‘Thinking Behind the Numbers’: the British public’s real views on immigration

The smallest group of legal migrants, asylum seekers, are of the highest concern to British people. Broad opposition is also addressed to unskilled migrant workers, who come primarily from the EU. Neither can be legally reduced by government.

On the contrary, no concern about students, the largest group of migrants, and about skilled workers from outside the EU. Both could be targeted by Government cuts.

These are the findings released of a major new report, released last week by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory.

'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.

“What this report shows very clearly is that the Government is stuck between a rock and a hard-place, " says the report’s lead author – public opinion specialist Dr Scott Blinder, Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at Oxford University.

"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.”

The report is based on a survey of 1,000 people, aged 15+ in Britain ,designed by the Migration Observatory and carried out by Ipsos MORI from 2-8 September 2011.

Questions were designed to answer two primary questions:  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?


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 focused 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%).

Read the full Thinking behind the Numbers report


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