Attitudes towards immigration: hardening, but nuanced

Passport controlA study of British social attitudes has shown that the British public are less tolerant of immigration, with 51 per cent of the 3,300 asked saying that they would like to see immigration levels "reduce a lot", a figure which has risen from 39 per cent in 1995.

However, the data from NatCen Social Research also showed that British people were more likely to "strongly favour migrants they saw to be socially beneficial".

This corroborates the findings of a recent ESRC-funded study (Thinking Behind the Numbers: Understanding Public Opinion on Immigration in Britain), which revealed that although opposition to immigration remains widespread in the UK, the public's views on immigration are complex in a way that previous polls have failed to capture.

The researchers from the ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) surveyed a sample of some 1,000 adults living in Britain. Findings reveal that 69 per cent of respondents favoured cuts in immigration. But the study also found that people's views varied substantially depending on which immigrant groups the public was considering.

For example, more than half of respondents wanted reductions either 'only' or 'mostly' among illegal immigrants, while just over a third (35 per cent) supported reductions equally among legal and illegal immigrants. Researchers found majority support for reducing immigration of low-skilled workers (64 per cent), extended family members (58 per cent) and asylum seekers (56 per cent). However, only minority support was found for reducing immigration of high-skilled workers (32 per cent), immediate family members (41 per cent) and students (31 per cent).

With the public remaining sceptical to immigration in general, politicians are unlikely to win many votes by extolling the benefits of migration. However research from the RCUK Global Uncertainties programme suggests that pandering to negative public sentiment can be dangerous. The Securitisation of forced migration project is exploring why migrants and asylum seekers are commonly seen as a threat to security. It is looking at ideas and beliefs on forced migration and their impact on insecurity in the UK, South Africa and India.

Early findings suggest that treating migration as a security problem – as an intrusion or invasion – can produce the very consequences that are feared. "If migrants are treated like intruders or criminals, it can lead to feelings of alienation and even radicalisation," says GU Fellow Dr Anne Hammerstad at the University of Kent.