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Why are we so concerned about immigration?

Mark Easton | 14:00 UK time, Thursday, 3 February 2011

An international survey of eight European and North American countries finds that the British are easily the most hostile on the question of immigration and immigrants - even though five of the nations polled have a greater proportion of foreigners in their population.

According to the research commissioned by US and European think-tanks, people in the UK are much more likely to say there are "too many" immigrants than comparable nations. In Britain the figure is 59% compared to 27% in Germany and the Netherlands - both countries with a higher level of foreign-born residents.

British respondents to the survey by Transatlantic Trends [976KB PDF] are the most likely to say that immigrants, both legal and illegal, are a burden on social services. Two-thirds of Britons see immigration as "more of a problem than an opportunity" compared to around 50% in the US and mainland Europe.

Around a quarter of Brits don't think any migrant should be allowed to access the NHS (25%) or state schools (22%), even if they are here legally. In other European countries with significant immigrant populations, the figure ranges from 1% to 5%.

Chart showing access to state-sponsored health care
hart showing access to public schools

While eight out of 10 Brits don't think anyone here illegally should have access to state schools or healthcare, the rest of Europe appears far more generous. Most people surveyed on the Continent, around 60%, think those resident illegally should still get free health treatment and around half say they should be able to receive state education.

The international survey polled a minimum of 1,000 people in each of the eight countries. Among the organisations which funded the research are the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Barrow Cadbury Trust in the UK.

The results suggest the British are more likely than anyone else to say that immigrants take jobs from native-born workers - 58% of us agree with that compared to an average of just 35% in the rest of Europe. Similarly, 52% of Britons believe that immigrants push down wages compared to an average of 44% among other European nations.

Our relative antipathy towards migrants is surprising given that British respondents are the most likely in Europe to say that immigrants are hard workers (77%). We are also more likely than the average European to believe that immigrants help to plug labour market gaps, with nearly three quarters supporting the idea that government should allow more foreign doctors and nurses into the UK and just over half of us saying more foreign care workers should be invited here to help look after the elderly.

The British are generally more likely than other Europeans to say that second-generation immigrants are integrating well and the most likely to complain that both legal and illegal immigrants are exploited in the workplace.

There is optimism, tolerance, even sympathy in these findings which seem at odds with the negativity and hostility exhibited elsewhere in the survey.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that our national debate about immigration encourages us to think the level is much higher than it really is. Asked to estimate the proportion of foreign-born people living in the UK, the average guess is 29.4%. The true figure according to OECD data is 10.8%, lower than Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada and the USA. When informed of that, the proportion of British respondents thinking it was "too many" fell from 59% to 46% - although this is still much higher than France (16%) or Germany (20%). The average of EU nations polled is 29%.

Chart showing knowledge of immigrant population changes perception

It may be a consequence of our island-nation status: that moat around our borders encourages greater introspection. It may be a consequence of Empire: the sudden arrival of large numbers of "coloured Colonials", as they were described, in the post-war decades coincided with rapid and unsettling social change. It may be a consequence of a public and political debate about immigration which has often appeared duplicitous and dishonest.

This survey doesn't reveal a bigoted nation but rather a confused one. For 100 years, we have conducted our conversation about immigration in terms of "illegals", "bogus asylum-seekers" and "welfare scroungers" out to steal "British jobs from British workers". Since the Edict of Expulsion in 1290 which saw England's entire Jewish population deported, public debate about foreigners has always been more hysterical than objective.

And yet we are also, I think, a tolerant and broad-minded country in the main. Over centuries, we have experienced wave after wave of migrants and seen how the new arrivals have added something to our cultural tapestry. If we look back far enough, all of us will find elements of migrant stock.

None of the other countries surveyed gets close to the 23% of Britons who regard immigration as the most important issue facing the country today. The average is 10% among European nations, 9% in the US, 5% in Canada.

Why? Not because British race relations, public services or economic prospects are under any greater stress from foreign arrivals than other countries polled. Nor can it be simply population density - the Netherlands has many more people in each square mile than the UK. Rather I suspect it is because, for centuries, when we have heard the word "immigrant" we have tended to find ourselves thinking "threat".

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