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Here’s what Brits really think of immigration

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hosts a press conference inside the Downing Street Briefing Room, in central London, on December 7, 2023, after Britain and Rwanda sign a new treaty to transfer illegal migrants to the African country. Britain and Rwanda signed a new treaty on Tuesday in a bid to revive a controversial proposal by London to transfer migrants to the East African country that was blocked by the UK courts. The agreement, which UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says is crucial to achieve his pledge of slashing irregular migration before a general election expected next year, was signed in Kigali. (Photo by James Manning / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JAMES MANNING/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak is battling to keep his Rwanda policy on track. (AFP via Getty Images)

Immigration continues to dominate the news agenda - and is splitting the government.

Rishi Sunak has been in crisis this week over his Rwanda policy to deal with illegal immigration. The plan is to send people who arrive in the UK by irregular means - such as on small boats across the English Channel - on a one-way trip to Rwanda, where its government would decide on their refugee status.

However, the scheme, which is not live despite being introduced 20 months ago, continues to face difficulties amid anger from hardline Tory MPs who think it doesn’t go far enough. Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, resigned over the policy on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a separate bout of Tory infighting started a couple of weeks ago when Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures showed legal net migration into the UK peaked at 745,000 in the year to December 2022: a record high and three times higher than before Brexit.

On Friday, the Archbishop of Canterbury waded into the debate, telling the House of Lords that while the government is “rightly concerned” with bringing down legal migration figures, new family visa rules - where Britons must be earning at least £38,700 to sponsor foreign family members wishing to gain a visa - will have a “negative impact” on married and family relationships.

But as Westminster continues to argue over illegal and legal immigration, what does the public think of the issue? Here, Yahoo News UK looks at the data.

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Where does immigration rank on the public’s list of priorities?

The latest Ipsos 'issues index'. (Ipsos)
The latest Ipsos 'issues index'. (Ipsos)

According to polling firm Ipsos’s monthly “issue index”, immigration is the fourth most important issue for Britons - though the survey was conducted between 8 and 14 November, before it was dominating the news agenda. Its latest survey of 1,008 adults suggested the most important issue is the economy (35%) followed by inflation (25%) and the NHS (24%). Immigration was mentioned by 22% of respondents.

How satisfied are people with the current state of play?

Not happy at all. For nearly nine years, Ipsos and British Future have been running an “immigration attitudes tracker”. According to the latest polling, carried out in July, two-thirds (66%) of the public are dissatisfied with the way the government is dealing with immigration. This is the highest in the tracker’s history.

It was also the highest level of dissatisfaction since before the EU referendum in 2016. In the most recent survey, meanwhile, only 12% said they were satisfied with the government’s handling of immigration.

As Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, said: "The government’s approach to immigration, particularly asylum and small boats, is disappointing everyone - but for different reasons. Liberals think it is inhumane, while hardliners think it isn’t achieving what has been promised. What they all have in common is the feeling that the government isn’t doing a good job."

What do people want to happen?

According to the latest tracker, nearly half - 49% - think immigration needs to be reduced. This is well below the 67% who said this when the tracker launched in February 2015.

Meanwhile, just over a fifth - 22% - currently want to see immigration increase. This compares to 10% in February 2015. A further 22% currently think immigration should remain the same.

The government has been accused by critics of focusing on migrants to revive its flagging fortunes in the polls - and it may well be working. This week's tightening of visa rules to cut legal immigration, follows Sunak's announcement in January that "stopping the boats" as one of his top five policies – and since then there has been a noticeable increase in the number so people wanting to cut overall immigration numbers, bucking the previous trend.

However, in the same time period, there are also more people saying immigration should be increased, which means the government is in danger of turning off voters as well as appealing to them.

How do people feel about the impact of immigration?

It appears that British peoples' attitudes may be slowly beginning to shift, too. More people (43%) think immigration has had a positive impact on Britain than those (37%) who feel its impact has been negative. However, this negative outlook has increased from 29% last year.

Gideon Skinner, head of political research at Ipsos, said: “Immigration has been rising up the political and public agenda this year, particularly due to unhappiness with the government’s handling of channel crossings, which makes these latest findings timely. We can see that increasing attention reflected in rising concern about numbers and the impact of immigration, although it’s still the case that attitudes remain more positive than before the EU referendum."