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UK immigration debate: implications for migrants

Just 1 in 6 Britons think immigrants are good for their country, and 60% believe that mass immigration is hurting Britain, a recent survey has shown. British society has long been conflicted about immigration, and it's a key issue – but what are the implications for migrants moving to the UK?

While British tabloids are using the survey results to call for changes in UK immigration policy restricting UK migration, the truth is more complex – and much more hopeful.

Conflicting opinions

Many Britons have, themselves, conflicting opinions about the effects of migration. For example, the same survey cited above reported that 79% supported a recent campaign to smoke out illegal immigrants but only 17% thought it would work. Similarly, while three quarters felt that reducing immigration would help the economy, 49% thought that immigrants took jobs Britons would not want to do.

The results show just how confused many Britons are by the issue of immigration. In the UK, the issue has been used to bolster election campaigns and sell newspapers, feeding on the fears of different swathes of the population. While low-wage workers are told to fear immigrants stealing their jobs, richer people are told to fear immigrants raising their taxes by living idly on benefits, a contradictory story which does not match the reality.

UK immigration: a benefit to the economy

Leading economists and the government departments believe that halting UK immigration would cost the country up to GBP 3.2 billion per year, and would increase the country's debt load significantly. Moreover, foreign born residents are significantly less likely to claim government benefits than Britons. Immigrants are also, on average, younger and more economically active.

A recent survey indicated that there's hope for the future, and Britain may yet lose its archaic attitudes. The survey reported that when Britons are informed of the benefits to their economy, their opposition to immigration dropped significantly, with the number of respondents wanting to end all immigration dropping by 25%.

Brits abroad: the forgotten migrants

It's not clear if this survey polled the 5.5 million Britons – around 10% of the population – who are permanently resident outside the UK. Every year, around 150,000 Britons emigrate, mostly moving to Australia, Spain, the USA or Canada. Around 32,000 Brits live permanently in India. With such a high ratio of British citizens living outside the  UK, it's clear that most people will have a close friend or family member who is or has been a British migrant making a national antipathy to immigration somewhat hypocritical.

Implications for immigrants

Perhaps surprisingly, the strongest negative attitudes towards immigrants are found in areas which have the fewest immigrants, suggesting that when Britons get to know the people they've been encouraged to hate, they start to see and treat them as friends, neighbours and colleagues. Rural communities and communities in isolated areas are the most likely to prove intolerant, while areas with large, well-integrated and well-established migrant communities seem to be more tolerant.

This is good news for people looking for a UK work visa, as the areas with good job prospects are overwhelmingly areas with large immigrant communities, such as London, Birmingham and Manchester.

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