Views on Immigration: Fact or Fear?

Lani Bond- Writer

Recent news has reignited debates on immigration policies in the UK. Through the mist of pandemic coverage, updates of more people arriving on boats across the Channel re-sparked some buried, divided sentiments about immigration, once prominent in Brexit discussions.

The sense of community established through lockdown campaigns, clapping for our NHS and volunteer schemes has been refreshing in our politically divided times, but hate crimes are feared to increase against minority groups. Although one of the British Values is ‘tolerance’, it appears that ‘acceptance’ is more of a push. With 53% of Britons (in a 2019 survey) stating that they have a lot of sympathy with the people risking their lives to cross the Channel compared to 43% saying they have none, it is important to ask, why is public opinion on this issue so divided? Furthermore, what causes hostile reactions from parts of the British population? 

grayscale photo of people sitting on train chairs

Psychology of fear

Fear can be a natural reaction to change - it’s a mechanism to protect individuals and communities from perceived threat and the unknown. However, fear of ‘others’ causes unnecessary hostility, feeds into racist and xenophobic attitudes, and dehumanises the people who are desperate for safety. Although causes of fear are complex, studies have indicated that fear can be heightened amongst groups through common beliefs and collective mentalities. 

John Filson explains how people feel safer when they have a collective, dominant view about something; the views of a collective are often difficult to change without open and equal space for discussion. In the context of immigration, studies have shown that people who are strongly opposed to immigration are often led by fear of ‘the outsiders’, primarily based on economic and cultural factors. 


Relative deprivation is believed to be a significant factor to tolerance – it is found to be more likely that if someone feels their needs, or the needs of their ‘in-group’, are not being met by the government, they can be more hesitant to welcome an ‘out-group’. This suggests that, on average, communities with lower income may feel ‘relatively deprived’ and therefore less tolerant of other people receiving aid, such as refugees and asylum seekers.

Studies of European countries found that higher levels of unemployment in the country correlate with lower tolerance levels towards immigrants. In countries experiencing economic downturns, feelings of group relative deprivation are thus more likely to occur.

Cultural: “Right” and “Wrong”

Furthermore, psychologists have found that people are generally tolerant of differences until they feel their identity is attacked - they retaliate, or shut down from conversation. This can cause polarisation of views, as viewpoints become stronger and harder to change.

Individuals within groups opposed to immigration may also feel threatened when they believe their core values are being challenged. For example, those who strongly value tradition may feel challenged by the cultural differences that come with ethnic diversity. Although sustaining one’s values is important to human wellbeing, fear of change generated amongst groups can emphasise the perceived threats, with members seeking justification for xenophobic and racist beliefs.

Who is responsible?

Group mentalities such as these often stem from fear generated through public discourse, which is especially strong in the media. Britons are found to have an abstract grasp of realities around immigration to the UK: in 2018, the public believed approximately 27% of the UK population consisted of migrants, when the reality was 14%. The over-inflated view of these figures suggests that many people living in Britain misunderstand the realities of the situation – a consequence of well-crafted media representation.

Countries with positive policies towards migrants are found to have more tolerant citizens. It is evident, through policies such as Hostile Environment, that British government has not encouraged this integration. In fact, the recent death of Mercy Baguma, a 34-year-old woman seeking asylum from Uganda, was a direct consequence of policies that remove welfare benefits to asylum seekers and stop their right to work. For Mercy, this led to fatal malnutrition, and she leaves behind a baby son.

Meanwhile, tax evasion by businesses is said to amount to between £35 billion per year, at the expense of the average British taxpayers; the anger of less economically stable sections of the population is being redirected to other suffering, more vulnerable groups of people.

As we move into a period of deep recession, unemployment and the uncertainty of Brexit, tolerance of people deemed as ‘outsiders’ to Britain may not be high on the list of government campaigns. However, these conditions mean it is increasingly important to think about the irrationality of fear, and to remember what influences us.




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