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Public narratives and attitudes towards refugees and other migrants: UK country profile

Briefing/policy papers

Written by Kerrie Holloway, Marta Foresti, Amy Leach

This briefing presents an overview of the key features of migration and asylum policy in the UK, recent trends in migration patterns, and public perceptions and political narratives on refugees and other migrants:

  • Most Britons consistently overestimate the number of migrants in the UK. In 2018, refugees and other migrants accounted for 14% of the current UK population, yet the majority of Britons assume that 27% of the UK population are migrants.
  • The UK is among the EU countries with the most positive attitudes towards immigration, but Britons hold the most negative attitudes towards refugee assistance. While most Britons favour a reduction in immigration, since the EU referendum in 2016 immigration has ranked as a less important issue for the public.
  • Public narratives on refugees and other migrants are polarised; between a ‘threat narrative’ to culture, wealth and security, and a ‘positive narrative’ emphasising the potential benefits of immigration to culture, the economy and society.
  • The UK will change its immigration policies after it leaves the EU, with the end of free movement and existing EU citizens living in the UK required to apply for settled status.
  • Businesses could do more to engage with immigration and highlight the shared benefits of labour mobility for host communities and migrants alike. Migrants have a positive effect on both businesses and the wider economy, with a 1% increase in the migrant share of the population creating a 2% increase in income per head.

This briefing is part of a wider project supported by the IKEA Foundation aimed at supporting public and private investors interested in engaging with migration and displacement.

Correction: This paper was originally published in November 2019. It was updated in August 2021 to correct a labelling error on Figure 4.

About the series

Through a series of activities, dialogues and innovative communication and outreach initiatives, Public and political narratives on refugees and other migrants: implications for action maps recent research and evidence on public attitudes toward refugees and other migrants in the UK, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the US, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Nigeria. Read the additional papers in the series here.

Kerrie Holloway and Christopher Smart with Marta Foresti and Amy Leach

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