2. Who do people have in mind when they think about immigrants?
The Migration Observatory/Ipsos MORI survey began its set of new questions by asking members of the public which groups they normally think about when they think about “immigrants.” The question of who is an immigrant is more complicated than it might appear. In official statistics, migrants can be defined as foreign-born persons, foreign nationals and/or by length of stay. Official net-migration statistics are based on movement across borders (counting anyone who moves in and out of Britain for at least a year), while surveys tracking migrants in the UK may count anyone of foreign birth or, slightly differently, of foreign nationality. Furthermore, because they include EU nationals and in some cases some British citizens as well, none of these definitions matches with the definition of a migrant in law, as someone subject to Immigration Control. The questions asked respondents how they normally think of immigrants, as opposed to asking them about the definition of the word. The goal was not to quiz people’s knowledge, but rather to learn how people normally think about immigrants (or at least what comes to mind when they are in the context of answering the sort of survey questions that make up “public opinion”).
The survey included three sets of questions about perceptions of immigrants. First were questions of citizenship, ancestry, and birthplace. Do British citizens born abroad figure in public perceptions of migrants? How about children born in Britain to immigrant parents? And does EU citizenship matter, or are EU citizens as likely as other foreign nationals to be thought of as immigrants? A second question set asked about differences between permanent, long-term, and short-term migrants. A third item addressed the prominence of each of the major reasons for migrating—work, study, family, and asylum—in public perceptions of immigrants.
When thinking of immigrants, people in Britain most commonly think of foreign citizens rather than all people born abroad, as Figure 2 shows. When asked to choose which groups of people they would “normally think about” when thinking about “immigrants coming to and living in Britain,” respondents were most likely to choose non-EU citizens (chosen by 62% of our respondents) or EU citizens (51%). (Respondents were allowed to choose as many answers as they liked.)
Less than half of respondents (40%) chose naturalised British citizens. Naturalised citizens count as immigrants under some definitions (birthplace, cross-border movement when they first enter Britain) but not others (nationality, subject to Immigration Control).
Fewer still chose British citizens born abroad to British parents (12%) or British citizens returning from years spent abroad (7%) – though such people are included in net-migration statistics because they have moved across international borders to come to Britain.
Notably, we found similar results when asking about people born in Britain to parents who had come to Britain as foreign nationals. This group was named by 11% of respondents as coming to mind when thinking about immigrants. Members of this category may or may not be foreign nationals, and, depending on their parents’ status, may or may not be subject to Immigration Control, so under some definitions, some would qualify as immigrants. But by the birthplace criterion or the “movement” criterion used in official net-migration statistics, UK-born children of immigrants do not themselves qualify as immigrants.
By the international definition of migration—used by the UK government in official statistics on immigration, emigration, and net-migration—anyone who moves across national boundaries for at least one year is considered a “long-term international migrant.” Less than one-third of the public in Britian, however, say that they normally are thinking about temporary migrants when thinking about “immigrants.”
Members of the public appear more likely to think of permanent immigrants rather than temporary ones when thinking about immigrants, as Figure 3 shows. A majority (62%) said that they normally thought about people coming to stay in Britain permanently, while the temporary migration categories were each chosen by 30% or fewer. There was no statistically significant difference in perceptions of people staying for between one and five years, and of people staying for more than five years but not permanently. Responses fell to 15% for people staying less than one year.
Although permanent immigration predominates in public perceptions of immigrants, temporary immigration accounts for the majority of annual arrivals according to ONS data (in LTIM Table 2.09). In 2009, an estimated 48% of immigrants came for a stay of one to two years, and another 19% came to stay for three to four years, while 27% came to stay for more than four years (6% were unsure). These data are based on the intentions that people report to the International Passenger Survey when they arrive, but ONS makes an adjustment for estimated “switchers” who stay longer or shorter than initially planned.
Immigrants to Britain are commonly classified by their reason for migrating, whether for work, study, family, or asylum. Separate policies are developed to address each of these groups. But which types are most prominent in the minds of members of the public? Or are they all equally relevant? We asked respondents which of these groups they normally thought of when thinking about immigrants, and allowed them to choose as many of the four options as they liked.
As shown in Figure 4, asylum was the reason most commonly chosen by our respondents (62%), with work also chosen by a majority (52%). A smaller proportion chose family (34%) – more precisely in this case, to live with a spouse or civil partner. Study was the reason chosen least often, by 29%.
Public perceptions differ dramatically from ONS data on migrant arrivals. In 2009, ONS Long-Term International Migration (LTIM ) data estimated that 37% of immigrants arriving came for the purpose of formal study, while 34% came for work, 13% for family, and 4% for asylum. (The remainder came for other or unknown reasons.)
There a number of possible reasons why public perceptions of immigrants do not match up with immigration statistics.
First, members of the public form their impressions of immigration from some combination of direct personal experiences, conversations with friends, family, and others, news coverage, and even entertainment media that include portrayals of immigrants. None of these sources pay attention to subgroups of migrants in direct proportion to their numbers, nor should they be expected to do so. Media attention and policy debates have often focused on asylum (subject of several major policy changes in the 2000’s) and labour migration (target of the much-debated “cap”); this might have some impact on public perceptions of who immigrants are.
Second, differences might stem from the rapidly changing nature of migration to Britain. It may take time for perceptions to catch up with changing realities. For example, although asylum seekers are a small proportion of the total now, they accounted for much of the rapid rise in migration in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when immigration became a highly salient political issue. Students, on the other hand, have been the largest group of immigrants in net-migrations statistics only since 2009, though their numbers have been rising for some time.
Third, members of the public might not think often about students when thinking of immigration simply because students are the group most likely to be temporary migrants, and, as shown above, a majority of the public normally thinks about immigrants as permanent rather than temporary.