Anti-Immigrant Prejudice in Central and Eastern Europe


Key Findings

  • Immigration is becoming an increasingly prevalent phenomenon in Central and Eastern Europe as rising pensioner populations place higher demands on diminishing workforces. While these countries are unlikely to see a mass influx of migrants anytime soon, people who live in poorer parts of the world increasingly view the CEE region as an attractive destination, much as Western and Southern European countries became immigrant targets in the period following World War II. The question of CEE immigration is becoming more important from both an economic and political standpoint.
  • The countries in this study – grouped together for this report as the CEE8 – are already showing small immigration surpluses except for Romania, Bulgaria and Poland, according to Eurostat data. In other words, more people are arriving than leaving. Anti-immigrant prejudice and welfare chauvinism is high in the CEE even though the percentage of foreign-born residents is but a fraction of foreign-born resident rates in Western Europe. Political Capital's Demand for Right-Wing Extremism (DEREX) Index shows that more than 30% of people in every CEE8 country oppose immigration (except in Poland and Slovenia). The most anti-immigrant country is Hungary, where 52% of the people reject newcomers.
  • CEE's anti-immigrant sentiment is not based on negative experiences with foreigners, but on fear of the unknown. Societal prejudice against foreign-born residents may also be fueled by news reports about the ethnic and cultural tensions that have broken out in Western Europe in areas with large immigrant numbers.
  • Strict immigration rules on their own cannot halt the inflow of migrants when companies are facing labor shortages. CEE8 governments have not yet acknowledged this fact. Political leaders are currently doing little to address anti-immigrant prejudice; instead, they try to make political capital from the problem.


Countries that were once sources of immigrants are now destinations


Although the global financial crisis has slowed the pace of international migration, certain CEE countries are on their way to becoming destination countries for immigrants – especially countries that are already joined the European Union. The chief reason is demographics: In societies with growing pensioner populations, immigration is the only way to solve the structural shortage of workers and the challenge of supporting the elderly. This can pose a long-term risk: If societies are unprepared to accept newcomers, immigration can spur ethnic and cultural conflict. This is already happening in Western and Southern European states that went from being emigrant nations to immigrant destinations in the second half of the 20th century.


Migration will soon become a hot item of political debate in the CEE. Slovakia's new interior minister has already pledged to tighten immigration rules and Hungary is preparing to take up the issue this autumn. Immigrants were also a campaign theme during this year's parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic. Still, it appears none of the region's governments want to face the facts: With elderly populations rising and the numbers of working-age people declining, companies will need a new source of labor. That means immigration will grow regardless of whether the law permits it or not. Administrations will face chaos unless they take steps to fight prejudice and facilitate integration. From this standpoint, Hungary, Croatia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria face the greatest challenges, since immigration will be the only way for these countries to sustain their population levels.



Not just "how many?" but "who?"


Survey data shows that people are less opposed to immigrants who are members of the same ethnic group as themselves. Rejection levels in all CEE8 countries were higher toward "outsiders" (migrants who are ethnically different from the national majority). The difference is especially stark in Hungary: On a four-point scale, Hungarians' antipathy toward all immigrants is nearly one point higher than it is toward ethnic-Hungarian immigrants. Hungarians would accept "a good number" of their ethnic kinfolk from other countries, while only allowing "a few" non-Hungarian migrants to settle.


To what extent should foreigners be allowed to settle in your country?


Of all CEE8 countries, Hungary is the most hostile toward ethnically dissimilar immigrants. Nearly one third of adults older than 15 say they would not allow non-Hungarian migrants to settle at all. Czechs also dislike newcomers. Croats, Poles and Bulgarians are the most open to immigration.


Economic fears outweigh cultural fears in CEE


Anti-immigrant prejudice generally has two main sources: Economic anxiety (fear of losing one's job) and cultural anxiety (fear of immigration's impact on the national way of life or aversion to unfamiliar customs and religions). In the CEE8, the economic component of anti-immigrant sentiment far outweighs the cultural component. These feelings are clearly rooted in fear of the unknown: Attitudes cannot be based upon actual experiences with immigrants because the number of foreign-born people living in CEE countries is still tiny.


Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians regard immigration's economic and cultural impacts most positively among the CEE8. This may be related to the fact that a high number of people from these three countries have gone abroad to find work. In other words, they themselves may have been subject to economic- and cultural-based prejudice in Western and Southern Europe.


Are immigrants helpful or harmful?

Czechs show the greatest degree of cultural aversion to immigrants, but also take a dim view of immigration's economic impacts.


Hungarians show the greatest aversion to immigrants’ economic impact. This is not surprising: Hungarians traditionally have a strong fear of unemployment. People are therefore more wary about how immigration affects the economy than how it affects culture.


Strong welfare chauvinism


Migrants who take jobs in destination countries enrich the national economy by paying taxes and social-security contributions, as long as they are legally employed. In principle, they should therefore be entitled to similar state services and social-welfare benefits as native-born workers. But in practice, state administrations are reluctant to grant these rights to immigrants. This attitude is rooted in "welfare chauvinism" – the majority population tries to exclude minority groups (including immigrants) from the state redistribution of wealth.


Welfare chauvinism is strong across the CEE region. Some 60% of Hungarian adults say immigrants should not be entitled to kinds of benefits that native-born workers receive, or only after they become citizens. Welfare chauvinism is also prevalent in the Czech Republic and Slovenia.


When should people who immigrate to our country be entitled to the same social benefits and services as native-born citizens?


The prevalence of welfare chauvinism is also evident in the fact that a significant portion of CEE8 people think immigrants already receive too many social benefits. Hungarians have the most extreme viewpoint: 9.7% of people think immigrants take “much more” from the system than they contribute. If we look at the entire pool of respondents who think that immigrants take “more” than they contribute (people who answered 0 to 4 on a scale of 0 to 10), welfare chauvinism is strongest in the Czech Republic (50.9%) and Slovakia (49.3%). Romanians are the most liberal on this question.


Do immigrants take more from the social-welfare system than they pay in?

Question: “A lot of people who come to live in [country] from other countries pay taxes and make use of social benefits and services. On balance, do you think people who come to live in [country] receive more than they contribute or contribute more than they receive?”The above graph shows the percentage of people who gave answers between 0 and 4 on an 11-point scale, where zero was “immigrants take much more from the system than they contribute" and 10 was “immigrants contribute much more to the system than they take.”


There is a clear relationship between the question about immigrants’ impact on the economy and the question about their contributions to state social systems. All countries show a positive association (correlation) between the two questions, meaning strong economic anxiety and strong welfare chauvinism go hand in hand. This correlation is strongest in Bulgaria (0.357), the Czech Republic (0.363) and Hungary (0.350).


University graduates are not always more tolerant


A person’s level of anti-immigrant prejudice is usually inversely proportional to his level of education. Poland and, to a lesser degree, the Czech Republic, are exceptions to the rule.  University-educated Czechs and Poles are more likely to harbor anti-immigrant sentiments that their less-educated compatriots. On the whole, Czech graduates feel more negatively toward migrants than their university-educated peers in the other CEE8 countries.


With the exception of university-educated people, Hungary tops every CEE8 list of prejudice toward poor, non-European migrants. People with degrees are the most tolerant segment of Hungarian society vis-á-vis immigrants.




The data below compares attitudes on immigration and immigrants using data from the European Social Survey (ESS)'s  fourth wave (2009) from the following eight countries: Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia.


See the OECD's 2010 report on migration trends,3343,en_2649_33931_45591593_1_1_1_37415,00.html


Political Capital developed the Demand for Right-Wing Extremism Index (DEREX) index using its own theoretical model and data from the  European Social Survey, a biannual examination of values and attitudes in 32 countries in Europe and the Middle East.