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What do British people really think about immigration?

Posted on 13 August 2015 by NatCen, Research
Tags: ESS, Europe, immigration

This is the third in a series of blogs using the European Social Survey (ESS), a high quality survey across a number of European countries, to look at how the UK compares with the continent on some of the big issues dominating political debate.

Although it has been a contentious issue for many years, immigration remains high on the public’s agenda. With migrant and refugee crises at Mediterranean ports and Calais continuing to dominate headlines, and a British referendum on EU membership taking place before the end of 2017, it’s likely immigration will remain a political hot potato into the future.

This blog will look deeper into how Brits perceive the economic and cultural impacts of immigration, and how this compares with our European neighbours’ views on immigration. 

Britain wants less immigration but thinks immigrants enrich our culture

The British view on the level of immigration is well established and stable. In 2013 NatCen’s British Social Attitudes showed that as many as 77% of people wanted immigration reduced “a little” or “a lot”, with 56% wanting a large reduction. This figure is largely unchanged since 2008.

Despite this desire to see immigration reduced, according to the 2012 European Social Survey, Brits are fairly undecided about the impacts of immigrants on the country as a whole. About two-fifths of people (41%) say that immigrants make the country a worse place to live while 34% say immigrants make the country better.

 ESS Immigrants Better Worse

When asked whether immigration is good for the economy and cultural life, Britain is similarly mixed. Although the balance of immigrants’ impact on culture is positive – 44% say Britain’s cultural life is enriched compared to 36% who say it is undermined – more Brits say that immigration is bad for the economy.

 Immigrants Culutre Economy Better Worse

How do we compare to the rest of Europe?

Although Brits are more negative than positive when it comes to whether immigrants make the country a better or worse place to live, of the 28 countries in the study, the UK is somewhere in the middle. The chart below shows the net score for the question “do immigrants make [country] a better or worse place to live?” Positive scores show that the public of that country views immigrants as more positive than negative; negative scores show views are more negative than positive.

 Immigration ESS Net Better Worse

Net score calculated by subtracting the percentage answering “very bad” or “bad” from the percentage answering “very good” or “good”


Do migration figures have an impact on people’s attitudes to immigration?

At the end of May, ONS figures revealed that around 641,000 people migrated to Britain in 2014 – the highest ever annual figure. This was widely reported, for the most part negatively. We might expect that a large number of immigrants would incite negative attitudes towards those groups. The most recent ESS shows that this isn’t the case; there doesn’t seem to be any relationship between immigration to a country and whether the residents of that country think immigrants make the country a better or worse place to live.

 Immigration ESS Scatter


The ESS is a cross-national survey that has been conducted every two years since 2002. It provides methodologically rigorous, comparative data about public attitudes and behaviour over time in more than 30 countries. It has its headquarters at City University London.

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