Thinking beyond the bogeyman: responding to public opinion on immigration


By Ruth-White Grove (MRN)
The latest report from the Migration Observatory, out today, is a useful addition to the knowledge base on public opinion and migration – but it raises some difficult questions about attitudes towards ‘illegal migration’ too.

Given that public opinion is such a major driver of political decision-making on immigration, there are a surprising number of craters in detailed understanding of it. It is well-reported that the majority of the public would like to see less immigration to the UK. And policy measures such as the immigration cap and restrictions on family members, students and irregular migrants are all directly aimed at addressing concerns by reducing numbers of migrants.

But what we know less about is who the public understands ‘immigrants’ to be? Do they feel the same about all migrant groups? What policy actions do people want to see and, in reality, would introducing these policies really bolster public confidence in the immigration system?

The latest report from the Migration Observatory (MigObs) at Oxford University, drawn from a September Ipsos MORI survey of 1002 adults in Britain, goes some way to answering these questions. But it should also come with some health warnings for policymakers both within the coalition government and on the opposition benches who may be wondering which direction would help them to win public faith on immigration.

The report provides important evidence that different members of the public think of different groups when the term ‘immigrant’ is used – and that perceptions don’t always reflect reality. According to these findings, most people (62%) think immediately of ‘asylum-seeker’ when asked who immigrants are, even though asylum-seekers made up only 4% of the immigrant population in the UK in 2009. People seem to fill in the gaps in public discourse about ‘immigration’ by thinking of groups that are strongly present in public discourse about immigration, rather than those that make up the biggest migrant populations.

There are similar disparities in the findings about what the public would like to see from immigration management. As previous surveys have reported, the public largely prefers temporary to permanent migration. 69% of respondents in this report wanted to see an overall reduction in immigration, with reduced levels of asylum and low-skilled migration in particular. As pointed out here by Matt Cavanagh of ippr, many of the desired restrictions are already in place, with asylum levels at a historic low and low-skilled migration from outside the EU completely prohibited. The MigObs findings may bring some policymakers out in spots, as they know that here is little more that can be done on many of these issues within the UK’s existing international obligations.

So should they leap on one of the key messages from the report – that a majority of the public, even those who are broadly sympathetic to immigration, want to see numbers of ‘illegal immigrants’ in the UK reduced? There is a danger that politicians of all colours could conclude that a major crackdown on the numbers of people breaking the rules in the UK will restore public confidence. This would be shortsighted and would risk making some familiar mistakes.

Actually, past experience should tell us that cracking down on irregular migrants, with all the accompanying ‘tough talk’, can be unhelpful in building public confidence in immigration management. There has been an open government campaign to enforce against irregular migration since the managed migration approach was launched by Labour in 2005.

Many new measures aimed at reducing numbers of undocumented migrants have been introduced since then, including employer sanctions, local immigration teams, increased border controls. But despite all the tough talk – and actions – on irregular migration taken by government, public concerns about this issue appear to be alive and well. In fact, it has seemed at times that by ramping up expectations of tough action on ‘illegals’, every media report about an irregular migrant could be read by the public as evidence that the government was not delivering on its promises and should be treated with more suspicion.

Polling evidence that the public would like to see a reduction in ‘illegal immigrants’ in fact leaves many further questions about attitudes unanswered – some of which are highlighted by the authors of this report. This polling does not tell us what the public actually understands by ‘illegal immigrants’, how many they believe there live in the UK and how they should be reduced.

Polling data on migration indicates that the public often over-estimates immigration levels – as such it is likely that much of the public thinks numbers of irregular migrants are much higher than they actually are. Many people are unlikely to be aware of key features of irregular migration, including that most undocumented migrants in the UK have overstayed their permission to be here rather than entered irregularly – some have become as a result of rule changes since their arrival in the UK or as part of the asylum legacy case backlog.

Wider research which contextualises public opinion and draws out key lessons for policymakers point to rather different conclusions than focusing tough talk on irregular migration. Whilst enforcement may be part of any immigration policy aimed at building public confidence, there is a wider issue in the way that the debate on immigration is framed by politicians themselves. The recent briefing paper compiled by Dr Robert Ford of Manchester University for the APPG on Migration pointed out the need for realistic political discourse on immigration, which accepts that politicians hold some responsibility for shaping public opinion, as well as responding to it.

In fact, building public confidence in immigration management will not be achieved by simply cracking down on the bogeyman of irregular migration, or of any other group of migrants. Instead, it will require a longer-term, more nuanced approach to these thorny issues – and a close understanding of the context behind the polling data.

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