Immigration fears: a vulnerable public in the face of change
The reaction to rising immigration among European publics is complex and conflicted. The progressive mainstream must better understand voter anxieties in order to offer a positive platform to counteract them
As of 2015, there were 244 million international migrants worldwide, of which around 76 million lived in Europe. Immigrants often have a positive impact on their host society, creating jobs and contributing to its dynamism. Still, those on the receiving end are not always pleased about their arrival, with a 2014 global Gallup poll finding Europe to be the region with the most negative attitude to immigration. Since then, the development of the refugee crisis has pushed the question of immigration to dominate news cycles and public debate across European countries, with Europe receiving over 1.3 million asylum claims in 2015, and Turkey hosting 2.5 million refugees, more than any other country in the world. In some cases, it has brought long-standing public concerns about immigration to the fore, while in others it has created new anxieties.
The heightened focus on immigration has led to considerable worry around Europe about how these developments may be impacting on public opinion and increasingly shifting support to rightwing populist parties.
Mainstream political forces, who regard the contribution of immigrants to society and the economy as positive overall, now need more elaborate answers to this political challenge. This starts with a more granular understanding of public opinion. Better grasping the hopes and fears of the electorate can help craft more effective responses to these concerns and challenge the narratives and ‘solutions’ offered by their populist rivals.
This piece provides an overview on immigration flows and attitudes in the UK, France, Germany and Sweden. It draws on a diverse range of data from both before and since the refugee crisis. In particular, it aims to break down public anxiety towards ‘immigration’ by exploring attitudes to specific categories, socio-demographic factors and perception of government competence.
Who’s on the move? Old and new patterns
Figure 1 shows overall immigration to the four focus countries, while Figure 2 compares net migration over the past 10 years. Immigration to all countries has been rising, with France the only country to experience a decrease in net migration, caused largely by growing emigration. The UK and France have felt comparatively little impact from the refugee crisis, while immigration into Germany and Sweden has recently been transformed by it.
Source: Data compiled from national statistics offices.
Since the onset of the refugee crisis, the UK and France have continued to receive inflows along traditional lines – Britain welcomes most of its immigrants for the purposes of work or study while the largest groups of those moving to France are joining family or students. Although both countries still see more annual immigration from outside the EU, the proportion of EU immigrants has been rising. Figure 3 shows the stock of EU and non-EU immigrants resident in each country – the UK has the most significant share of EU immigrants in its overall mix. Immigrants stay for varying lengths of time, with many becoming permanent residents, while others are more transient visitors.
Source: European commission, Annual report on labour mobility 2014
Thanks largely to their open position on refugees, Germany and Sweden have recently seen dramatic changes to their overall inflows, dominated by immigration from outside the EU in the form of asylum seekers fleeing the conflict in Syria. Germany registered the most first-time asylum applications in the EU in 2015, while Sweden accepted the most per capita, documenting record immigration. National level figures for 2015 put the number of claims at more than 1 million in Germany and over 160,000 in Sweden. Figure 4 shows asylum applications per 100,000 local population, based on the Eurostat figures, demonstrating the uneven distribution of pressures across the focus countries and comparing to the EU average.
Source: Adapted from BBC analysis of Eurostat data: “Migration to Europe in seven charts”
To sum up, there has been a trend towards greater immigration in recent years, but pressures vary considerably from one country to another: primarily economic immigrants to the UK, family reunion in France, and recent flows of refugees into Germany and Sweden.
General attitudes to immigration
Attitudes to immigration are by nature complex and difficult to measure. Yet understanding them has become more important than ever in the face of the changes and challenges outlined above. Figure 5 shows the level of concern about immigration over time, measured as a percentage of those surveyed identifying it as top issue facing their country.
The UK displays relatively high levels of concern over time and France very low levels. Since the refugee crisis began, concern in the UK has increased somewhat, whereas in France it remains largely unchanged. The economic backdrop is important to consider. As the UK has turned the page of the financial crisis, more voters have come to rank immigration as a top concern. In France, the public remains preoccupied with economic woes and unemployment, leading them to rank these as priority issues. Nonetheless, poor economic prospects within parts of the UK – for example among deindustrialised regions – often correlate with greater concern about immigration, and when asked specifically about immigration, France is typically the most negative of the focus countries. In Germany and Sweden, both strong economies, the proportion identifying immigration as an important issue is low over time before showing a significant spike in 2015 and 2016 correlating with the timing of the refugee crisis. The way immigration is covered in national and international media may also impact on the level and nature of concern.
So what are people worried about?
Anxiety about immigration seems to stem from three main sources regarding its impact on the host population. First, there is the worry about the pressure immigration puts on the host country, including on its labour market and public services, resulting in the possibility of poorer conditions or less availability for the native population. Second, there is the fear of negative cultural impact, where immigrants are viewed as a different group to the ‘locals’ who may practice unwanted behaviours, fail to integrate and threaten social cohesion and even national identity. And finally, there is concern about security, the worry that immigrants might actually pose a physical threat, for example through acts of terrorism or crime.
Figure 6 shows the level of concern about impact on public services.
Despite a fall since 2011, this concern remains high in the UK, confirmed by the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey. It correlates with the Vote Leave message during the EU referendum campaign that immigration was contributing to strain on the NHS and a shortage of social housing, messages which apparently resonated with a large number of voters. In France, despite falling net migration, there has been a slight rise in concern. National level polling reveals widespread fears the country does not have the resources to cope with immigrant arrivals; there is also concern about the question of social dumping caused by EU ‘posted workers’. Concern in Germany has fallen slightly but remains above 50 per cent, while Sweden shows the biggest jump in concern, possibly caused by the strain imposed on it by its huge per capita intake of refugees.
Figure 7 shows public concern about ‘changes to one’s country’ being caused by immigration. These worries are over 40 per cent for every country. Again in 2016, France shows the highest level of concern, probably reflecting its debate on the question of national identity, with widespread doubt over the ability to integrate Muslim immigrants into a very secular society. The question of physical threat is explored further in relation to refugees specifically in the next section.
To counterbalance these fears, there is some recognition in European countries of the positive contribution that immigrants make. Forty-five per cent in the UK acknowledge the beneficial impact immigrants have on the economy for example, while in Sweden, openness and tolerance have traditionally formed a key part of the national identity.
Therefore, as such, overall immigration attitudes do not say much and must be taken with a pinch of salt. Policymakers need to systematically consider specific concerns and positive feelings rather than overall, overly generalised impressions.
Attitudes towards particular groups: EU migrants, refugees and Muslims
When populist parties stoke concern about immigration, they often single out particular groups of immigrants or those of immigrant origin, attempting to strengthen the association between those specific groups and one or more of the threats outlined above. Three groups which have generated considerable debate in one or more of the focus countries recently are EU immigrants, refugees and Muslims.
Figures 8 and 9 show the level of negative feeling by publics in the focus countries towards EU and non-EU immigrants respectively in recent years.
Although EU immigration featured strongly in the UK’s referendum debate, animosity towards non-EU immigrants has actually been consistently higher for the past three years. Similarly across the other countries, non-EU immigrants more commonly elicit negative feelings than EU immigrants. Given the UK’s concern about pressure on services, it may be the successful linking of a specific concern to a specific immigrant group (EU immigrants) which caused the negative feeling and referendum outcome, rather than a general hostility towards the group itself.
Figure 10 illustrates the main concerns that are associated with refugees by the public in each of the focus countries in 2016. In every country but France, the biggest fear associated with this group is that refugees will increase the likelihood of terrorism. This seems paradoxical given both France’s experiences of terrorism in 2015 and the lack of recent major terror attacks in the other countries (the poll was carried out prior to the recent incidents in Germany), but it remains at a high level and is only topped by economic and social problems. Sweden also displays a very significant fear about refugees being more associated with crime. Overall the association between refugees and the physical security threat is worryingly high across countries. The concern about pressure placed by refugees on jobs and social benefits is reflective of the wider concerns on those issues previously discussed.
Unlike the recent surge of interest in refugees, anxiety over Islam and Muslims is more long-established in Europe and in the focus countries. Figure 11 compares self-identified attitudes to Muslims in 2006 and 2016.
While unfavourable views of Muslims have risen in the UK (though starting from a low level), they have dropped in France and significantly in Germany. In all countries but Sweden, they are well under one third in 2016.
Figure 12 illustrates the extent of a tendency in the focus countries for the public to say that Muslims want to form a distinct group rather than adopt the customs of wider society. This is more concerning, with at least 50 per cent in each country holding this view in 2016, although the trend is on the decline – something which perhaps indicates greater public maturity, ie reluctance to perceive Muslims as one block.
This perception of difference may explain why concerns and public discourse about Muslims tend to focus around the questions of social cohesion, identity and integration. As the conversation about refugees and Muslims has increasingly merged due to the origin of refugees in primarily Muslim countries, this perception of difference may also contribute to the sense of fear that refugees will carry out attacks against host populations, whose values they are not perceived to share. This narrative has been seized on by populist groups, who present Muslim values and by association those of many refugees as incompatible with western ones. Both terror attacks and incidents such as the assaults in Cologne and Sweden are taken as proof of this divergence and can negatively impact on public opinion. Nonetheless, over time the perception of Muslims as ‘different’ has dropped by 10 per cent in the UK and in Germany by 27 per cent since 2006.
Who is doing the worrying?
While concerns about immigration vary and present themselves in different guises, there has been a lot of effort to determine whether ‘immigration worriers’ share similar characteristics. Supporters of rightwing populist parties in each country display higher levels of concern about immigration than the general public, and in the UK political allegiance is now the best indicator of concern on this topic.
Beyond that, the picture is more mixed than has at times been suggested. Particularly in the UK following the Brexit vote, many rushed to label ‘leave’ voters, including those concerned about immigration, as the ‘losers’ from globalisation. These individuals were said to be older, less educated, and less well-off economically. On closer examination, these characteristics may provide clues towards a person’s stance on immigration, but do not reliably predict it.
On age, while millennials are indeed most likely to be positive towards immigrants and refugees, Generation X are often worried about their own futures and hold more negative views. A TENT Foundation survey exploring attitudes to refugees found that in Germany, 35-54-year-olds were the most likely to hold negative positions. More broadly, as populist parties cast off their image as fringe parties with unacceptable views, they are increasingly able to appeal to younger supporters. The Front National in France has grown in part by attracting the youth vote and Alternative für Deutschland supporters are more likely to be young or middle aged, rather than older. The Sweden Democrats has also drawn increased support from younger voters struggling with unemployment challenges.
While there is some evidence that those with less education and lower incomes generally hold more negative attitudes towards diversity, others contend that it is really a question of identity and ideology that determines a person’s position. According to this argument, the strongest predictor of opposition to immigration and support for far-right parties is actually the holding of ‘authoritarian’ values, with a preference for a more stable and orderly world. In the UK, regardless of actual income, those who self-identify as working class are more likely to be concerned about immigration.
Struggling to respond
While those who worry about immigration and/or support populist parties are particularly likely to have a poor view of government, the general public is also often unhappy with how their government manages immigration specifically. Figure 13 shows the level of dissatisfaction with government action on immigration over a five year period prior to the refugee crisis. Compared with the same respondents’ assessment of overall government performance, their dissatisfaction on the specific issue of immigration is much higher. The UK and France display the most consistently high levels of dissatisfaction on this topic, while Germany and Sweden fluctuate, both surpassing 50 per cent at different points for the period shown (data not available for Sweden before 2013).
Since the onset of the refugee crisis, a wide range of national polling has attempted to measure the evolution of attitudes to government management of immigration. In the UK, dissatisfaction with government in this area has remained high, but has not seen very notable change. In France there has been similarly little overall change, though voters do worry that the country does not have the resources to cope with arriving refugees. In Germany, a growing proportion of the public has been increasingly frustrated by Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, while in Sweden, polls have showngrowing worries that the government cannot cope with the sheer numbers arriving. One reason for dissatisfaction with government competence in this area may be that politicians have created unrealistic expectations created about the capacity of the state to manage migration flows in a world where people are increasingly on the move.
- Like the composition of immigration itself, the picture of public attitudes across Europe is mixed, influenced by many factors and at times contradictory. The UK, Germany and Sweden all record growing net migration rates, yet France with its falling rate records the most negative opinion score on many counts. The UK has worried for longer, but improved its understanding of the economic benefits that immigrants bring along the way.
- The complexity of opinion probably reflects the conflicted nature of the feelings individuals have towards immigration. On the one hand, they may happily live, work and study alongside those from other countries, recognising their contribution. On the other, their fears about immigration are connected to a sense of vulnerability, as they worry about their economic prospects, cultural identity and physical safety.
- Though there are some socioeconomic patterns, there is no one exclusive type of person who is worried about immigration. Contrary to widely held assumptions, young people (especially young professionals) are not immune to anti-immigration feelings.
- Across countries, one of the most worrying trends is the levels of dissatisfaction the public has with the government’s ability to manage immigration. When their governments do not appear able to protect them, some go looking for those who will. This is fertile ground for rightwing populists, who stand ready to exploit these people’s fears.
- In order to speak to voters more powerfully than their populist rivals, mainstream forces should recognise and respond to the warning signs, but also acknowledge that positive opinions exist and work to build on those. In spite of the challenges, particularly since the refugee crisis began, voters in the countries surveyed still do not overwhelmingly reject immigration outright. They do worry, but they also understand that groups such as ‘immigrants’, ‘refugees’ or ‘Muslims’ do not form one homogenous block. This presents an opportunity to take a more holistic approach to immigration, and create narratives and action plans that are broad enough to bring people together, but specific enough to address their concerns.
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