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New polling by Kantar Public and Migration Observatory highlights British public’s contradictory attitudes to migration

15 Jun 2023

New research published today by Kantar Public and the Migration Observatory show that the British public have contradictory attitudes towards immigration.

  • While 52% of the British public favour a reduction in immigration, 60% of the public would also like to see immigration made easier for ‘high-skilled workers’.
  • ‘Stricter border controls to reduce unauthorised immigration’ was ranked eleventh out of twelve policy areas as a priority for the British public. Most important to the public were ‘reducing inflation’ and ‘investing more in healthcare’.
  • Attitudes to immigration are split politically. Almost half of respondents who said they voted for Labour in 2019 believed immigration is a ‘good’ or ‘very good’ thing for Britain. Only 19% who said they had voted for the Conservatives thought the same.

Increase in support for immigration in areas of recognised labour shortages   

Just under three quarters of the population believe that immigration should be reduced or stay the same, but there is clear support (55%) for making immigration easier for occupations where there are labour shortages.

More than half of those responding would favour making immigration easier for NHS staff (62%), Care workers (54%) and Scientists/researchers (53%). At the other end of the spectrum, fewer than a third of respondents would favour immigration being made easier for financial sector workers. A majority of the public either supported either maintaining the status quo or making immigration easier for international students—one of the largest categories of immigration to the UK in 2022. More analysis on these figures will be available in the full report to be published on Thursday 15 June 2023.

This split set of priorities, between a desire to control immigration while favouring liberal policies for labour immigration, is at the heart of the current public and political discourse on the numbers and types of immigration. It also highlights the challenges faced by those designing public policy on immigration.

Our research shows that the public are most likely to view immigrants as those coming to Britain to apply for refugee status (65% of respondents). This is in contrast to the official statistics on immigration, where work and study accounted for two thirds (64%) of the migrant inflows in 2022. This perception correlates with the current media coverage and policy debate on immigration. The report, due to be published tomorrow contains additional analysis of public attitudes to asylum seekers.

Immigration ranks low as a public policy priority   

Our research shows that when set in a wider context of public policy challenges, the public view “stricter border controls to reduce unauthorised immigration” as the least important of Rishi Sunak’s five policy priorities. It ranks 11 out of the 12 public policy areas presented to respondents with “reducing inflation” and “investing more in healthcare” ranking as the first and second priorities respectively.

The public are split on the contribution that immigration makes to Britain, with roughly a third believing it is a good for Britain, a third believing it is bad and a third expressing a neutral opinion. These attitudes are broadly split along political lines with 48% of those who voted Labour in 2019 believing that immigration is a good or very good thing for Britain compared to 19% of those who voted Conservative.

Media consumption and attitudes to immigration   

For the first time we have been able to analyse public attitudes to immigration by media consumption. Our analysis shows that people who get their news from printed newspapers are more likely to see immigration control as a priority than people who get their news via social media. This is highly related to the age profile of the two groups, with older respondents being more likely to use printed newspapers and to be concerned about unauthorised immigration. than younger respondents.


Ben Humberstone, Head of Population Studies at Kantar Public commented on the research:

“This is important new insight into the public’s view on immigration. The public appear to be split between favouring a reduction in immigration while expressing a desire for making it easier for shortage occupations such as NHS and Care workers to come to Britain. This could be explained by the fact that when thinking about immigrants coming to Britain most people think of those coming as refugees, as opposed to the reality where most immigrants are coming for work or study.”

Dr Marina Fernandez-Reino, Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said:

“The polling shows that British people have complex – and sometimes contradictory – ideas about managing migration. A substantial number of people want low numbers, but they also want relatively liberal policies for the groups that have recently contributed most to net migration, such as skilled workers, international students and people leaving Ukraine. This makes it hard for policy makers as there is no clear democratic mandate for any specific set of policies.”

Background to the research and methodology:   

A representative sample of 2,300 adults in Great Britain were interviewed between the 18th and 24th April 2023. All interviews were conducted online using the Kantar Research Express. The Kantar online access panel was the main sample source.

The data was weighted to match population totals for age, gender, 2019 General Election voting patterns, 2016 EU referendum voting patterns, education, region, and likelihood to vote in the next General Election. Weights have been applied to the sample to ensure that it is representative of the general public in Great Britain aged 18+.

The Thinking Behind the Numbers research conducted in 2011 that this research makes some comparisons with used a sample size of 1002 respondents. These interviews were conducted from the 2nd to the 8th of September 2011. The sample was weighted to be representative of the adult population in Britain at the time, using a combination of Census data, ONS mid-year population estimates and National Readership Survey data.

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