Attitudes towards immigrants

Attitudes towards immigration and immigrants themselves are largely negative. These attitudes vary widely between localities and social groups.  Immigration and race relations are consistently regarded as one of the most important issues facing Britain (see Public Concerns); in 2011 ¾ of people viewed immigration as a “big problem”, yet only ¼ viewed it as a problem in their local area.  People in the West Midlands are much more likely to view immigration as a problem compared to people in London [1].  The proportion of Conservative supporters who regard immigration as a major issue is almost double that of Labour or Liberal Democrat supporters [2], a similarly significant split exists between rural and suburban areas compared to urban areas [3].  British people are more likely to regard immigration as a problem than other Western countries [4].

The main reasons people view immigration in a negative manner is the perceived burden on public services, and pressure on jobs and employment (see labour market). As the economic downturn has evolved these attitudes have been exacerbated.  Youth unemployment in particular has caused a significant shift in attitudes amongst 16-24 year olds (who are traditionally the least negative about immigration) to the point where in 2011 almost half believe immigration will damage the economic recovery by taking jobs away from people already living in Britain [1]. Negative attitudes increase with age and attitudes among the older generations have remained relatively stable [5].

Many attitudes on immigration are formed on misconceptions. In 2011 for example almost 60% of people incorrectly thought that Britain had a higher proportion of both immigrants and asylum seekers than other countries in Europe. These misconceptions and general attitudes are borne out of (often hostile) media exposure rather than personal experience; 69% of people listed TV as a main source of information on immigration and asylum, 44% said newspapers and only 16% said personal experience. [1]

What are the implications?

  • Government policies that attempt to limit levels of immigration partly as a response to public attitudes (see Immigration).
  • Managing diversity to minimise social fragmentation in society is likely to become a bigger challenge (see ethnic and cultural diversity).
  • Resentment amongst the public about entitlements to public services, especially in places already experiencing high levels of social deprivation (see attitudes to the welfare state).
  • Reduction of welfare provisions and services to immigrants (see constrained public spending) leading to growing poverty and inequality, social fragmentation, marginalisation and unrest.
  • This is particularly acute amongst asylum seekers who face barriers to employment and decreasing benefits.
  • Policies on social cohesion that promote assimilation over multiculturalism.
  • Far-right groups like the BNP and the English Defence League gaining ground and further increasing hostility towards immigrants.

Moving forward

This driver is likely to have implications across the whole VCS but in particular organisations that support refugees and asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, and areas of high unemployment and/or social fragmentation.

As high levels of immigration continue, your organisation will need to think about the impact diversity has on the accessibility of its services. This will be particularly challenging for organisations in geographical areas that are not traditionally ethnically diverse but which absorb new immigrant communities.

  • For example, are you able to deliver your products and services in a number of languages?
  • Are you able to ensure that you are not prioritising one group over another?

Largely negative public attitudes to immigration coupled with government cuts in public sector spending and an overhaul in public service delivery may result in reduced funding for VCOs that work with immigrants or at worse an assumption that VCOs will fill in the gaps on behalf of the state.

With increasing diversity and high public opposition to immigration, it is important for all VCOs to consider the broader social impacts of their organisation's activities and their role in promoting social cohesion.

  • What is your relationship with other groups and communities? Could this be improved?
  • There is a continued need for open forums and cross-community initiatives; can your organisation play a role in these?

Negative attitudes amongst the public and portrayal in the popular press may require VCOs that work with immigrants to take on a stronger campaigning and advocacy role to combat this.

  • How can your organisation promote a more positive portrayal and understanding of immigrants in both the press and amongst the public?
  • Are there ways in which you can encourage greater social integration amongst ethnic groups and increase levels of “personal experience” amongst people with traditionally negative views?

Want to know more?

Real Trends Briefing Number 1: Doubting Multiculturalism

Published by: Ipsos MORI

Date: May 2009

Format: PDF

What is it?: A concise trend briefing by Ipsos MORI that outlines the views and opinions of the British public on immigration, multiculturalism and race relations.

How useful is this? The data collected is recent (2008) and is summarised in this accessible trend briefing and placed in a brief context of recent events and government policy. The issues examined include public attitudes to immigration, multiculturalism, diversity, how opinion on these issues differs by age group and social standing, and possible reasons for why changes in these trends are occurring.

Immigration and social cohesion in the UK

Published by: Joseph Rowntree Foundation - a charity dedicated to examining and mitigating social problems

Date: 2008

Format: PDF download or web page

What is it? Summary of a research report examining the relationship between recent immigration and social cohesion in the context of other social and economic transformations for the UK population.

How useful is this? Relatively recent research carried out by a charity who has long specialist experience in this area, therefore well placed to carry it out. The research covered a range of sites in the UK so gives a fairly coherent overview of a range of different situations. A good introduction to some of the issues which is approachable and easy to read.

2008-09 Citizenship Survey: Community Cohesion Topic Report

Published by: Communities and Local Government

Date: 2010

Format: PDF

What is it?: A report providing in-depth analysis of community cohesion and social attitudes on variety of different subjects.

How useful is this? This is a detailed and accessible source of information based on Citizenship Survey data.  Chapter 8 (p68) “Attitudes to immigration” is of particular note. It looks at how attitudes towards immigrants have changed recently as well as how these attitudes relate to age and ethnicity. It also examines the social characteristics of people more likely to be in favour of large reductions in immigration as well as those less likely.

Other comments: The Citizenship Survey has now been discontinued so this is likely to be the last set of topic reports.

Where does the public stand on immigration?

Published by: Ipsos MORI

Date: 2010

Format: PDF

What is it?: A detailed overview presenting compiled figures and results from a wide range of immigration related surveys.

How useful is this? This trend briefing provides an effectively condensed and largely accessible summary of public attitudes to immigration from a number of different perspectives. The briefing goes on to examine what drives attitudes and then suggests key issues for moving forward on the debate.

Other comments: Slightly more up to date (Feb 2011) figures surrounding some public attitudes can be found here. Particularly useful are the figures on the perceived effectiveness of the governments cap on non-EU immigrants, opinions regarding immigration and the economic recovery, and sources most influential in informing opinion on immigration and asylum in Britain.


  1. Does immigration matter? - Ipsos MORI, 2011 [back]
  2. January 2011 Issues Index - Ipsos MORI, 2011 [back]
  3. February 2011 Issues Index - Ipsos MORI, 2011 [back]
  4. Attitudes to immigration: rolling up the welcome mat - The Economist, 2011 [back]
  5. 2008-09 Citizenship Survey: Community Cohesion Topic Report - ONS, 2010 [back]


Last updated at 16:32 Thu 03/Mar/11.

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Véronique's picture


Third Sector Foresight

On 15 January 2009 the Government published the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill.

According to Jacqui Smith the Bill has a number of benefits including to enable a new approach to citizenship:“Earned citizenship provisions will ensure that migrants earn the right to stay – implementing our new path to citizenship and requiring all migrants on that path to speak English and obey the law. We will speed up the path to citizenship for those who actively contribute to the community”.

What will be the role of the sector in demonstrating that people have actively contributed to the community?

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How will this affect your organisation? Have you considered it during your strategic planning? Can you share any interesting relevant links?

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