Britons are much more hostile towards immigration than other developed nations, according to a poll of people in the US, Canada and across western Europe.
This was in stark contrast to the response from the other countries, including the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. Among those, only one in 10 Italians thought it was the biggest issue and only 3 per cent of Spanish people, even though both of those countries have experienced large influxes of foreigners.
The other western nations tended to be more concerned about unemployment, although Germany’s main worry was education.
The Transatlantic Trends survey was carried out on behalf of international bodies including the German Marshall Fund of the US, a think-tank, and the UK’s Barrow Cadbury Trust. It also showed that almost half of British people thought there were too many foreign-born people in the country. This compared with an average of three out of 10 people in the other European countries and just a quarter in the US, despite recent controversies about immigration policy there. Britons were also more likely to think foreign arrivals damaged “national culture”.
Some 70 per cent of British people think their government is doing a “poor job” of tackling the issue.
The findings lend support to David Cameron’s efforts to cut yearly UK net migration to the “tens of thousands” from its current level of more than 200,000.
The prime minister has argued that he needs to balance the wishes of the public against the demands of business and academia, which have lobbied furiously against his proposed curbs, arguing they will damage the country’s international standing and any nascent economic recovery.
But the survey also shows how far public opinion in the UK appears to be out of step with the reality of how many foreign-born people are in the country. Immigration experts blame this on the hostility to foreign newcomers espoused by many British newspapers and the fact that the arrivals from eastern Europe rose so rapidly during the middle of the last decade.
When asked to guess how many people in Britain were foreign-born, the average UK response was three in 10. When told the estimate by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development was in fact just one in 10, more than two-thirds of UK people thought this was either “not many” (36 per cent) or “a lot but not too many” (31 per cent). Just 30 per cent thought it was “too many”.
Far more British people than their western counterparts also thought migrants were a burden on public services, even though most research suggests they are in fact a net contributor.