New report paints stark picture of prejudice in UK

Migrants and minorities: Britain’s pride and prejudice

By Mariña Fernández-Reino

The UK has been one of the world's top destination countries for migrants for much of the last century. As a result, the UK is a vibrant, multi-ethnic country where an important share of the population was either born abroad or has migrant parents or grandparents.

While many of the outcomes of this demographic change – from British reggae, the legendary Birmingham Balti and the writings of Salman Rushdie – are celebrated, diversity in the UK has also been met with prejudice. The Migration Observatory's new briefing on Migrants and Discrimination in the UK considers what factors affect whether people feel discriminated against, and how this compares to high-income EU countries.

The UK has a long track record of dealing with xenophobic and racial prejudice. In 1965, the British parliament passed the first Race Relations Act to protect newly arrived migrants from South Asia and the Caribbean from discrimination. Britain was one of the first countries to pass anti-discrimination laws and still has one of the most favourable anti-discrimination policies in Europe according to the Migrant Integration Policy Index.

However, as in other Western countries, discrimination is still a reality in many areas of life. Recent investigations of employers' recruiting practices, for example, have shown that ethnic minorities are in fact less likely to be hired than comparable white British workers. 

Migrants can be discriminated against for multiple reasons, some of which are shared with ethnic minorities, like ethnicity, skin colour or religion. Others are migrant-specific, like having a foreign accent or foreign qualifications. It is difficult to unpick the factors driving discrimination, but past research has generally identified ethnicity, rather than being foreign born, as the main factor shaping whether people face discriminatory behaviour.

This is consistent with the findings from our new analysis, which shows that non-EU born migrants  have been more likely to feel that they are part of a group that is discriminated against compared to the EU born, who are mostly white. However, one of the main findings of our new analysis is the temporary increase in perceptions of discrimination among the EU born population during the time of the EU Referendum in 2016. This more than doubled compared to levels seen both before (2010-12) and after (2018).

These findings are in line with the body of literature showing that political rhetoric and media debate can shape people’s attitudes towards a certain group or topic, even if the effects can be short lived. 

Migrants' perceptions of group discrimination in the UK are similar to the EU-14 average, but Britain stands out in the higher levels of discrimination reported by adult children of migrants who were born in the UK.

The reasons why children of migrants in the UK are more likely than migrants themselves to feel that people with their background face discrimination are complex and not solely explained by differences in the ethnic composition between the two groups.

One plausible explanation for this phenomenon is that migrants may compare their experience to their life back in their country of origin and to their fellow country citizens who did not migrate, feeling that they have benefited from moving, even if they still face some disadvantages. This is not the case for their children, who were born and raised in the UK and are in most cases UK citizens. Children of migrants may be more likely to see inequalities through the lens of discrimination than the foreign-born population because they expect to be treated as the white British population.

Despite all of this, however, Britain remains both attractive and broadly welcoming to migrants, with almost three quarters thinking that the UK is hospitable and welcoming to people from their country and more than 90% believing that the UK is a place where they can get ahead if they work hard.

Mariña Fernández-Reino is a researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

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