Attitudes towards immigration in Latvian society

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This research explores attitudes towards immigration in Latvian society and uses experimental approach to identify factors that influence these attitudes. The research findings will be a useful resource for policymakers, as well as for civil society at large.

The fieldwork, administered by the market research company Norstat Latvija, was conducted in June 2021 by using Computer Assisted Web Interviews with 5,803 respondents. The survey contained two parts. In the beginning, all respondents were asked general questions about immigration, identity, and political behaviour. This part of the survey outlines the sociocultural context of immigration in Latvia. It is followed by an experimental section where every respondent was randomly assigned to either control group or one of five treatment groups. Respondents in treatment groups were exposed to textual vignettes emphasizing different aspects of immigration:

  1. economic,
  2. return migration,
  3. multiculturalism,
  4. assimilation,
  5. humanitarian.

The control group maintained neutral conditions as it was not exposed to any of vignettes. After the vignette treatment, respondents were asked identical questions about their attitudes towards migrants both in general and from specific countries, as well as about the preferred future immigration policy in Latvia. The experimental design of this study yields deeper insights into how various immigration frames can condition and differentiate a societal attitude towards immigration and particular policy claims.

The findings of this study show that ethnic diversity is part of everyday life for many Latvians. However, historical experience with immigrants and the density of multilingual and multicultural environment marks a difference in social attitudes towards immigration policy. Unlike the residents of small towns and rural areas where ethnic fragmentation is much lower and ethnic Latvians predominate, the residents of the largest cities are more open to immigration. Overall, however, the attitude of Latvian society towards immigration evolves around certain hierarchy in which the geographical and cultural proximity of sending country plays a pivotal role, i.e. the closer the country, the more open attitude towards the immigrants from this country and vice versa.

Although a relatively small part of Latvia’s electorate is concerned with the immigration issue prejudices about immigrants can appeal to a much wider audience. Immigration is often seen as a threat, and any group of immigrants, even from the closest countries, are treated with caution. In addition, many Latvians tend to support a strict and conservative immigration policy that shall prioritize local workforce over foreigners. Notably, such attitudes are more common among ethnic Latvians and older age groups.

At the same time, Latvians sympathize with pragmatic and meritocratic arguments related to immigration. According to this study, professional qualifications, skills, and the ability to integrate into Latvian society are often seen as more important characteristics of preferred immigrants than religious affiliation or skin colour. However, ethnic Latvians tend to attach more importance to cultural criteria, especially knowledge of the Latvian language. In general, Latvian society shows a rather strong consensual view of social inclusion, suggesting that immigrants can preserve their culture, but they must also accept the local culture and respect the local way of life. Most Latvians also consider that the welfare benefits, such as health care, should be equally granted to immigrants.

Experimental data from this study reveal that economic, return migration, and humanitarian arguments have the greatest potential to shift attitudes towards immigration among Latvians. However, such changes can lead to either more liberal or more conservative attitudes, depending on particular aspects of immigration that were exacerbated in the vignette treatment. For instance, emphasizing the role of immigrants in the context of positive economic growth increases public support for skilled immigrants. The economic vignette is also able to challenge the perception of immigrants as a security threat. On the other hand, economic arguments that ignore the needs of Latvian workforce may increase rather than weaken support for labour market protectionism. By the same token, the return migration vignette increases opposition to a more liberal immigration policy, especially with respect to geographically and culturally distant countries. This, among other things, suggests that the idea of return migration as a solution to labour shortage is deeply rooted in Latvian public opinion.

According to this study, the humanitarian vignette that emphasizes global responsibility for immigration does not provoke cosmopolitan empathy and support for immigration. In fact, an opposite effect is more likely to be observed, i.e. Latvians’ support for a stricter immigration policy and even increasingly demonizing attitudes towards immigrants. Hence, the discourse of asylum seekers remains a highly contentious issue provoking a strong opposition in Latvian society. Meanwhile, the vignettes of multiculturalism and assimilation have demonstrated a weak impact. The only significant effect can be observed in terms of characteristics that define the category of preferred immigrants. Namely, conviviality and positive interaction with immigrants or the ability of immigrants and their descendants to identify with Latvia and integrate fully into the local community increases Latvians’ sympathy for immigrants from religiously and ethnically similar countries.

The study was supervised by the Social Relations Research Centre in cooperation with the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the University of Latvia. The study was financially supported by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Latvia.

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