Study finds Europeans’ attitudes to migration ‘do not depend on net migration levels’

17 June 2016

UK respondents’ support for immigration is slightly lower than the European average, BUT they also have a slightly more positive view of migrants’ contribution to their country compared with a decade earlier

A new study by the Centre for Social Investigation (CSI) at Oxford University has analysed attitudes to immigration across 21 European countries and finds that negative attitudes do not appear to be linked with net migration rates. Some countries with high immigration levels are also very positive about migrants, such as Norway, while other countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary that have low immigration have populations with negative attitudes. Based on interviews with around 40,000 men and women, the nationally representative data collected by the European Social Survey in 2014-15 also reveals that UK attitudes towards immigration are slightly less positive than the average for the countries in the sample, but they are more positive about how migrants contribute once they are living in the UK.
The UK’s attitudes to immigration overall were at a level similar to that of France and Belgium. But also, in line with most other countries, UK responses have become slightly more positive when asked whether their country was ‘made a worse or better place to live by people coming over to live here from other countries’. The UK average score was just over 5 out of 10 (where 10 is better), a slight improvement on the score in 2002-03.

The report, ‘How do Europeans differ in their attitudes to immigration?’, finds that the Czech Republic, Hungary and Portugal, were the least positive about immigration. While most European countries saw an increase in the belief that migration had improved their country since 2002/3, Austria (which just narrowly avoided a far right electoral victory) and the Czech Republic are ‘notable exceptions’, says the report. Meanwhile, the Scandinavian countries and Poland have the most positive attitudes to immigration.

At an individual level, the highly educated and the young tend to have more favourable attitudes to immigration than elderly people, or those with less education or low incomes. According to those surveyed, a migrant’s racial and religious background was relatively unimportant. They said they preferred migrants who showed a commitment to the way of life in their country, an ability to speak the language, and migrants with skills. Professionals were preferred to unskilled labourers, with this distinction appearing to be far more significant than a migrant’s country of origin. All else being equal, however, those surveyed said they would welcome migrants from within Europe over those from outside of it. Jewish migrants were preferred to Muslims, who in turn would be made more welcome than Roma migrants. Roma migrants were regarded as amongst the least popular, in a similar way to unskilled labourers from poor non-European countries.

Study author Professor Anthony Heath, emeritus Professorial Fellow at Nuffield College and Director of CSI, says: ‘Immigration continues to be one of the most pressing political issues in Europe, including the UK, and this survey shows that the factors influencing public attitudes towards migrants are complicated and varied. Attitudes do not appear to be closely linked to net migration figures as we find European countries with the highest levels of immigration also have positive attitudes and vice versa. We also find that Europeans in this sample are not against migrants per se: some migrants appear to be more welcome than others, depending on what they have to offer. Personal backgrounds have a strong influence on opinions, with older people tending to be more negative than the young, many of whom have grown up with a greater level of cultural diversity around them. The more educated are more likely to welcome migrants, while the less educated and those on lower incomes appear to be among those who feel most threatened, both symbolically and in terms of their job security and future livelihoods.’

For more information, contact the University of Oxford News Office on +44 (0)1865 280534; email:

Notes for Editors:

  • Anthony Heath and Lindsay Heath co-authored the report, ‘How do Europeans differ in their attitudes to immigration?’. Once live, it will appear on the CSI website: 
  • The data was drawn from Round 7 of the European Social Survey, in which approximately 2,000 people from each country, a nationally representative sample, were interviewed face to face. The surveys were carried out from August 2014 to December 2015.
  • The Centre for Social Investigation was set up in September 2014 at Nuffield College, Oxford. It aims to address contemporary and social issues of public interest and to engage with policymakers and the public more generally. Professor Anthony Heath is Director of the CSI, assisted by two post-doctoral researchers and collaboration with researchers at Oxford University and other institutions. See or follow on Twitter @csinuffield