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The other half of the story: Oxford University study uncovers Britain’s real views on immigration

16 Oct 2011

A major new report, released today by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, uncovers the British public’s real views on immigration – highlighting that people’s opinions on the type of migrants coming to the UK have been obscured by a focus on numbers.

Thinking Behind the Numbers: Understanding public opinion on immigration in Britain is the first systematic analysis of who people in Britain really think of as ‘immigrants’, and of how people’s views differ substantially toward different immigrant groups.

The report shows that, while public opinion in Britain clearly favours a reduction in the number of immigrants coming to Britain, the majority of the public are concerned about immigrant groups that are most difficult for the government to reduce – asylum seekers and low skilled workers (who come primarily from the EU). There is comparatively little public interest in reducing numbers among the immigrant groups that the government can cut more easily (skilled workers from outside the EU and foreign students).

The report is based on a survey of 1,000 people, designed by the Migration Observatory and carried out by Ipsos MORI from 2-8 September 2011.

Key findings include:

  • Seven in ten people in the UK (69%) support reductions in immigration – this is in line with previous surveys.
  • People’s preferences for reducing immigration are not focussed on the largest groups – The largest group of legal migrants – students (37% of immigrants to the UK in 2009) is of the lowest concern to British people, while the smallest group – asylum seekers (4% of immigrants to the UK in 2009) – is of the highest concern.
  • Preferences for reducing immigration are most common where government faces more constraints: The most commonly chosen targets for reductions include asylum seekers (56% of respondents) and low-skilled workers (64% of respondents). International conventions and EU membership constrain the UK Government in reducing numbers from either group.
  • Opposition to immigration is often focussed on ‘illegal’ immigrants. A majority of those who wanted to see immigration as a whole reduced felt that reductions should target “only” or “mostly” illegal immigration. Even among those who would like to see overall immigration kept the same or increased, a majority would like to see illegal immigration reduced, suggesting a very broad consensus.
  • There is more public support for reducing permanent migration (57% of respondents) than temporary migration (47% of respondents).
  • There is broad opposition to unskilled migrant workers (64%) and low levels of opposition to skilled migrants (32%).

The report highlights the difficult balancing act faced by Government in delivering what the public wants on immigration: A clear majority of people in Britain would like to see an overall reduction in immigration, but cuts to the largest group (students) does not appear to be a priority, where cuts to the smallest group (asylum seekers) does.

The report’s lead author – public opinion specialist Dr Scott Blinder, Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at Oxford University – said: “Blunt questions about whether the British public supports or opposes immigration in general do not capture the complexities of many people’s real views, and are not nearly fine-grained enough to give policy-makers a real understanding of what a majority of the public wants.

“What this report shows very clearly is that the Government is stuck between a rock and a hard-place. A clear majority of people in Britain would like immigration reduced, but they want the cuts to come from specific groups of immigrants, and these are often groups over whom the Government has limited direct control, and sometimes groups that are comparatively small in number.”


For further information contact:Rob McNeil Senior Media Analyst, The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford: robert.mcneil@compas.ox.ac.uk Tel: 01865 274568 Mob: 07500 970081

Notes for Editors:

About the report

The sample for this survey included 1,002 interviews with people aged 15+ in Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland).  Ipsos MORI used quota sampling to attain a representative sample of the population of Britain, and then applied demographic weights to correct for slight divergences from the actual demographic composition of the population. Interviews were conducted face-to-face to ensure the highest quality sample possible.  Questions were designed by the Migration Observatory to answer two primary questions that have not been systematically explored in public opinion research:  First, when thinking about immigrants, who do members of the public have in mind?  And, second, how do public preferences for reducing, maintaining, or increasing immigration to Britain vary for different sub-groups of immigrants?

About the Migration Observatory

  • Based at the ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford, the Migration Observatory provides independent, authoritative, evidence-based analysis of data on migration and migrants in the UK, to inform media, public and policy debates, and to generate high quality research on international migration and public policy issues. The Observatory’s analysis involves experts from a wide range of disciplines and departments at the University of Oxford.
  • The Migration Observatory is funded by: Unbound Philanthropy; the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and the Barrow Cadbury Trust.
  • The Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford conducts high quality research in order to develop theory and knowledge, inform policy-making and public debate, and engage users of research within the field of migration. For further details see the COMPAS website: www.compas.ox.ac.uk/.
  • COMPAS is core funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) www.esrc.ac.uk/.

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If you would like to make a press enquiry, please contact:

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