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As UK public attitudes toward migration are increasingly positive, it’s time for more balanced and evidence-based narratives

Written by Claire Kumar, Christa Rottensteiner

Expert comment

You would be forgiven for thinking that the UK is experiencing a full-blown migration crisis. Under the glare of relentless attention paid to migrants in small boats in the English Channel, it is easy to forget that not only does the UK rank quite far below average for asylum applications if compared to other European countries, current asylum application numbers are far from unprecedented in scale; rather it is the form of arrival on small boats that is new and more visible as the channel crossings gain extensive media coverage.

We are also seeing significant numbers of deaths in the English channel, unfortunately an increasing feature of migration routes worldwide. In fact, IOM’s Missing Migrants Project has tracked 27,000 deaths on migration routes to and within Europe since 2014, with the Central Mediterranean known to be the world's most deadly migration route. Since at least the 1990s, people have attempted to reach the United Kingdom irregularly from the coast near Calais, France, either via the Eurotunnel, by stowing away on trucks or other vehicles or via the Port of Calais, where they attempt to board ferries or use small unseaworthy boats from other points on the coast of France to try to reach Dover or other ports in southern England.

But in the UK, the harm extends beyond the confines of the journey. There has been a stark increase in deaths in asylum seekers’ accommodation. Overcrowding and inhumane conditions have been documented in reception centres, while 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have gone missing from their accommodation.

What is unprecedented, however, is the negative and hostile public discourse. And what is too rarely stated is that such rhetoric is significantly out of step with British public opinion. UK public attitudes around immigration have not only become more tolerant, balanced and pragmatic, but also increasingly positive in recent years.

As the negative political narrative escalates, concern for migrants’ safety grows

Words matter, they have real world consequences. Hostile rhetoric causes all manner of harms.

In November, firebombs were thrown at an immigration processing centre in Dover, and most recently, scenes of violent disorder and protests against migrants took place outside hotels housing asylum seekers in Knowsley as well as in other areas in the UK.

Recently, UN human rights experts warned against the misleading public statements that have called into question the credibility of victims of trafficking and contemporary forms of slavery. Exaggerated claims of abuse can erode public sympathy for victims of human rights violations and – as noted by the UN’s Special Rapporteurs – may lead to attacks against migrants and asylum seekers.

The increasingly positive attitudes of the British public

The increasingly toxic rhetoric and hostile environment are in reality a far cry from British public attitudes and preferences. In fact, the UK has a very high share of its population which responds positively when asked if immigration makes the UK a better or worse place to live. And in line with trends across many European countries, positive attitudes on this question have been steadily increasing over the last two decades.

Similar positive trends are visible in other polling data. We have seen, for example, a very large increase in the share of survey respondents reporting that they believe immigrants’ skills and labour are necessary for Britain’s economic recovery.

And the UK has just topped an international league table as the country that is the most accepting of immigration and the least likely to want strict limits on foreigners entering the country. Researchers analysing World Values Survey data from 2022 also found that 70% of UK respondents felt immigration strengthens cultural diversity (second only to Canada), with the British public least likely to feel that immigration increases unemployment or causes crime to rise.

Attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees

While attitudes towards immigration generally are robustly – and increasingly – positive, there is more public concern around the issue of asylum seekers crossing the Channel. In particular, the failure to stop small boat arrivals is a major reason for dissatisfaction with the government. YouGov data paints a picture of more negative views towards people crossing the Channel compared to other migrants.

In some respects, this is unsurprising. We know public concern is easily ‘grabbed’ and migration can become a highly salient issue in times of heightened media and political attention. This was most visible during the Brexit campaign, and indeed has fallen off the radar after the referendum. And as YouGov data shows, salience has been rising sharply – reaching 37% in November 2022 – likely linked to the attention given to small boat crossings, though this is far from the heights reached in the 2015-16 period.

But what is also clear from recent polling data is that – removed from discussions of small boats and the English Channel – the UK public shows strong support (75%) for the principle of refugee protection, with only around a third showing a preference for deterrence-centred policies. In addition, almost half (47%) of those surveyed supported policies such as allowing asylum claims to be made outside the UK (for example at British embassies or by offering a new type of visa) while only 20% opposed such alternative measures. And lest we forget, although there is clearly public controversy around the small boats issue, analysis of Home Office data shows that the majority of those who come via this route are indeed refugees.

The British public also shows very strong support (81%) for allowing asylum seekers to work six months into their application process, instead of the current 12, a policy that has long been called for and which has been shown to offer multiple fiscal and economic benefits.

The need for more balanced narratives and evidence-based policies

The language used in the public space around migration matters enormously. It can do great damage, both fuelling violence in the community and leading to harsher (and often costly and ineffective) policies. What is desperately needed in the UK is a more balanced narrative and more evidence-based migration policies. And it is up to all of us to ensure a more balanced public narrative. Providing accurate data and facts is the basic starting point although a focus limited to numbers can be easily manipulated to stoke uncertainty and fear. We have learned the importance of human-centred stories and reaching peoples’ hearts and emotions by promoting values-based messages.

Fundamental respect for human rights must remain at the core of all of our narratives and policies – regardless of their status, every person on the move is entitled to human rights protection. Human rights are not ‘earned’ by virtue of being a hero or a victim, but are an entitlement of everyone, regardless of origin, age, gender and status. It is long past time to rebalance the narrative and, indeed, to listen to the British public who are clearly ready for less polarised debates and more constructive solutions.