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.
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:
Public preferences for reducing migration:
Thinking Behind the Numbers: Understanding Public Opinion on Immigration in Britain
Migration Observatory Report | Oct 2011