Support for Ukrainian refugees underpinned by warming attitudes to immigration People who have fled war-torn Ukraine at a nearby border crossing board a train for western Poland on March 14, 2022 in Przemysl, Poland. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
The Ukraine war has seen a surge in pro-refugee public sentiment. British Future’s six-monthly tracker of migration attitudes, conducted by Ipsos, offers conclusive evidence that this is underpinned by a long-term softening of attitudes to immigration.
Most striking of all is the shift in people’s views on overall numbers.
In 2016, two-thirds of people favoured overall reductions. Now 42 per cent want to see immigration reduced and 50 per cent don’t. These are the softest attitudes for decades.
Even within what is now a reducer minority, immigration attitudes are more nuanced than “more or less”. One quarter of the public say reducing numbers is their priority – and want large cuts.
Another 17 per cent say they would reduce overall numbers “a little”, but that swing segment rarely prioritises reductions when asked about specific flows of immigration.
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That bolsters a broad public majority behind several policy choices that will increase immigration – notably the new Hong Kong visa, and now maximum generosity towards refugees from Ukraine.
Within the controls of a new points-based system, the research finds broad public permission for work visas where there are skills gaps or labour shortages.
Asylum is more contentious, with concern about rising numbers of small boats making dangerous journeys across the Channel. These nuanced findings debunk the idea of a public demand for the toughest approach possible to asylum seekers.
After polarising Commons and Lords debates over the Nationality and Borders Bill, neither the government nor its opponents have cut through to convince most of the public.
Just 32 per cent support the government proposal to offer only temporary refugee protection depending on how people got to Britain, while 36 per cent support the current system, and many people don’t know.
A more popular change would be to allow asylum claims to be made at UK embassies abroad – which are supported by a plurality of 47 per cent to 20 per cent.
Two thirds of people support greater efforts to agree safe returns for those whose claims have been rejected.
A third of the public are attracted and a third repelled by tough messages that prioritise deterrence.
So an asylum debate that forces a choice of control or compassion is a recipe for stalemate. Securing broad public consent for refugee protection is about combining control and compassion. Most people want a system that is orderly, fair and humane.
It is not only on refugees fleeing war in Ukraine where politicians may be misreading what the British public now thinks about immigration.