Imagined Immigration: The Different Meanings of “Immigrants” in Public Opinion and Policy Debates in Britain 2011 - 2012


This project aimed to build a more detailed understanding of public attitudes in Britain towards immigration. For half a century opinion polls have consistently shown that the British public is in favour of a reduction in immigration. But answers to basic questions about people’s preferences for reducing, increasing or maintaining prevailing levels of immigration provide only a very partial understanding of the British population’s views on this issue.

In September 2011, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford commissioned polling firm Ipsos MORI to ask a series of questions about immigration and immigrants to a representative sample of adults living in Britain. Although the poll supported previous findings that a large majority of people in Britain favour cuts in immigration, it also found that the public’s views on immigration are complex and nuanced in a way that previous polls have failed to capture, and that these views vary substantially depending on which immigrant groups the public is considering. UK policy-makers clearly pay attention to public attitudes to immigration. Government impact assessments for changes to labour and student immigration policy, for example, list public concern about immigration and confidence in the immigration system among the benefits of new policies. In light of this, the survey results have important implications for public policy debates about immigration in the UK.

Principal Investigator

Scott Blinder

News & Media

British Attitudes to Immigration
Blog | COMPAS Communications

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Blog | Rob McNeil




PoliciesPoliticsPublic Opinion





The primary data in the study came from an original survey conducted by the polling firm Ipsos MORI from 2-8 September 2011. The survey was administered to a sample of 1002 participants in Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales). Participants were selected by quota sampling (within small randomly-selected geographical areas) to create a representative sample of the population (age 15 and up) of the Britain. They were interviewed face-to-face using laptop computers, so that respondents could read long lists of response options rather than having to remember them. Results were weighted by age, sex, social grade, region, housing tenure, ethnicity and working status to further refine the match between the sample and the British population. Some elements of the analysis also use data from government statistics on immigration flows from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

Several variations of one basic question operationalized the “imagined immigration” construct. The basic question asked respondents which sorts of groups they normally had in mind when thinking about immigrants. Each respondent received three different versions of this question, with substantively different sets of response options. In each case, respondents were instructed to choose as many options as they liked. The first iteration offered choices that varied birthplace and citizenship (e.g. non-EU citizens; British citizens born abroad; naturalized British citizens; British-born children of non-British citizens). A second item varied newcomers’ length of stay in Britain, allowing respondents to choose permanent immigrants and/or temporary arrivals staying in Britain for more than five years, one to five years, or less than one year. The third item asked about the four main reasons for migration: work, study, family, and asylum. Taken together, then, each respondent indicated a conception of who immigrants are, along dimensions of citizenship, birthplace, length of stay, and reason for migrating.


Perceptions of Migrants:

  • When thinking about immigrants, respondents were most likely to think of asylum seekers (62%) and least likely to think of students (29%). In current official (ONS) 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).
  • Respondents tended to think of immigrants as those who come to the UK permanently (62%) rather than those who come to stay temporarily (fewer than 30%). This differs from the internationally-agreed definition used for official UK statistics, which classifies anyone who comes to the UK for more than a year as a long-term migrant.
  • When thinking about immigrants, people in Britain most commonly think about foreign citizens – 62% normally think about non-EU citizens and 51% about EU citizens (excl. British) – rather than people who were born abroad and acquired British citizenship after moving to the UK (40%). Very low proportions of the public have in mind British citizens moving (11%) or returning (7%) to the UK. Similarly, few people normally have in mind the UK-born children of immigrants to Britain (12%).

Public preferences for reducing migration:

  • In line with previous polls our findings showed that about seven in ten members of the British public (69%) support reduced immigration.
  • Among respondents who want immigration reduced overall, 54% said that they would like reductions either “only” (28%) or “mostly” (26%) among illegal immigrants, while just over a third (35%) supported reductions equally among legal and illegal immigrants.
  • There is widespread agreement on reducing illegal immigration – even among those who do not express a preference for reducing overall immigration 60% support reducing illegal immigration while only 12% do not.
  • There is more support for reducing permanent immigration (57%) than temporary immigration (47%).
  • There is majority support for reducing immigration of low-skilled workers (64%), extended family members (58%), and asylum seekers (56%).
  • There is minority support for reducing immigration of high-skilled workers (32%), immediate family members (41%), and students (31% for university students; 32% for further education students; and 33% English language students).