Thinking Behind the Numbers: Understanding Public Opinion on Immigration in Britain

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Executive Summary

For half a century opinion polls have consistently shown that the public in Britain favours a reduction in immigration. But answers to basic questions about people’s preferences for reducing, increasing or maintaining prevailing levels of immigration provide only a very partial understanding of the British population’s views on this issue.

To try to build a more detailed understanding of public attitudes to immigration the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford commissioned polling firm Ipsos MORI to ask a series of questions about immigration and immigrants to a representative sample of 1,002 adults living in the Britain. The survey took place during 2-8 September 2011.

The survey questions were designed to address two key issues: First, who do people have in mind when thinking and answering questions about “immigrants”? Second, do people’s views about reducing, increasing or maintaining the number of immigrants coming to the UK vary across specific groups of immigrants?

Our poll supported previous findings that a large majority of people in Britain favour cuts in immigration. 69% of respondents to the survey we commissioned said they want immigration reduced. But it also found that the public’s views on immigration are complex and nuanced in a way that previous polls have failed to capture, and that these views vary substantially depending on which immigrant groups the public is considering.

This report does not take a position on whether and how immigration policy should respond to public opinion. In line with the aims of the Migration Observatory, the report is focused on providing new data and analysis, suggesting relevance to policy debates but not arguing for specific policies.

Key Findings

Perceptions of Migrants:

  • When thinking about immigrants, respondents were most likely to think of asylum seekers (62%) and least likely to think of students (29%). In current official (ONS) statistics, students represent the largest group of immigrants coming to the UK (37% of 2009 immigrant arrivals) while asylum seekers are the smallest group (4% in 2009).
  • Respondents tended to think of immigrants as those who come to the UK permanently (62%) rather than those who come to stay temporarily (fewer than 30%). This differs from the internationally-agreed definition used for official UK statistics, which classifies anyone who comes to the UK for more than a year as a long-term migrant.
  • When thinking about immigrants, people in Britain most commonly think about foreign citizens - 62% normally think about non-EU citizens and 51% about EU citizens (excl. British) - rather than people who were born abroad and acquired British citizenship after moving to the UK (40%). Very low proportions of the public have in mind British citizens moving (11%) or returning (7%) to the UK. Similarly, few people normally have in mind the UK-born children of immigrants to Britain (12%).

Public preferences for reducing migration:

  • In line with previous polls our findings showed that about seven in ten members of the British public (69%) support reduced immigration.
  • Among respondents who want immigration reduced overall, 54% said that they would like reductions either “only” (28%) or “mostly” (26%) among illegal immigrants, while just over a third (35%) supported reductions equally among legal and illegal immigrants.
  • There is widespread agreement on reducing illegal immigration – even among those who do not express a preference for reducing overall immigration 60% support reducing illegal immigration while only 12% do not.
  • There is more support for reducing permanent immigration (57%) than temporary immigration (47%).
  • There is majority support for reducing immigration of low-skilled workers (64%), extended family members (58%), and asylum seekers (56%).
  • There is minority support for reducing immigration of high-skilled workers (32%), immediate family members (41%), and students (31% for university students; 32% for further education students; and 33% English language students).

Implications for policy debates:

1. There are significant differences between preferences for reducing specific groups of immigrants
There is no question that a large majority of the public supports overall reductions to immigration levels. But there are considerable differences between preferences for reducing specific groups of immigrants. Policies that respond to the overall public preference for reduced immigration without taking account of these differences may reduce immigration in ways that a majority of the public does not support.

2. Preferences for reducing immigration are not focused on the numerically largest groups
Some of the immigration categories that are largest numerically generate the least opposition among members of the public, whereas some categories that are small in numbers generate high levels of public opposition. For example, students are among the most numerous immigrants coming to Britain in recent years, but among the least likely to generate opposition. Asylum seekers and extended family members generate majority opposition, but comprise small shares of in-flows in recent years.

3. Preferences for reducing immigration are strongest where policy faces more constraints
Low-skilled workers and asylum seekers were among the most popular targets for reductions to immigration in the survey results. But effectively all low-skilled labour migration to the UK comes from within the EU, thus limiting government control. Regarding asylum, Britain (like most nations) has signed international conventions on the treatment of refugees and cannot turn away those seeking asylum without first determining the validity of their claim.

4 Opposition to immigration is often focused on illegal immigration
Even among those who would like to see overall immigration kept the same or increased, a majority (61%) would like to see illegal immigration reduced, suggesting a very broad consensus. On the other hand, for those who would like to see immigration reduced overall, a majority (54%) would like reductions focused “only” or “mostly” on illegal immigration. Opposition to illegal immigration may therefore account for some of the general preference for less immigration.

5. Public opinion favours temporary over permanent immigration
Public opinion seems more concerned with permanent as opposed to temporary immigration. Just over half of respondents supported reducing permanent immigration, while just under half supported reductions in temporary immigration. This is reinforced by questions about perceptions of who immigrants are—less than a third of the public reports having temporary immigrants in mind when normally thinking about immigration.

6. There can be a mismatch between views of immigrants in public perceptions and official statistics
Members of the public and the government may be thinking about different things even when both are talking about “immigration.” Categories such as temporary immigrants and students loom large in official  tatistics, but less than a third of the public has in mind either of these categories when thinking about immigrants.

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Understanding public opinion