Government's Anti-Migrant Rhetoric Does Not Match UK Sentiment. Here's Proof

There are currently more refugees coming to the UK than any time since WW2, but there's still not widespread concern.
A protester holds a 'Refugees welcome' placard during a demonstration against sending migrants to Rwanda
A protester holds a 'Refugees welcome' placard during a demonstration against sending migrants to Rwanda
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The UK now has more refugees choosing to make a new home here compared to any other time since World War 2 – but the public is not as worked up about it as the government has suggested, according to a fresh report.

Home secretary Suella Braverman justified the government’s new extreme proposals to cut back on “illegal” migrants on Tuesday by claiming that the British public “have had enough” of migrants arriving in small boats.

Here’s what you need to know.

How have refugee numbers changed?

UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) worked with the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford to publish what researchers have described as “the first substantial review of the UK’s post-Brexit migration system”.

In a report called: “Immigration after Brexit: Where are we going?”, it appears that migration has shifted substantially within the UK since it left the EU, with fewer low-skilled, low-paid workers arriving from the bloc.

This was part of the government’s plan when ministers first unveiled the new, post-Brexit migration programme.

This has also played into the labour shortages which have been felt across the hospitality and transport sectors, particularly in recent months.

But, this isn’t a scenario we see playing out across the entire UK workforce, as there are more refugees coming into the country compared to any time since World War 2, according to the researchers.

This makes sense, as the government introduced a new migrant system once we left the EU, where non-UK residents can apply for a Skilled Work Visa for high or middle-skill jobs.

And since the end of the transition period – January 2021 – around 437,000 refugees have moved to the UK – 85% of whom are Ukrainians or from Hong Kong, not arriving on British shores via small boats.

The government has special schemes in place for both of these countries, as Ukraine has been invaded by Russia and Hong Kong has seen China remove some of its key civil liberties in recent years.

As Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory, noted, the new immigration system “has given with one hand and taken with the other”.

She noted: “The average impacts of the new immigration system are still expected to be small, but it’s clear that different employers are experiencing it in very different ways.”

How have attitudes to refugees changed since Brexit?

Some Eurosceptic sentiment was built up by those who were looking to reduce the number of people arriving into the UK.

For instance, then-UKIP leader Nigel Farage built much of his campaign to leave the EU in the run up to the referendum in 2016 around the suggestion that there were too many people coming to the UK – and the EU was to blame.

It helped strengthen the anti-EU argument that the UK needed to end freedom of movement and regain control of its borders.

Nigel Farage poses during the launch of a national poster campaign urging voters to vote to leave the EU ahead of the EU referendum, in London on June 16, 2016.
Nigel Farage poses during the launch of a national poster campaign urging voters to vote to leave the EU ahead of the EU referendum, in London on June 16, 2016.
DANIEL LEAL via Getty Images

Yet, as UKICE pointed out in its report: “Public concern about overall migration levels appears far more muted than in the run-up to the referendum.”

According to polls from Ipsos MORI, voters have become less likely to say immigration should be reduced since the 2016 referendum, with 46% of people believing migration is a force for good now and only 29% disagreeing.

The think tank noted that overall asylum attitudes seem much more positive “if it is perceived to be controlled and in sectors or jobs where there is demand for workers”.

During the EU referendum in 2016, around half of the public said immigration was a top concern every month – but by the end of 2022, this had fallen to just 11%.

“Average concern about immigration in 2021 and 2022 was at its lowest levels in two decades,” the UKICE.

The think tank suggested that this could be because the general public think Brexit has offered stricter controls on immigration, even though refugee numbers are at a new high.

But, this does not match up with a YouGov poll which found 79% of the public disapprove of the government’s handling of immigration at the moment.

YouGov also found that in October, 33% of the public want to allow more people fleeing persecution in their home countries to come and live in Britain, and 33% were happy to allow the present numbers of this group to settle here.

For the first time in polling history last year, more people favoured maintaining or increasing, levels of migration than favoured reductions, according to UKICE.

In its report, the think tank said: “In 2022, around half of voters were positive about the economic and cultural impacts of migration up from a third in 2014.”

As UKICE’s Jonathan Portes explained: “The biggest shakeup in UK immigration policy for half a century coincides with a sustained shift in public attitudes in a more positive direction, with a broad consensus that the system should meet the needs of the economy and labour market.”

It is important to note though, that 50% of respondents told YouGov they support banning migrants who come to the UK in small boats from ever re-entering the country – suggesting there is a firm appetite for people who don’t have legitimate asylum claims not to settle here.

What about the government’s anti-migrant rhetoric?

Migration has been a sore spot for the Conservative government for some time – hence the unveiling of the new controversial Illegal Migration Bill.

One of PM Rishi Sunak’s New Year pledges was to “stop the boats”, in reference to the supposedly illegal crossings made by thousands each year (from both in and outside the EU) looking to make the UK their home.

Braverman has been pushing to send these “illegal” migrants either back to their home countries or to Rwanda, even amid significant legal challenges.

Earlier this year, she made headlines by talking about a refugee “invasion”, and this week she claimed that 100 million refugees worldwide are currently eligible for UK asylum.


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