Yvonni MarkakiIn this article, Yvonni Markaki summarises empirical research investigating opposition to immigration to the UK. Overall, her findings illustrate a gap between how the public perceives the impact of immigration and the effects of immigration found by researchers and specialists.

In response to popular concerns over the impact of immigration, the UK coalition government promised to reduce net immigration from its then current 250,000 to ‘tens of thousands’ by the next general election. The increasing pressure on public policy to restrict immigration has often been associated with competition over limited job opportunities, mismatch between skill demand and supply, slow economic growth and incurring costs on the welfare system. Over the years, however, the gap between what the public perceives to be the impact of immigration seems to drift further and further apart from the effects of immigration found by researchers and specialists.

In a recently released paper, I empirically examine whether opposition to immigration among natives in the UK – those who are native-born and do not belong to an ethnic minority group – is driven by concentrations of immigrants from poorer European and poorer non-European countries, negative economic growth, rising unemployment and the share of highly skilled and unskilled natives and immigrants. I use data from the European Social Survey between 2002 and 2010 and measure preferences over immigration policy with three survey questions that ask respondents how many immigrants from different origin countries and ethnic groups should be allowed to come and live in the UK.

Are immigrants of all ethnicities and origins equally welcome? 

Natives’ attitudes towards future incoming immigration flows appear to depend both on the origin and ethnicity of the immigrant group in question, as well as on each group’s size relative to the native population. Empirical results support the idea that ethnic similarity to ethnically white immigrants or those from poorer countries in Europe initially fosters less favour for immigration restriction. But this can quickly be reversed if the relative size of the immigrant group keeps increasing and intergroup competition becomes more salient. On the other hand, what is perceived as ethnic dissimilarity with non-white immigrants and immigrants arriving from poorer countries outside Europe may trigger more support for restriction, at least at first. But, in cases where more than one in ten residents of a region are immigrants, continuous contact between natives and immigrants may act to reduce the desire for restricting future immigration.

Do labour market conditions drive support for restriction of immigration?

All else held constant, natives are more likely to oppose further immigration inflows to the UK if they live in regions where more immigrants are unemployed and unskilled. This finding is perhaps consistent with the expectation that restrictionist views are driven by concerns over economically vulnerable immigrants, i.e. those that are unskilled and unemployed, draining local resources. However, I also find that respondents are less likely to support restriction in regions where a larger proportion of natives are unemployed and unskilled.

Negative economic growth in the region the previous year does not appear to increase or decrease respondents’ chances of being in favour of immigration restrictions. This evidence does not support the idea that negative economic growth and a larger share of unskilled and low skilled natives increases favour for restriction on the basis of competition over limited available resources. The results also reject the assertion that regions with highly skilled natives would foster competition with highly skilled immigrants over highly skilled occupations.

Therefore, my findings are not fully consistent with the expectation that support for restriction of immigration among natives is driven by high unemployment and a struggling economy.

Does overestimation play a role in anti-immigrant attitudes?

Previous research has shown that natives tend to overestimate the size of the immigrant population in their country as much as seven times. This “innumeracy” – rather than the actual size of the immigrant population – can play an important role in negative reactions to immigration. It is likely that, by overestimating the number of immigrants, one can also overestimate their potential impact in the host society.

In a paper with Simonetta Longhi published by Migration Studies, we find that native-born respondents across 24 countries in Europe are significantly more likely to hold the view that immigration is harmful for their country if they live in regions where natives on average overestimate the percentage of immigrants by more than nine per cent. Our paper focuses on evaluations of the impact of immigration on the country’s economy, culture, and quality of life overall and find that otherwise similar people living in different regions tend to vary widely in their perceptions. Attitudes vary, not only across regions of the same country, but also across the three categories of attitudes – economic/cultural/overall impact.

Perceived impacts of immigration amongst natives in the UK

We compare attitudes of natives across more than 64 regions of 24 countries in Europe and find that native-born residents in regions of the UK and Greece are significantly more likely than residents of other European regions to evaluate immigration as harmful to their country. However, UK natives are, on average, more likely to express concern over the impact of immigration on culture and quality of life overall, than concerns over the economic impacts of immigration. Native-born residents in the West Midlands and in Yorkshire and the Humber are more likely to express concerns over all three types of impact. The view that immigration as harmful for the country’s culture and quality of life overall is more pronounced among native-born residents in the East Midlands, Wales, and the South West.

Estimated impacts of immigration

Amidst widespread belief to the contrary, numerous studies using different sources of data, countries of focus, and time-frames have consistently found the effect of an increase in immigration on wages and employment to be so close to zero. In some cases it is estimated to be small and positive while in others small and negative. This empirical finding also holds for those groups of native workers who are the closest substitutes for foreign workers and are therefore likely to directly compete for jobs.

Overall, existing evidence suggests that policy makers have been caught between the (positive) impacts of immigration estimated and predicted by researchers and the perceived (negative) impacts of immigration among the public. Acknowledging and addressing this ‘gap’ may be the only way to prevent biasing future policies towards a direction that is harmful to the country’s economy and society.

This article draws on the author’s papers in the National Institute Economic Review and in Migration Studies.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Christopher Brown CC BY 2.0 

About the Author

Yvonni MarkakiYvonni Markaki is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex. Her research interests include international migration, labour and population economics, political behaviour, and poverty measurement. You can follow her on Twitter @yvonmarkaki


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