Most migrants living in the UK don’t feel that they belong to a group that is discriminated against

Published 20 January 2020 / By COMPAS Communications

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A new Migration Observatory briefing concludes that people’s perceptions of whether they face discrimination in the UK are more related to their ethnicity rather than being a migrant. Survey data from 2018 suggest that 92% of EU migrants and 81% of non-EU migrants do not feel that they belong to a group that is discriminated against, while large majorities of people born abroad think the UK is a welcoming place where migrants can get ahead if they work hard.


The briefing, Migrants and Discrimination in the UK, shows that adult children of migrants born in the UK are twice as likely to feel discriminated against because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, language, accent or religion compared to the foreign born (30% vs 16% in 2018). Migrants from non-EU countries were roughly twice as likely as EU migrants to feel that they were part of a group that is discriminated against (19% vs. 8% in 2018).


Dr Mariña Fernández-Reino, researcher at the Migration Observatory and the author of the briefing said: “It is interesting that people who have migrated to the UK are less likely to feel that they face discrimination than UK-born children of migrants. The reasons for this will be complex. Some UK-born minorities actually have worse outcomes than migrants, such as higher unemployment.

“Research also suggests that children of migrants, who were born and raised here, have higher expectations and so are more sensitive to inequalities or unequal treatment they encounter. By contrast, people who migrated here may compare their experience to life in their country of origin and feel that they have benefited from moving even if they still face some disadvantages.” 


EU migrants have traditionally reported few experiences of discrimination than those born outside the EU. However, the share of EU migrants saying they were a member of a group that faced discrimination more than doubled during the time of the EU referendum compared to levels seen both before (2010-12) and after (2018).  


Research for other countries suggests that political rhetoric matters and political elites can shape public attitudes towards certain groups, at least in the short run. This may have a concrete effect on how welcome migrants feel.


Looking at data for 2016-2018, EU migrants in the UK were more likely to feel that they faced discrimination (14%) than EU migrants in other EU-14 countries (9%)—a difference that is driven by the results for 2016. By contrast, the perception of discrimination among non-EU migrants is slightly lower in the UK than in the rest of the EU-14.


Dr Fernández-Reino added: “The increase in EU migrants’ perceptions of discrimination around the time of the referendum is likely associated with the public debate in that period. EU migration was one of the top issues on the UK political agenda in the run-up to the 2016 vote, but has received less attention since.”


This reduction in perceived discrimination of EU migrants is mirrored by data on UK public attitudes to immigration in another newly updated Migration Observatory briefing, which shows a sharp fall in public concerns about immigration since the EU referendum.