Greenaway, K. H. (2020). Group threat. In J. Jetten, S. D. Reicher, S. A. Haslam, & T. Cruwys (Eds). Together apart: The psychology of COVID-19 (pp. 61–68.). Sage.

[19] Schaller, M., & Neuberg, S. L. (2012). Danger, disease, and the nature of prejudice (s). In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 46, pp. 1-54). Academic Press.

[20] Demirtaş-Madran, H. A. (2020). Exploring the motivation behind discrimination and stigmatization related to COVID-19: A social psychological discussion based on the main theoretical explanations. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 11-17.

[21] In a work by Babuç (2021), it is also mentioned that migrants can be perceived as a risk factor for contagion of COVID-19, and it was shown the impact of the pandemic on Syrian refugees’ lives in Turkey.  Babuç, Z. T. (2021). A relational sociological analysis on the impact of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown on Syrian migrants’ lives in Turkey: The Case of Mersin province. Journal of International Migration and Integration, 1-22.

[22] Whitley, B. E. & Kite, M. E. (2016). The psychology of prejudice and discrimination. Wadsworth. (Third edition).

[23]  Whitley, B. E. & Kite, M. E. (2016). The psychology of prejudice and discrimination. Wadsworth. (Third edition).

[24] Pachankis, J. E. (2007). The psychological implications of concealing a stigma: A cognitive-affective-behavioral model. Psychological Bulletin, 133(2), 328-345. (10.1037/0033-2909.133.2.328)

[25] Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Addison-Wesley; Pettigrew, T. F. (1997). Generalized intergroup contact effects on prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 173-185.; Pettigrew, T. F. (1998). Intergroup contact theory. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 65–85.

[26] Pettigrew, T. F., Tropp, L. R., Wagner, U., & Christ, O. (2011). Recent advances in intergroup contact theory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35 (3), 271-280.

Nevin Solak
Nevin Solak

Nevin Solak is an associate professor in social psychology.

Yossi Hasson
Yossi Hasson

Yossi Hasson is the Director of Research at ‘aChord – social psychology for social change’ at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Marjorie Chinen
Marjorie Chinen

Marjorie Chinen is a human development specialist with focus on education and a core member of the EdTech team at the World Bank Group's Education Global Practice.

Ana María Oviedo
Ana María Oviedo

Ana Maria Oviedo leads research, technical and policy dialogue on poverty, inequality, labor, and gender with governments in Eastern Europe.

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