Author: May Bulman Social Affairs Correspondent
Exclusive: Government accused of being ‘out of step’ with public opinion on immigration as new data shows rise in sympathy for Channel migrants
The government has been accused of being “out of step” with public opinion on immigration after it emerged the proportion of Britons wanting fewer immigrants to arrive has dropped from more than two thirds (67 per cent) in February 2015 to 49 per cent in November 2020.
In August 2019, 54 per cent of respondents said they would like to see a reduction and 9 per cent said they would like to see an increase – indicating that the public mood has softened considerably on immigration in the past year and a half.
During this time, Boris Johnson’s government has taken an increasingly hardline approach to immigration, frequently using language such as “illegal immigrants” to describe people seeking asylum and condemning their legal representatives as “activist lawyers”.
In response to a rise in asylum seekers crossing the Channel by small boat last year, home secretary Priti Patel branded the journeys “totally unacceptable” and “illegal”, and vowed to forcibly remove around 1,000 asylum seekers to EU countries they passed through before crossing.
However, the polling shows that there has been an increase in sympathy for those attempting to cross the Channel, with the figure rising from 53 per cent to 56 per cent since August 2019, and the proportion of respondents saying they had little or no sympathy dropping from 43 per cent to 39 per cent.
A higher proportion of people say they believe it is important to have an immigration system that is fair, “even if that means allowing more asylum seekers to live in the UK than at present” (42 per cent), than believe the asylum system should “deter” people from seeking asylum in Britain (37 per cent), the polling shows.
It comes at a time when the Home Office is coming under mounting scrutiny for its hostile approach to immigrants, with even Conservative backbenchers criticising its recent policies on asylum seekers.
Earlier this month, former immigration minister and Tory MP Caroline Nokes condemned the government’s “inhuman” approach to immigration, warning that its plans to hold asylum seekers in makeshift camps would only cause further delays in the system and end up costing the taxpayer more money.
“It does feel like the government is more hardline than the public. But that’s the overall public. The government policy plays up to those people who support them. They feel like going in that direction is getting them what they need,” he said.
Mr Gottfried said the polarisation in public attitudes made it difficult to predict what future immigration policy would look like, adding: “We’re in real unchartered territory now with immigration policy after leaving the EU. The government may become more strict and clamp down on immigration more.
“But it will be interesting to see in a few years’ time where the immigration debate is: whether it’s still around, whether the government is being criticised for not doing enough, or for doing too much.”
Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said it was “symbolic” that less than half of people surveyed wanted to see reduced immigration, and pointed out that this has been a longer-term trend towards more positive views on migration since the EU referendum.
She added that the impact of coronavirus must also be considered: “Of course, we have to remember that immigration appears to be pretty low at the moment as a result of the pandemic anyway – it’s possible that net migration is already at its lowest level for a generation.
“So at this stage it’s hard to imagine too many ways in which it could realistically be reduced.”
Emma Harrison, chief executive of IMIX, said the new data showed the government was “out of step with public opinion on refugee protection and migration more broadly”.
“Now that we’ve ‘taken back control’ and created a points-based system, it’s time for the government to rebuild faith in the asylum part of the system,” she added.
“Let’s create a compassionate, cost-effective system which enables people seeking asylum to have a fair hearing and a fast decision so that they can carry on with their lives.”
Stephen Hale, chief executive at Refugee Action, said: “This heart-warming poll confirms that more people than not want a Britain that welcomes and supports people fleeing violence and oppression.”
He raised concern about the fact that the UK’s refugee resettlement programmes remain suspended after having been paused due to the pandemic, with thousands of people subsequently left stranded in dangerous camps or in cities near war zones.
He added: “The home secretary can fix this now. It’s high time to resume the long-term resettlement programme that has helped some of the world’s most vulnerable people to successfully rebuild their lives in the UK.”