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Tests gauge attitudes towards immigration

Published on 16/12/2009

A report by the Transatlantic Trends research project released in early December is the latest inquiry to offer some insights into the attitudes of the UK public towards immigration.

Transatlantic Trends in Immigration, a collaboration led by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, German Marshall Trust and three other foundations, has carried out a survey into attitudes about immigration in the UK, as well as the USA, Canada, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. 1000 people aged 18 and over were interviewed in each country during the first two weeks of September 2009.

Pundits, including in the Spectator and Economist, have been quick to pick up the findings and compare British attitudes unfavourably against those in the other countries involved in the research. It is worth bearing in mind the limit to the extent to which public attitudes can be compared across different countries. Variations in migration histories, media coverage and political messaging about immigration can all play into the way that public attitudes may vary across the countries. Nonetheless, turning to the UK, there were plenty of headline statistics to feed into a gloomy picture of public attitudes towards immigration. One in five people from the UK reported that immigration is the most important issue facing the UK today. Worries about the levels of immigration to the UK also proved high, with 68 percent respondents reporting concern about ‘illegal immigration’ and 36 percent concerned about ‘legal immigration’. Perhaps most tellingly, the UK public’s soaring disenchantment with governmental management of immigration was reported, with 71 percent of respondents assessing management as poor or very poor.

All of these figures look, and are, worryingly high, especially when compared with findings from other countries in the survey. But there is a more nuanced picture behind this. Public concern about immigration, and particularly mistrust about management of migration, does not necessarily equal hostility towards migrants themselves. It may be shaped by other, wider social issues, influenced by attitudes towards politicians, and influenced by the tone of
media discourse. As Heaven Crawley from Swansea University explored in her ‘Understanding and Changing Public Attitudes’ report earlier this year, asylum and immigration issues can act as ‘touchstone issues’, symbolising a range of other public attitudes and concerns. The concept of relative deprivation is also important – referring to
the way that people’s negative responses to ‘outsider’ groups may be boosted by dissatisfaction with their own circumstances.

The Transatlantic Trends report looked into the correlation between people’s personal economic situation and their attitudes towards immigration. It found that in the UK, those respondents whose financial situation had worsened in the past 12 months were more likely to express worry about the levels of legal immigration to the country. The report findings also raise questions about the role of the public narrative about competition for public resources
in shaping opinions on immigration. Respondents expressed concern about the impact of immigration on wider access to employment and public services. This is perhaps unsurprising since these issues have been the focus of media and political attention, fuelled by the ‘British jobs for British workers’ lobby and by debates over migrants’ access to healthcare and social housing.

Public responses to other questions relating to migrants’ integration showed more measured attitudes. A majority of people (59 percent) in the UK supported the proposal that ‘legal migrants’ be granted the right to political participation, in order to support their integration. A similar percentage (56 percent) thought that migrants coming to the country legally to work should have the chance to stay permanently rather than being restricted to temporary permission to work in the UK – an attitude largely motivated by the belief that security helps migrants’ integration into society.

Further work to take the temperature of public attitudes towards immigration is also underway by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). The IPPR project has focused on looking at public attitudes about immigration through a series of focus groups in the West Midlands – allowing for regional variations to emerge in the attitudes towards and experiences of migration. In particular, IPPR is focusing on the way in which public attitudes in immigration are formed, and the ways in which these perspectives can be influenced. Initial indication of the findings indicate that the polarised media and political discourse on immigration is likely to be reflected in some negative attitudes but that, when open spaces are created for discussion about the issues among the general public, opinions may be far
more moderate.

All this tells us that surveys which cast a light on public opinions towards immigration are important, but equally important is to contextualise the findings. Reported attitudes reveal plenty of things about a range of other issues aside from immigration itself. The challenge for politicians and advocates, as ever, will be to read behind the headlines.

December 2009


Republished from Migrant Rights Network. To read the Transatlantic Trends: Immigration report, visit: www.transatlantictrends.org/trens/immigration/