As the Government fans the flames of anti-immigration rhetoric, Dorothy Stein looks at the data that suggests the public is unimpressed

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The Illegal Migration Bill – which proceeded through committee stage in the House of Commons last week – marks the culmination of years of government anti-immigration rhetoric.  The Hansard record of parliamentary debates show references to “small boats” steeply increasing from 2018 onwards, while the bill itself has a steely focus on those arriving via so-called irregular routes, mainly small boats.  

Rishi Sunak wheeled out the three-word slogan ‘Stop the Boats’ in January, one of his five “promises” that we’re assured are “the people’s priorities”.   In March, the slogan – ’borrowed, along with its accompanying strategist, from Australian Tony Abbott –appeared on his podium.  

Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council has responded to the bill: “This draconian legislation stains our country’s reputation for fairness in the face of adversity.” “Most people in Britain open their hearts … to those in need, fellow human beings seeking safety and sanctuary,” Solomon says and adds that the bill) “does not reflect the country we are in 2023.”

Polling suggests Solomon is right. There has been a steady shift in the public attitude towards immigration since 2015, even before the Brexit referendum.  Over the intervening years, the public has become increasingly positive towards immigration.  A recent report from UK in a changing Europe confirms, “the salience of immigration as a public concern has collapsed”.  

While in parliament, language once heard only from UKIP has become normalised.  Suella Braverman’s inflammatory claims last October of “an invasion on our South Coast” and that “immigration is out of control”, were repeated by MPs this week.  They made sure to mention that they were perfectly aware of the widespread condemnation the language received the last time around.  

Home Office published data does not support the government’s claims.    

An Invasion? Immigration Out of Control?  

The number of “irregular arrivals” is small in comparison with those on approved routes.    

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Jumping the queue?  Unless you’re coming from Hong Kong, Ukraine or Afghanistan, there is no queue. And for refugees from Afghanistan, the schemes have been beset with problems. (In 2022, Afghans were the second largest group arriving in small boats.) 

Economic migrants?  

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The top five countries of origin of people arriving in small boats include four areas of violent conflict, and asylum success rates from these countries, shown above, are high.  

Around 90% of arrivals in small boats apply for asylum and overall, 75% of asylum seekers are found to have genuine asylum claims first time around.  Last year, a further 44% were successful on appeal.  

Exploiting British generosity?    

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Using UNHCR figures, the UK ranks fifth in hosting refugees and asylum seekers across Europe.  Taking into account population, the UK ranks 18th.

The number of asylum seekers in the UK reflects a growing administrative backlog, a bureaucratic failure, not an increase in arrivals. Only 1% of the small boat arrivals in 2022 were processed by the end of the year, and the backlog of asylum cases is now 161,000 cases, each one a life on hold and in grim conditions.   

The disregard for the facts, inflammatory language, and narrative of an inverted reality in which UK citizens are victims, exploited by grasping and ruthless asylum seekers, is horribly familiar. The Brexit playbook has returned.       

But public opinion is a constantly shifting landscape, and even Australian strategists may fail to read the signs.  It responds to different crises – the pandemic, the climate crisis, the cost of living crisis – overlaid across long-term changes in values, linked to demographic shifts.       

‘History Will Judge this Shabby Government’ and its Weaponisation of Refugee Lives, says Lord Alf Dubs

Hardeep Matharu

Polls report a steady change in public attitudes towards immigration, beginning in 2015.     

In 2022, for the first time in polling history, the number of people who supported maintaining, or increasing, migration levels outnumbered those who wanted migration reduced.  For the first time on record, most people now see migration as positive for the UK.  

An increased number, around half, are positive about the economic and cultural impacts of migration. Immigration no longer appears among the public’s top concerns.  

Instead, polls found a change in the perception of the contribution of immigrants to the UK.  The pandemic laid bare skills shortages across the NHS, care sector and for other kinds of essential workers, including lorry drivers.  

And we’ve developed a greater appreciation of unskilled workers – fruit pickers, restaurant and catering staff and construction workers – who won’t ever qualify for visas under the post-Brexit points system. 

Underlying this evolving attitude towards immigration are deep shifts in demographics.  The British have become more positive about immigration across every demographic group, but in three groups the change is happening twice as fast. The three overlapping groups – younger voters, graduates, and those from ethnic minority backgrounds – are growing in size and have increasingly positive views on immigration.  

As the Government fans the flames of anti-immigration rhetoric, public opinion is turning away.  The polls support Solomon’s assessment of the Illegal Migration Bill: “It is not who we are”.


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