14 March 2022

The Ukraine response shows Brits are more compassionate than some would have us believe


I was stuck in traffic last week in Royal Leamington Spa, as two heavy goods lorries blocked the road. A human chain of people stretched from the nearby Polish community centre to the back of one truck, with people heaving parcels hand-to-hand. They were filling the lorries with food and clothing that people from all over Leamington had donated, to then be driven to refugee reception centres on the border with Ukraine.

All across the UK, recent weeks have seen an outpouring of public support for refugees fleeing Ukraine, and a government playing catch-up as its response to the crisis failed to keep pace with the public’s generosity. Polling by YouGov in February found three quarters (76%) of people in the UK support taking in refugees fleeing the Russian invasion. 

New research released today, from a survey that has tracked public attitudes to immigration since 2015, shows how this is more than just a short-lived response to harrowing images on the nightly news. Public support for refugee protection, while not unequivocal, is a long-standing trend.

The new Ipsos immigration attitudes tracker research with British Future finds that 75% of people agree ‘People should be able to take refuge in other countries, including in Britain, to escape from war or persecution.’ Some 16% disagree. There is majority support across age groups, political party tribes, Leave-Remain divides and even among those most sceptical about immigration.

Fieldwork for the survey was conducted from January 28-February 10, before the invasion of Ukraine and exodus of frightened civilians. But there has long been support for doing our bit to protect refugees: the Global Advisor survey found the same in 2019 (72%), 2020 (78%) and 2021 (73%).

The findings are reflected in the overall shift in the national mood on immigration since the 2016 referendum, with attitudes getting warmer across a range of measures. Our tracker finds that 46% of people feel immigration has a positive impact on Britain, compared to 29% who feel it is negative. Most of us would now prefer not to reduce immigration, with a significant gap emerging between those who choose ‘don’t reduce’ (50%) and the 42% who still want to cut immigration numbers.

That positivity is tempered, however, with concern about the small boats crossing the English Channel bringing migrants to Britain. Most people (56%) have sympathy for the people making channel crossings by boat, compared to 39% who say they have little or no sympathy. That basic sense of compassion has stayed steady since the question was first asked in 2019.

But these dangerous and chaotic boat arrivals are no-one’s idea of a well-managed asylum and immigration system. The failure to address boat crossings is a key reason why people are unhappy with the government’s handling of immigration.

Six in ten people (59%) say they are dissatisfied with how the Government deals with immigration – with this disgruntlement remaining pretty much constant across every wave of the tracker since 2015. Of those who say they are currently dissatisfied, half of them (52%) cite ‘not doing enough to stop channel crossings’ as a reason. Some 41% say ‘allowing too many people to claim asylum’. Yet this picture, too, is nuanced: at the same time, three in ten people (30%) cite ‘Creating a negative or fearful environment for migrants who live in Britain’ as the reason for their dissatisfaction and 28% say it’s because the UK is ‘not treating asylum seekers well’.

The tracker findings present a nuanced and somewhat hopeful picture of public attitudes towards asylum and refugees – and a counter to those arguing that the public demands only the toughest approach to asylum seekers. It is not just the good people of Leamington Spa who want to help Ukrainians fleeing bombs. The public response to the Ukraine refugee crisis shows how people in Britain are more compassionate than some sections of the media and politics would have us believe.

These findings also illustrate why and how an asylum debate that presents a forced choice between control or compassion is a recipe for stalemate. Only around a third of the public are attracted by an approach to asylum that prioritises deterrence.  Securing broad public consent for refugee protection will require a system that is orderly, fair and humane. The public don’t have all the answers as to how to achieve this – but most people are not convinced by those being offered by the Government either.

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Steve Ballinger is Director of Communications for British Future, an independent thinktank. The full immigration attitudes tracker findings can be read at www.britishfuture.org

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.