Less migration or more selective migration?
Given the strength of public feeling about migration, it is no surprise that the Coalition has prioritised reduction and control. But a focus solely on aggregate attitudes can be misleading - does the public want all forms of migration reduced, or are they more accepting of migrants they perceive as having more to offer? The government emphasises both ideas in its migration policy, pressing for an overall cap on numbers but also pushing for stricter regulation of migrant qualifications through reforms such as tightening the points system and imposing English language criteria. In this section we focus on answering two questions. Firstly, how responsive is the public to differences in the characteristics and region of origin of migrants? Secondly, how do anxieties about the economic and cultural impacts of immigration affect the patterns of selection? For example, do those who worry about economic impacts place greater stress on economic selection criteria, while those who worry about cultural impacts stress selection by origin region?
To test the effect of these influences, we conducted a series of survey experiments. Respondents were given brief descriptions of three migrant groups and, in each case, asked whether they regarded settlement of migrants like this as good or bad for Britain. What respondents did not know was that each group description they saw was randomly varied. Each respondent was asked one question about labour migrants, one about students and one about family reunion migration. Respondents were read the introduction below and were then asked three different questions, with the characteristics in brackets being randomly allocated:
I would now like to ask you about some of the groups of migrants who come to settle in Britain. For each group, I would like you to indicate whether you think accepting these migrants is a bad thing or a good thing for Britain.
[Highly qualified professionals/Unskilled labourers] from [East European countries like Poland/Muslim countries like Pakistan] [who have been recruited to fill jobs where there are labour shortages/who have come to Britain to search for work].
Students with [good grades/poor grades) from [West European countries like Germany/East European countries like Poland/Muslim countries like Pakistan9/East Asian countries like China].
Migrants from [West European countries like Germany/East European countries like Poland/Muslim countries like Pakistan/African countries like Nigeria] bringing over their wife and children after living in Britain for [3 years/10 years].
[0 Extremely bad, 5 Neither, 10 Extremely good]
Because respondents were randomly assigned to different group descriptions, when we compare their responses we can be confident that any statistically significant difference is the product of having been asked about different groups.
The results of the first such experiment, focusing on labour migration, are shown in Table 2.5. Here we varied three characteristics of the migrant group - their qualifications (professionals or unskilled labourers), their region of origin (Eastern Europe or Muslim countries such as Pakistan) and their reason for migration (to fill jobs or to search for work). All three of these factors have substantial effects on attitudes, and the very large differences in reactions to different kinds of migrants demonstrate how misleading it is to speak of public views about "immigrants" as a homogenous group. The largest impact comes from migrant qualifications: in every condition where the migrant group is described as "professionals" supporters outweigh opponents by 20 points or more. For example, net support for professional migrants from Eastern Europe is +39 when they come to fill jobs, and +33 when they come searching for work. When migrants are described as unskilled labourers, opponents outweigh supporters by even greater margins. For example, net support for unskilled labourers coming from Eastern Europe to search for work is -51; for similar migrants coming from Pakistan the figure is even lower: -69. Respondents take migrants' qualifications very seriously: despite being negative about migration overall, Britons are in fact net supporters of professional migrants, regardless of their circumstances or origins, but are strongly opposed to unskilled labour migration, again regardless of circumstances or origins.
Region of origin and motive for migration also have robust, albeit smaller, effects on how migrants are perceived. Net support for migrants coming from Muslim countries such as Pakistan is on average lower than identically-described migrants coming from Eastern Europe, suggesting that concerns about cultural difference significantly reduce support for migrants. However, this effect is smaller for professionals searching for work, and not observed at all for professionals coming in to fill jobs. This is an important nuance that public debate has completely failed to recognise, and it suggests that a positive economic profile can override cultural concerns (or possibly that cultural concerns are weaker in relation to professionals - perhaps because they are seen to be 'more like us'). The reason for migration has a similar effect, with support for migration consistently lower when migrants are described as searching for work rather than filling jobs where there are labour shortages. For example, net support for Muslim professional migrants is +39 when they come to fill jobs, but falls to +22 when they come to search for work. The gap is once again larger for unskilled labourers than for professionals, and is larger still for unskilled labourers from Eastern Europe: net support falls from -27 for those filling jobs to -51 for East Europeans coming to search for work. This suggests particular public sensitivity about the inflow of labourers from the A8 countries, the principal source of unskilled labour migration in recent years.
Table 2.6 shows us how the differences discussed above appear to reflect individual views about the general economic and cultural impact of migration. Those who are more negative about immigration's economic impact discriminate more strongly in favour of professional migrants and those with jobs, as we might expect. Specifically, those who think the economic impact of migration is negative have a net preference for professionals over labourers of 45 percentage points, while for those who are positive about the economic effects of migration the figure is 10 points lower at +35. They are less likely, however, to discriminate in favour of East Europeans over Muslims. Those with stronger cultural concerns about immigration are also more likely to favour professional migrants over labourers, perhaps because they perceive highly educated professionals as more able to integrate. However, despite widely documented anxieties about the integration of British Muslims, respondents who are more negative about the cultural effects of migration do not discriminate more strongly against Muslim migrants than those who are positive about the cultural impact of migration.
The evidence from our first experiment shows the public take distinctions between labour market migrants seriously, and respond to them regardless of how they feel about the economic and cultural impacts of immigration. We next turn to our final two experiments, to explore whether the same is true of student migration and family reunion migration.
As noted previously, the largest group of migrants in the past few years has been students coming to learn in British colleges and universities. Yet there is little evidence on how the public regard such migrants. In our survey experiment, as shown earlier, we varied two characteristics: their grades (good or bad) and their region of origin (Western Europe, Eastern Europe, East Asia or Muslim countries). The results are presented in Table 2.7. Two findings are apparent. First, qualifications are a central factor driving reactions to student migrants. Supporters of students with good grades consistently outnumber opponents, regardless of region of origin, while opposition to the entry of students with bad grades is very strong, again regardless of where they come from. For example, net support for students from East Asia is +24 when they have good grades but -63 when they have poor grades. Our experiment thus suggests the British favour admitting students from all quarters of the world, as long as they are strong performers.
It is also clear that region of origin matters little: it has no impact in the "bad grades" condition and only Muslim students are regarded differently in the "good grades" condition, with net support lower by about 10 points, though it remains positive. This suggests concerns about cultural difference and integration do not have a strong impact on public reactions to student migrants, although there are clearly some reservations about Muslim students. We cannot say for sure why this is, but it seems likely that the more transitory nature of student migrants10 and the higher levels of education and English language skills students must have in order to study in Britain, contribute to a perception that most students do not pose serious integration problems, though media stories about extremism on university campuses may have increased concerns about Muslim students. However, although those with positive grades are positively regarded, student migrants are on balance slightly less popular than professional workers.
Our third survey experiment examined public views about family reunion migration. We varied two characteristics - how long the primary migrant had been in the country (three years or 10 years), and which region they came from (Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa or Muslim countries). Table 2.8 shows that three stories emerge from the results. Firstly, respondents are consistently negative about family reunion migration. Regardless of where the relatives are migrating from, or how long the primary migrant has been in the country, the balance of opinion is negative. Note that our question focuses on whether the settlement of family is "good or bad for Britain" so it is possible that many respondents would support admitting family members on other grounds - compassion or human rights, for example - while still regarding their admission as negative for Britain. Nonetheless, the public clearly do perceive more problems with family reunion migrants than they do with economic or student migrants. This may relate to a perception that the family reunion migration system is more open to abuse,11 that family reunion migrants impose more economic costs or that the migration of relatives poses more problems for integration.
It is also clear that region of origin has a larger impact on reactions to family reunion migrants than it did in the previous two experiments. Net support for settled migrants from the least favoured regions - Africa and the Muslim world - bringing over their relatives is around 30 points lower than it is for migrants bringing relatives from Western Europe, the most favoured region. Eastern Europe falls half-way between these two extremes. Perhaps this is because family members from such regions are regarded as less likely to speak English or to work. They may therefore be regarded as more culturally different, posing greater integration problems, than family members settling from elsewhere within Europe. Further work is needed to probe the nature of these concerns and examine which policy options, if any, would assuage them.
Respondents also recognise, and respond to, the length of time a migrant has been settled in the country. Net reactions to migrants settled for 10 years bringing over family members are between 13 and 17 points less negative than when the primary migrant has been in Britain for three years. This is not because respondents feel obliged to express a more favourable view of the longer-settled migrant - each respondent answers only one question on family migrants, so the difference is purely the result of whether they were randomly assigned to answer about a long-settled or more recently-settled migrant. While further work is needed to understand the reasoning being applied here, respondents clearly recognise and respond to a longer period of settlement in the country. This may reflect a commitment to reciprocity - rewarding longer commitment to Britain with more favourable treatment - or it may reflect a perception that the families of migrants with longer residence in Britain are less likely to pose integration problems or economic costs. Finally, it may reflect a perception that longer-settled migrants are less likely to abuse the family reunion migration system.
The more favourable reactions to longer-term residents do not result in more equitable treatment of migrants from different regions, however. The 'ethnic hierarchy' in reactions to the different regions remains precisely the same, with West Europeans regarded most favourably, followed by East Europeans with net support around 15 points lower, with Africans and Muslim migrants a further 12-20 points behind. White Europeans are consistently preferred to non-white Africans and Muslims, and richer West Europeans preferred to poorer East Europeans. Culture, race and economics may all play a role here. Finally, given the heated public debate about Muslim integration in Britain, it is noteworthy that reactions to migrants explicitly labelled as "Muslim" are no more negative than those to "African" migrants. Although many migrants from the latter group are Muslim, respondents did not show extra hostility to a group explicitly labelled as "Muslim" than to a non-white migrant group whose religious affiliation is not highlighted.
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- More meetings were called by Prime Minister Tony Blair in relation to asylum between 2001 and 2004 than any other issue apart from Iraq (Spencer, 2009: 359).
- Speech by immigration minister Damian Green, 15th September 2011, available at
- In particular, the sharp fall in net migration in 2008 reflects a major exodus that year following a dramatic deterioration in eco-nomic conditions.
- Though controls are applied to the 'A2' - Romania and Bulgaria - and were recently extended.
- Respondents to the 2002 European Social Survey were asked the following questions:
Would you say it is generally bad or good for Britain's economy that people come to live here from other countries? Please use this card. [0 Bad for the economy, 10 Good for the economy]
And, using this card, would you say that Britain's cultural life is generally undermined or enriched by people coming to live here from other countries? [0 Cultural life undermined, 10 Cultural life enriched]
- This table is a transformation of the original data, which asked respondents to rate the impacts of migration on a 0-10 scale. We have coded scores of 0-1 as "very bad", 2-4 as "bad", 5 as "neither good nor bad", 6-8 as "good" and 9-10 as "very good".
- Bases for Table 2.4 are as follows:
- Racial prejudice is measured slightly differently in the two surveys. On the European Social Survey this refers to levels of discomfort about a relative marrying an immigrant from a different ethnic group. On British Social Attitudes respondents were asked to rate their level of racial prejudice, with three categories: "a lot", "a little" or "none". The cut points in the European Social Survey data are chosen to reflect the same general distribution as these categories.
- In our experiments, we repeatedly use "Muslim countries" as a comparison region, usually using Pakistan and Bangladesh as examples. This is for two reasons. Firstly, Muslim countries have been a large source of migrants to Britain for several decades. Secondly, Muslims and Muslim migrants have featured very heavily in recent debates over migration and integration, so much so that some authors have argued they have become singled out as a 'pariah' group (Saggar, 2010). We therefore wanted to test if public concerns about immigrants who are clearly labelled as Muslims were stronger than those about immigrants from other regions.
- A 2010 Home Office report suggested 79 per cent of 2004 student migrants had left the UK by 2010 (Achato et al., 2010).
- Searches of the websites of Britain's two largest populist 'tabloid' newspapers - The Sun and The Daily Mail - reveal many stories about abuse of the family migration system, focusing in particular on fraudulent 'sham marriages' and on the problem of 'forced' or 'arranged' marriages. These stories also tend to focus on migrants from poorer non-white regions such as Africa and the Muslim countries of the Indian sub-continent, which may explain why support for migrants from these regions is particularly low.
- Speech by Immigration minister Damian Green, 2nd February 2012, available at: www.homeoffice.gov.uk/media-centre/speeches/making-immigration-work?version=1
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