Results released last week from an international survey by UK-based research company, Ipsos MORI, found widely divergent levels of concern about immigration in the 19 countries surveyed.
In the UK, 43 percent of people identified immigration control as one of
their country’s top three issues of concern, compared to 32 percent in
Australia (the next highest), 15 percent in Sweden and one percent in
Poland and Brazil.
The degree to which immigration has become a focus in the UK seems to
have little to do with the size of its immigrant population, estimated
at about 7 percent. In Spain,
non-nationals make up about 11 percent of the population but only 6
percent of respondents in the Ipsos MORI survey identified immigration
control as a major concern.
The largest number of non-nationals living in the European Union by
January 2012, were found in Germany (7.4 million), where about 22
percent of people expressed concern about immigration in the Ipsos MORI
survey. The next highest is Spain (5.5 million), followed by Italy (4.8
million), the UK (4.8 million), and France 3.8 million), according to
statistics from the European Commission's Eurostat database. As a share
of the national population, however, Luxembourg tops the charts with 43
percent of its population made up of non-nationals. Lichtenstein,
Switzerland, Cyprus and Latvia also have high proportions of non-nationals.
A number of researchers have tried to discover why attitudes toward
immigration vary so widely from one country or region to the next, but
have found no simple or definitive answers.
by the Ipsos MORI researchers found that the surge in concern in the UK
has accompanied a steep increase in immigration, starting around 1999.
In 2011, the UK reported receiving the largest influx of immigrants of
all EU countries (566,000), followed by Germany, Spain and Italy.
Concerns driven by perceptions
While there has been a significant increase, people in the UK tend to
significantly over-estimate the percentage of the population that are
foreign born, with the average guess coming in at 31 percent. They also
over-estimate the proportion of the immigrant population that are asylum
seekers and refugees - the least common immigrant type - and overlook
foreign students, who made up the largest category of migrants to the UK
Concerns about immigration are often driven by the perception that
immigrants put too much pressure on public services, and unfairly access
welfare benefits. The recent negative reaction in the UK to the lifting
of travel restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians, allowing them to
seek work in other EU countries from 1 January 2014, appears to be less
about concerns that they will compete with Britons for jobs and more
about the belief that they will come to the country to take advantage of
its social services, in what has become known as "benefit tourism".
It is unclear why other countries in northern Europe appear less
concerned about this potential influx. However, in comparing immigration
attitudes, the Ipsos MORI survey reveals a greater generation gap
between Britons and other European nationalities. An article in the Economist suggested this could be the result of differing life experiences.
Before the mid-1970s, the UK was mostly homogenous compared to
continental Europe. The baby boomer generation therefore grew up
"Eurosceptic and dubious about diversity", but for later generations,
"mass immigration, European integration and multiculturalism are part of
The Migration Observatory
at Oxford University, which analyses migration data, notes that
opposition to migration in the UK is "more common among older, UK-born,
white, and less educated groups."
Is it the economy?
Three basic theories as to why this is so have been extensively
researched. The first - contact theory - suggests that sustained
positive contact with people from other ethnic or national groups
produces more positive attitudes towards that group. The second - group
conflict theory - posits that those who think migrants pose a threat to
their interests, identities or status are most likely to be opposed to
immigration. Finally, economic competition theory suggests that
opposition to migration is rooted in native workers having to compete
with migrants with similar skill sets, and the perception that migrants
represent a financial burden on native tax-payers.
The Migration Observatory says "evidence is quite strong for the first
two theories, and mixed for the various economic explanations".
Europe's financial crisis and the rise in anti-immigration attitudes
that appears to have accompanied it may have given undue credence to
economic competition theory in recent years. "Economic conditions are
not as powerful a determinant of attitudes as many people would assume,"
Scott Blinder, the Migration Observatory's acting director, wrote in an
email to IRIN.
from an examination of the determinants of anti-immigration attitudes
in European countries, by Yvonni Markaki and Simonetta Longhi of the
University of Essex, also provide little support for economic
The study did find a correlation between higher anti-immigration
attitudes and regions with large percentages of immigrants, but found
that most of these attitudes were driven by higher percentages of non-EU
More counter-intuitively, the study found that higher levels of
unemployment among natives were associated with more positive attitudes,
while an increase in the unemployment rate of immigrants was linked to
an increase in anti-immigration attitudes. "What we found is that
[anti-immigration attitudes] are not so much related to characteristics
of the native population as characteristics of the immigrant
population," said lead author Yvonni Markaki. She and Longhi note that a
"threat to cultural values seems to drive more opposition to
immigration than economic threat".
Media to blame?
The media is often blamed for contributing to anti-immigration
attitudes, but the extent to which media coverage drives or caters to
public opinions about immigration is very difficult to prove. Certainly,
the British tabloid press have devoted an inordinate amount of space to
issues such as "benefit tourism", but UK Prime Minister David Cameron
has also used the term on numerous occasions and is pushing for legislation that would make it more difficult for immigrants to access social benefits.
"I suspect that media coverage and political rhetoric and
position-taking in domestic politics also play an important role in
cross-country differences [to immigration attitudes]," wrote Blinder,
adding that this has yet to be demonstrated by researchers.
Markaki suggested that policies and leadership on immigration issues
played an important role in driving public attitudes. "The lowest
anti-immigration attitudes tend to be in Scandinavia... It has to do
with institutions and more liberal asylum seeker systems," she said.
In countries where politicians have seized on popular discontent about
immigration and used it to push popular anti-immigration policies that
discontent has tended to multiply.