UK Public Opinion toward Immigration: Overall Attitudes and Level of Concern

3rd July 2014
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This briefing provides an overview of attitudes toward immigration in Britain. The discussion focuses on two basic questions: whether or not people favour or oppose immigration to the UK, and how many see it as one of the most important issues facing the country.

For September 2011 data on public opinion see our report Thinking Behind the Numbers. For October 2013 data on public opinion in Scotland with comparisons to England and Wales see our new report Immigration and Independence.

Key points:

  • General reactions to immigration can be examined by using public opinion data, but such responses may be based in part upon confusion about categories of migrants both among the public and in the questions they are asked.
  • Approximately ¾ of people in Britain favour reducing immigration.
  • Large majorities in Britain have been opposed to immigration since at least the 1960s.
  • Immigration is currently highly salient: over the past 15 years it has become one of the most commonly chosen 'most important issues'.
  • Attitudes to immigration vary for different migration types.

Understanding the evidence

Asking people about their views on immigration raises a host of issues. For one, definitions and categories are a particular problem - with confusion likely among both individual respondents and survey organizations. Many important issues depend greatly on definitions of who is a migrant. For example, policies often refer to subsets of migrants who have taken a particular path of entry into the country. For example, those who come to the UK with job offers might be treated differently by government policy.
The data come from polls and surveys of representative samples of the adults in Great Britain or the UK, conducted by professional polling firms, academic survey organizations, NGOs, and in one case the British government. This briefing relies in particular on the British Social Attitudes, a long-running high-quality survey run by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), which included modules in 2011 and 2013 with many detailed new questions about immigration.
When conducted according to accepted professional standards, polls and surveys are reliable as snapshots of public opinion, at least for the questions that pollsters or academics choose to pose to the public. But interpreting them always requires care and caution, for they have important limitations and flaws.

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Immigration is generally unpopular

Despite uncertainties involved in measuring and interpreting public opinion, the evidence clearly shows high levels of opposition to immigration in the UK. In recent surveys, majorities of respondents think that there are too many migrants in the UK, that fewer migrants should be let in to the country, and that legal restrictions on immigration should be tighter.

Figure 1 shows that large majorities in the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey endorsed reducing immigration. Indeed, over 56% chose 'reduced a lot', while 77% chose either 'reduced a lot' or 'reduced a little'. The same question yielded similar results on the British Social Attitudes survey in 2008, adding confidence that these are reliable estimates. Other questions asking for general evaluations of immigration show similarly high levels of opposition. In recent surveys, large majorities of respondents also say that there are already too many immigrants in the UK.

Figure 1

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Preference for reduction is not new

Opposition to the arrival of immigrants in the UK is far from new. Rising concern about 'New Commonwealth' immigration prompted the British Election Study (BES) to begin questioning the public about immigration as far back as 1964 - in those early years refraining from posing the question to 'coloured' respondents. From the beginning, the overwhelming majority of people in Britain have agreed that there are too many immigrants in the UK.

Figure 2

Note: Changes in question wording mean that this graph does not reliably demonstrate a downward trend, despite how it may appear.

Figure 2 shows that majorities of the British public continue to view immigration as too high. However, the trend line in the figure should not be taken as evidence of a decrease over time in this view, or of dramatic changes in 1983 or 2000, as these are quite likely attributable to changes in question-wording and to the response options given to respondents. The beginning of a slight downward trend seen in Figure 2 coincides with a shift from the initial BES question asking if there are too many immigrants in Britain to a different question asking if immigration has 'gone too far'. This includes a one-time change in 1983 which inverted and further specified the question, asking if 'cutting Commonwealth immigration' had 'gone too far'. (For 1983, Figure 2 depicts the combination of two responses that express a preference for less immigration: that cutting immigration has been 'about right' [44%] or 'has not gone far enough' [33%]) The series then returns to an Ipsos MORI question similar to the initial BES question, but allowing respondents to more freely choose 'neither agree nor disagree' (1994-1999) or 'don’t know', which may help account for the lower percentages who say 'too many'.

(More precisely, the BES question was 'branching', asking first a yes or no question about whether there are too many migrants and then a follow-up question assessing the strength of that opinion, while Ipsos MORI’s was a single question with response options arrayed on a 5-point scale from 'strongly agree' to 'strongly disagree'. Also, Ipsos MORI allowed a 'neither' response in some years but not others. Thus Ipsos MORI’s versions allowed more respondents to opt out of the question, depressing opposition to immigration but also depressing assent to immigration.)

The changes wrought by question-wording and response options suggest the need for healthy scepticism for any single polling result, as even seemingly minor differences can noticeably influence results. Indeed, the relatively low anti-immigration sentiment in 1999 resulted from an unusual number of respondents choosing 'don’t know' (13%), which in turn seemed to lead Ipsos MORI to re-introduce the 'neither agree nor disagree' option. (It is not clear why the 2001 response was similar to 1999.)

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Among the 'most important issues'

While negative views of immigration have been common for a long time, the high level of public concern with immigration is more recent. Pollsters and scholars commonly assess levels of public concern by asking people to name the 'most important issue' or 'issues' facing the nation. Again, it is important to be aware of the assumptions and definitions underlying the data.

Ipsos MORI conducts a monthly poll asking respondents first to name the most important issue, and after they reply they are asked to name any 'other important issues'. Respondents are not prompted with particular issues; they simply reply with whatever comes to mind. Ipsos MORI then takes each response and assigns it to one of 47 categories (see our data section for the full list). Ipsos MORI then reports how many respondents chose each of these categories, for each monthly sample. While it is possible that the coding involves some error or at least uncertainly, the Ipsos MORI results appear reliable (Jennings and Wlezien 2009). Their coding scheme does, however, combine 'race relations' with 'immigration' and 'immigrants', making it impossible to isolate public concern over immigration in particular. With the rise of European immigration, the conflation of race with immigration may be becoming more of a problem for this data set.

Despite this limitation, Ipsos MORI’s 'most important issues' index convincingly shows the rise of the race/immigration category from a marginal concern of a small minority to one of the few most-frequently named issues. Similar patterns emerge in polling over shorter time spans by other polling firms, including Gallup and YouGov.

Immigration and race relations were rarely mentioned by respondents as one of the 'most important issues' facing the country prior to 2000. As recently as December 1999, fewer than 5% of Ipsos MORI’s monthly sample gave a reply that had to do with race relations or immigration. But since then, immigration has become one of the most frequently named issues.

At its peak in December 2007, 46% of respondents named race relations or immigration among the most important issues. Figure 3 tracks the percentage of respondents naming race relations or immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain, along with the rest of the five most frequently named issues as of May 2014. (Other issues are presented as six-month moving averages to make the chart easier to interpret visually.) Immigration ranks consistently among the top four issues, and at the present time of writing ranks second, just below the economy and ahead of unemployment. (Immigration dropped out of the top five issues briefly in April 2011 but returned to prior levels in the next month.) The economy has ranked first since 2008, but trailed race relations & immigration until mid-2008.

Figure 3

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UK: More opposition to migration than in Europe and North America

An international comparison shows that concern about immigration is particularly widespread and intense in the UK. Public opinion in other comparable European and North American countries is not as strongly opposed to immigration, even when measured by the same questions within the same cross-national survey (Transatlantic Trends 2010).

People in Britain are more likely than the people of other nations to view immigration negatively - to see immigration as a problem rather than an opportunity, and to view the immigrant population as already too large. In most comparable countries polled, it is more common than in Britain to view the number of migrants as 'a lot, but not too many'.

In other words, even among people who perceive the number of migrants in their country as large, people in Britain are more likely than others to evaluate this as 'too many'. Immigration is also more often viewed as a salient and pressing political problem in Britain than elsewhere. More people in Britain than in several comparable countries rank immigration as the single most important issue facing their country, and more claim that parties’ positions on immigration will influence their vote.

Figure 4

Figure 5

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More popular migrants: skilled workers, neighbours

Despite the clear opposition to overall immigration, more specific polling questions reveal that attitudes depend on the type of immigrant in question. A 2011 Migration Observatory/IpsosMORI study found that attitudes toward low-skilled labour migrants, extended family members, and asylum seekers were much more negative than attitudes to high-skilled migrants, students, and close family members, and this general pattern was found again in a Migration Observatory/YouGov study, in both Scotland and England/Wales. A 2010 survey found that 72% supported admitting more doctors and nurses from other countries to cope with increasing health care demands, while 51% supported admitting more care workers to help the burdens of an aging population (Transatlantic Trends 2010).

In 2013, the British Social Attitudes survey asked about the costs and benefits of different types of migration: students, spouses, and labour migrants from within and outside the EU. As in previous findings, students were the least negatively-viewed. Similar proportions of respondents saying that they are a net positive for Britain as said that they are a net negative. Labour migrants were more likely to be seen as a net negative, and were viewed similarly whether from within or outside the EU. Finally, spousal reunion migrants were the most negatively viewed by this measure, with 14% seeing them as bringing more benefit than cost, against 57% seeing such migrants as bringing more cost than benefit.

Figure 6

Note that the finding on spousal reunion diverges from Migration Observatory findings, but in a way that may be explained by the question at hand. Observatory surveys have asked whether migration of spouses and partners should be increased, reduced, or kept the same, and found that only a minority supported reductions. This does not necessarily mean that such migration is seen as beneficial for Britain; some respondents may feel that migration of spouses carries costs but should be permitted nonetheless.

Aside from students and high-skilled migrants, those living in one’s own neighbourhood seem the most popular with the British public - or the least negatively - regarded. In something of a paradox, while vast majorities view migration as harmful to Britain, few claim that their own neighbourhood is having problems due to migrants. Apparently, much of the opposition to migration comes from general concerns about Britain as a whole rather than from direct, negative experiences in one’s own community.

For example, in an Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by the Sun newspaper in 2007 only 15% said that migrants are causing problems in their own neighbourhood, while 69% said that migrants were not having a strong local impact, either good or bad (Ipsos MORI 2007). This finding is even more convincing given that the question defined immigrants as “refer[ing] to both illegal and legal immigrants, from the EU or somewhere else". On a related note, the Citizenship Survey 2008-2009 finds that approximately 85% report that in their local area, people of diverse backgrounds get along well. Moreover, residents of London, where migrants are most heavily concentrated by far, are less likely than residents of other regions to favour sharp reductions in migration to the UK. This finding holds even for white UK-born Londoners. More recently, the 2013 BSA found that London residence and friendships with migrants are strongly correlated with a view of migration as having a positive impact on Britain, both economically and culturally (Ford and Heath 2013).

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Evidence gaps and limitations

The lack of one consistent definition of who constitutes a ‘migrant’ is a significant problem, making it a challenge to get a realistic understanding of public opinion.

For example, one important data source - the Ipsos MORI poll asking people’s views on the 'most important issues' facing Britain - is often cited as evidence of the rise of immigration as a key issue for the public. Yet their results combine 'immigration' with 'race relations' into a single category; this evidence is still useful, but cannot isolate the importance of immigration from related but distinct issues involving race relations, such as community cohesion.

In another example, the British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) sought to help its respondents to its special 2003 module on immigration by providing a definition of 'immigrant' as 'people who come to Britain to settle'. This conflicts with UN or the UK government definitions. Widely reported UK statistics on immigration usually count a migrant as anyone who comes to Britain for at least 12 months - a much larger number of people than the group that the BSA explicitly defines as 'immigrants'.

Gaps remain in the evidence base simply at the level of describing as opposed to explaining public attitudes toward migration. As noted above, most of the evidence base comes from questions about 'immigrants' or 'immigration', terms which are defined vaguely or not at all. Therefore the evidence base records responses to immigration however each survey respondent understands and envisions it (Blinder 2013). While official government statistics on net migration are based on a specific definition - anyone who comes to the UK to stay for at least one year qualifies as a 'long-term international migrant' - it is not clear that many members of the public distinguish migrants accurately from others such as short-term visitors, naturalised British citizens, 'second generation migrants' (children of migrants who themselves are actually native-born British), and ethnic or religious minorities generally. In a media environment that often conflates categories such as refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants (Baker et al. 2008), there is a danger that survey respondents’ expressed opinions are based on an image of immigration that highlights only a subset of the full array of migrants to the UK.

Besides definitional questions, there is little polling assessing information - and misinformation - that members of the public possess. A 2009 BSA item found that the typical survey respondent overestimated 'non-western' migrants as 25% of the UK population, when the full (western and non-western) foreign-born population is actually only about 11%. But even this basic level of information is rarely assessed in polls. In addition, knowledge of policies and trends is not always widespread. The 2013 BSA module asked several factual questions about immigration policies and trends, and found that less than half of respondents were aware of the much-publicised numerical 'cap' on skilled non-EU labour migration (45% said it was true that there is a limit on work permits to migrants from outside the EU, and that these permits are reserved for those with qualifications and English language skills). A large majority (84%) also thought that more people applied for asylum in Britain in 2013 than ten years ago, which is not true. On the other hand, 81% answered correctly that migrants from Eastern European countries in the EU may legally come to Britain to work.

The knowledge questions thus indicate that many members of the public are not aware of facts about migration trends and policies. This is not surprising, given that members of the public are often not well-versed in the details of policy in any area, nor should they be expected to be policy experts. Nonetheless, it indicates that the evidence base from surveys and polls is most useful as a sense of how people respond to 'immigration' when talked about in general, categorical terms. The evidence is less useful as a guide to public preferences for particular policies, or in most cases to public attitudes about particular categories of migrants.

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  • Baker, Paul, Costas Gabrielatos, Majid Khosravinik, Michał Krzyżanowski, Tony McEnery, and Ruth Wodak. “A Useful Methodological Synergy? Combining Critical Discourse Analysis and Corpus Linguistics to Examine Discourses of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the UK press.” Discourse & Society 19 (2008): 273-306.
  • Ford, Robert and Anthony Heath. “Immigration: A Nation Divided?” In British Social Attitudes 31. Edited by Alison Park, John Curtic eand Caroline Bryson. NatCen Social Research, London, 2014.
  • Jennings, Will, and Christopher Wlezien. “Distinguishing Important Issues and Problems.” Paper presented at the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties Annual Conference at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 28-30 August 2009.
  • TransatlanticTrends. "Immigration: Key Findings." German Marshall Fund, Washington DC, 2013.

Further Readings

  • Abrams, Dominic, and Diane M. Houston. “Equality, Diversity and Prejudice in Britain: Results from the 2005 National Survey: Report for the Cabinet Office Equalities Review October 2006.” Project Report, DTI London, 2006.
  • Hainmueller,  Jens and Daniel J. Hopkins. "Public Attitudes Toward Immigration." Annual Review of Political Science 17, no. 1 (2014).
  • Page, Ben. “British Attitudes to Immigration in the 21st Century.” In Migration, Public Opinion, and Politics. Edited by the Migration Policy Institute and Bertelsmann Siftung, 2009.

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