What do we really think about migration?

Published 18 October 2011 / By Rob McNeil

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The Migration Observatory recently published a new report focussing on the British public’s real views on immigration. The report is based on a survey of 1,000 people, designed by the Migration Observatory and carried out by Ipsos MORI from 2-8 September 2011.

The survey questions were designed to address two key issues: First, who do people have in mind when thinking and answering questions about “immigrants”? Second, do people’s views about reducing, increasing or maintaining the number of immigrants coming to the UK vary across specific groups of immigrants?

Like many previous surveys, the report shows that public opinion in Britain clearly favours a reduction in the number of immigrants coming to Britain. However, the survey questions teased out a more nuanced view of people’s impressions of immigration. For example, when thinking about immigrants, respondents were most likely to think of asylum seekers (62%) and least likely to think of students (29%). Yet in current official statistics, students represent the largest group of immigrants coming to the UK (37% of 2009 immigrant arrivals) while asylum seekers are the smallest group (4% in 2009).

This highlights the difficult balancing act faced by Government in delivering what the public wants on immigration: A clear majority of people in Britain would like to see an overall reduction in immigration, but cuts to the largest group (students) does not appear to be a priority, where cuts to the smallest group (asylum seekers) does.

The report also found that low-skilled workers and asylum seekers were among the most popular targets for reductions to immigration in the survey results. But effectively all low-skilled labour migration to the UK comes from within the EU, thus limiting government control. Regarding asylum, Britain (like most nations) has signed international conventions on the treatment of refugees and cannot turn away those seeking asylum without first determining the validity of their claim.

The report’s lead author - public opinion specialist Dr Scott Blinder, Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at Oxford University - said: “Blunt questions about whether the British public supports or opposes immigration in general do not capture the complexities of many people’s real views, and are not nearly fine-grained enough to give policy-makers a real understanding of what a majority of the public wants.

“What this report shows very clearly is that the Government is stuck between a rock and a hard-place. A clear majority of people in Britain would like immigration reduced, but they want the cuts to come from specific groups of immigrants, and these are often groups over whom the Government has limited direct control, and sometimes groups that are comparatively small in number.”

For more information about the report, visit the Migration Observatory and for a background on public opinion, read Scott Blinder’s blog "British Attitudes to Migration"