LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s high wages and low unemployment, rather than welfare benefits, have been the main economic draw for hundreds of thousands of migrants who moved to the country from southern and eastern European, a study said on Wednesday.
Prime Minister David Cameron insisted on measures to stop newly arrived EU migrants from claiming welfare when he renegotiated Britain’s EU membership terms in February, ahead of a June 23 referendum which could see Britain leave the bloc.
But a study by University of Oxford researchers suggested the welfare changes would not deter migrants from moving to Britain.
“Most migrants are not receiving welfare benefits and even in the absence of benefits, significant pull factors would remain,” the report said.
Opinion polls have put migration at or near the top of British voters’ concerns after the number of eastern Europeans who moved to Britain in recent years proved much higher than originally forecast by the government.
Many Britons argue migrants claim too much welfare, push down wages and worsen shortages of housing and public services. Government and academic studies have found little widespread evidence of this.
Wednesday’s report said EU migrants made up 6 percent of Britain’s working-age population last year, but only accounted for 2 percent of unemployment and disability benefit claims.
However, EU migrants claimed benefits aimed at the low-paid at a higher rate than people born in Britain, reflecting their greater likelihood to work in jobs that pay only a little over the minimum wage. Twelve percent of EU migrants claimed these tax credits, versus 10 percent of British natives.
Plentiful jobs and higher wages than at home were the main economic draw, alongside familiarity with the English language and the possibility of help from existing migrant communities.
The number of EU migrants living in Britain has risen by almost 700,000 in the past four years. Nearly 80 percent of them came from six countries, Poland, Romania, Spain, Italy, Hungary and Portugal.
Adjusted for living costs, average living standards in Britain are 80 percent higher than in Poland, and more than four times higher than in Romania. Unemployment in the southern European countries is more than double the rate in Britain.
Reporting by David Milliken; Editing by Alison Williams