Opposition to immigration remains widespread among members of the British public. Over the past few years, opinion polls have consistently found – and the survey commissioned for this study confirms – that a large majority of adults living in Britain would like to see immigration reduced. These preferences tend to be both strong (more people prefer to reduce immigration “a lot” than “a little”) and salient (immigration has been among the five most named issues in monthly polls for most of the 2000’s, in Ipsos-MORI’s issues index.) This is true in absolute terms and in comparison with similar immigrant-receiving countries in Europe and North American (Transatlantic Trends 2011).
This report explores two key questions that are rarely asked but are fundamental to understanding public attitudes to immigration and to debating their policy implications. First, when members of the public are thinking about “immigrants,” who do they have in mind? For example, do they have mainly in mind students, workers, family members, or asylum seekers? Are they thinking more often about temporary or permanent workers? Legal or illegal immigrants?
Second, while we know that there is widespread support for reducing the number of immigrants coming to Britain, we do not know if this preference applies across-the-board to all types of immigration or if it differs for specific groups of immigrants? If the latter, how do members of the public distinguish between various types of immigrants? Where is opposition most focused? Which types of immigration are relatively likely to be tolerated or positively encouraged?
Neither of these two basic questions has been subject to systematic research. On the first question, there has been some cursory attention to the problem that survey respondents will understand “immigration” in different ways. Some surveys have defined immigrants more precisely as, for example, people “who come here to settle” (National Centre for Social Research 2003). More often, however, polls and surveys leave respondents to define “immigrants” implicitly however they choose, and express opinions toward whatever group or groups of people come to mind when thinking about “immigrants.”
On the second question, again only limited prior research examines whether public preferences apply equally to all types of immigrants, or if public opinion distinguishes between different groups of immigrants. Ford (2011) has shown the level of opposition to immigration is different for different sub-groups of immigrants, differentiated by region of origin, in surveys from 1983-1996. Other distinctions between groups of immigrants seem to matter for public opinion as well, but this has been explored only in limited ways. For example, occupation: Public opinion seems supportive of immigration among doctors and nurses (Transatlantic Trends 2011) whereas opposition to low-skilled labour immigration is widespread cross-nationally (e.g. Hainmueller and Hiscox 2010).
The two questions analysed in this report are highly relevant to public and policy debates about immigration. To interpret public attitudes toward immigration accurately, it is important ask to what extent public perceptions of “who is an immigrant” match up with the definition used in official statistics on migration (e.g. in measuring immigration, emigration and net-migration) and in policy-making. If there is a mismatch – an open empirical question explored in this report – immigration policy may be acting on a different group of people than “immigrants” as most members of the public think of the term. Moreover, if given the opportunity, members of the public might be able to express more nuanced preferences to policy-makers.
Public attitudes to immigration have clearly been a focal point in public debates about immigration policy during the past decade. However, to what extent public opinion and public policy affect each other is an empirical question. It cannot be assumed that policy follows public opinion. There is also disagreement about the extent to which and how public opinion should affect policy. This report does not take a position on whether and how immigration policy should respond to public opinion. Its purposes are to provide new data and analysis and to discuss what these data may add to debates about policy, rather than to argue that specific policies should follow from public opinion.
Furthermore, the report focuses on more thoroughly understanding and describing public perceptions of immigrants and attitudes toward specific groups of immigrants. It does not aim to explain the reasons why people have certain attitudes, or why some hold different attitudes to others. The Migration Observatory plans to explore the drivers of public attitudes – which are the subject of a large academic literature - in future work.
To address the two research questions, we commissioned Ipsos MORI, one of Britain’s best-known polling firms, to administer our survey on a representative sample of the population. The ten survey questions and survey responses are given in Appendix A. The survey methodology is described in detail in Appendix B. In brief, the sample included 1,002 interviews with people aged 15+ in Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland). Fieldwork took place between 2-8 September 2011. Interviews were conducted face-to-face rather than over the telephone or via the internet. This ensured the highest quality sample possible, and also that respondents would be able to see all the possible choices they could give in response to our questions, rather than having to remember and repeat answers from a list of responses read to them over the telephone.
As an additional safeguard to ensure reliability and representativeness, a standard, frequently asked question about immigration levels was included at the beginning of the survey: “Do you think the number of immigrants coming to Britain nowadays should be increased, reduced, or should it remain the same?” This wording was borrowed from the Government’s Citizenship Survey. This question was placed first, so that the thoughts called to mind by questions about specific types of immigrants would not spill over and influence responses to this baseline question. (The rest of the survey was placed after several other organisations’ modules on Ipsos MORI’s omnibus weekly survey. None of the questions of other organisations were related to immigration.)
As shown in Figure 1 below, the results show that our sample of respondents was roughly in line with previous research when it comes to overall attitudes toward immigration. 69% of respondents prefer to see immigration reduced, a finding that is comparable to other recent polls and surveys as summarised in Appendix C.