How do Europeans differ in their attitudes to immigration?


Immigration continues to be one of the most topical and pressing political issues in Europe, with voters in many countries rating it high on the political agenda, and new ‘radical right’ political parties which oppose immigration emerging in many countries.  With continuing high levels of labour migration to many western European countries, as well as continuing pressure to accept refugees and asylum seekers from war zones around the world, this topic is unlikely to lose its significance in the foreseeable future.  In our latest briefing note, CSI set out to look at attitudes towards immigrants in Europe – what is the trend in attitudes towards immigrants? Where does the UK stand in relation to other countries in Europe? Are attitudes more negative in countries with higher immigration?

Is [this country] made a worse or a better place to live by people coming to live here from other countries? Source: European Social Survey

Is [this country] made a worse or a better place to live by people coming to live here from other countries? Source: European Social Survey

Using data from the European Social Survey (ESS), firstly, in Figure 1, we looked at answers to the question: Is [this country] made a worse or a better place to live by people coming to live here from other countries? (scale running from 0 (worse) to 10 (better)). There was considerable stability in countries’ relative positions over time:  in both years a similar set of countries were the most positive – Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Poland – and in both years a similar set were the most negative – the Czech Republic, Hungary and Portugal.  The UK was a little less positive than the European average in both years, with a mean score just below 5 in 2014/15. Most countries saw modest shifts with answers to the question becoming more favourable towards immigrants between 2002/3 and 2014/5, and the UK also saw an increase close to the sample average. Only two countries because more pessimistic in their views between these two time points: Austria and the Czech Republic. Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden all became much more positive in their attitudes (a change of half a point or more).

‘Way of life’, language, and skills are considered more important than religious and racial background as immigration criteria. Source: ESS

‘Way of life’, language, and skills are considered more important than religious and racial background as immigration criteria. Source: ESS

The public’s views tend to be much more nuanced than is often realized.  In Figure 2 we can see that commitment to the destination country’s way of life, the ability to speak the country’s language, and work skills are mentioned as important criteria for accepting migrants, while racial and religious background are considered rather unimportant. At the same time, the type of immigrant is important and a clear hierarchy is evident:  Jewish people are much more welcome than Muslims, who in turn are more welcome than Roma (Figure 3); also we find quite a substantial difference in attitudes towards professionals and to unskilled labourers (Figure 4). In the case of professional migrants it looks as though country of origin makes very little difference, whereas in the case of unskilled labourers those from a non-European origin are clearly less welcome than those from a European origin.

Attitudes towards different sorts of migrant. Source: ESS

Attitudes towards different sorts of migrant. Source: ESS

Attitudes towards professionals and unskilled labourers coming from poor European and non-European countries. Source: ESS

Attitudes towards professionals and unskilled labourers coming from poor European and non-European countries. Source: ESS

As Figure 5 shows, negative attitudes towards immigration do not straightforwardly relate to the numbers of migrants arriving in a country.  For example Sweden and Norway have relatively high net migration rates yet are favourable to immigration. On the other hand, Slovenia and Hungary have net migration rates close to zero, yet have quite negative attitudes. By this measure (which is migrants per 1000 population) we can see that immigration to the UK is not as high as is sometimes assumed, and is similar to Denmark, Portugal, and the Czech Republic.

Net migration rates do not correspond to attitudes to immigration (countries are ordered from positive (Sweden) to negative (Czech Republic) Migrants per 1000 population source: ESS and CIA world factbook

Net migration rates do not correspond to attitudes to immigration (countries are ordered from positive (Sweden) to negative (Czech Republic) Migrants per 1000 population source: ESS and CIA world factbook

We conclude that the drivers of anti-immigration sentiment are more complex than is usually supposed… you can read more in our new briefing note here: CSI 24 Attitudes to Immigration

Post by Lindsay Richards, 14th June 2016