Western Attitudes Towards Immigration

In light of the recent migrant crisis in Europe and the ascendance of the anti-immigration Republican candidate Donald Trump in the United States public attitudes towards immigration will likely be a critical determining factor for the future of immigration policy in the Western world. Reactions to the influx of refugees in Europe have manifested in many different ways, from arson attacks on refugee centers in Germany [1] to the election of an anti-immigration party in Switzerland [2]. But unfortunately, quantitative and systematic data on public opinion towards immigration since the migrant crisis began is scarce and because the crisis is ongoing, most likely volatile as well. In this case polling data on the migrant crisis will supplement pre-crisis polling data to gauge Western attitudes towards immigration.

A 2015 report published by the Global Migration Data Analysis Center used data from Gallup’s World Poll to gain insight into people’s attitudes towards the level of immigration into their country and whether they think it should be increased, decreased, or remain at present levels [3]. Most of the responses were gathered between 2012 and 2013 so given the large shifts in immigration due to the recent refugee crisis this data should not be taken as precisely reflecting current attitudes but rather general differences between countries.

In Europe as a whole anti-immigration attitudes are the generally very prevalent, with 52% of respondents favoring decreased immigration, 30% favoring present levels, and only 8% favoring increased immigration. By region we see that Eastern, Southern, and Norther Europe (which is made up of Scandinavia, the Baltics, and the British Isles) are all relatively equal in their desire for decreased immigration while in Western European attitudes are more mixed with 35% favoring decreased levels of immigration, 45% favoring present levels, and 11% favoring increased immigration.

immigration attitudes by region of europe

Unfortunately the report only gives country-level data on G20 countries and the top 10 immigrant receiving countries. Of particular interest are the EU, the UK, Germany, France, and the United States. Within the European Union decreased immigration (48%) is favored over increased immigration (8%) by a large margin. But the most “decided” country on the issue seems to be the UK where 69% favor decreased immigration versus just 5% who favor increased immigration. France as well is mostly in favor of decreasing immigration (44%) while in Germany although deceasing immigration (34%) is more popular than increasing immigration (14%) almost half of all respondents favor current levels. The United States, which faces a much different immigration situation than Europe, has the highest rated favorability towards increasing immigration with 23% of respondents backing it, but is still overall against an increase in immigration with 40% favoring a decrease and 36% favoring present levels.

immigration attitudes G20

Attitudes Towards Refugee Crisis

UKONREFUGEESIn regards to the recent influx of refugees and migrants into Germany a poll conducted by ARD-DeutschlandTREND in September of 2015 captures the attitudes of Germans [4]. When asked about the effects of immigration 45% of respondents cited greater advantages while 33% viewed immigration as providing more disadvantages. And on the topic of the recent migrant crisis 37% of respondents favored the current levels of refugee acceptance, 22% favored increased levels, and 33% favored lower levels.

As for the UK two polls were conducted at roughly the same time which came to somewhat different results. A poll by YouGov between September 3rd and 4th found that 36% of respondents agreed that Britain should accept higher numbers of refugees while 34% favored the current numbers, 13% favored lower numbers, and 14% favored accepting none at all [5]. The other poll was conducted by ComRes between September 4th and 6th and found that 40% of respondent favored allowing more refugees from Syria and Libya to come live in the UK while 31% favored fewer, and 26% favored about the same [6]. It’s not clear exactly why the polls came to their different results other than question wording.

Unlike the UK and Germany, Eastern Europe is well known to be much less accepting of refugees, but nonetheless te results of recent polling is still surprising. According to a poll conducted in August by the Czech Focus Agency the vast majority of Czechs opposed the acceptance of refugees with 93% of respondents agreeing that the EU should deport all refugees and 32% agreeing that the EU should provide no further assistance to refugees [7].


As for Europe’s attitudes towards immigration in general before the refugee crisis, detailed data from Pew Research gathered in the Spring of 2014 illustrates the different types of concerns that Europeans have about immigration [8]. Generally, Southern and Eastern Europeans have the most negative attitudes towards immigration, but here I will be focusing specifically on the data pertaining to Northwestern European countries. An important differences between this source and the Gallup World Poll is that this survey gathered data more recently so were can observe how attitudes have changed in France, Germany, and the UK. Both France and Germany have seen an increase in concerns about immigration; the percentage of people favoring decreased immigration rose from 44 to 57% in France and from 34 to 44% in Germany while in the UK the percentage actually dropped from 69 to 55%.

percent saying their country should allow fewer immigrant

An interesting finding is that although Germany seems to be more favorable towards immigrants than France and the UK they are the most likely to consider immigrants more to blame for crime. While France and the UK were split 63-36 and 76-26 respectively on whether immigrants are ‘more to blame for crime’ versus ‘no more to blame for crime’; Germany, on the other hand, was actually slightly more likely to blame crime on immigrants with the split being 48-45. What is even more surprising is that it that from what evidence is available immigrants actually have higher rates of criminality in the UK [9] and France [10] than in Germany [11]. And when the question is specifically about Muslims Germans are the least favorable versus the French and the British.

United States

Compared to Europe the immigration situation in the United States is somewhat more complicated with a major focus of political debate being the distinction between legal and illegal immigration. Using data from Pew Research collected in the Spring of 2015 we can see that Americans have become less favorable towards immigration since 2012-2013 when the Gallop World Poll was conducted [12]. Forty-nine percent of Americans stated that immigration should be decreased versus only 15% who stated that it should be increased while 34% favored keeping it at its present level. This is in contrast to the 40% of Americans who favored decreased immigration in 2012-2013. In terms of different types of immigrants Americans appear to be much more favorable towards immigrants from Europe and Asia versus immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Around 45% of Americans view Asian and European immigration to have a positive impact on America while only about a quarter of Americans view other sources of immigration to be beneficial.


As for illegal immigrants currently in the United States according, to a 2015 report by Pew Research 72% of Americans favor allowing immigrants who meet certain requirements to be allowed to say although only 52% favor a pathway to citizenship [13]. Even among Republicans 56% versus 43% favor a path to legal status for illegal immigrants. And when it comes to legal immigration rather than just immigration generally Americans are much more in favor with 24% favoring increased legal immigration, 39% favoring the current levels of immigration, and 31% favoring decreased level of legal immigration.


In summary, Europe in general is mostly opposed to increased immigration with Southern and Eastern Europe being particularly opposed. The United States as well seems mostly opposed to increased immigration, but in regard to legal immigration most Americans favor the current or increased levels immigration while immigrants from Europe and Asia is seen as the most beneficial. In regards to the ongoing refugee crisis the UK and Germany seem largely divided on whether or not they stand to gain or lose from the arrival of migrants and refugees and on whether or not to increase or decrease current levels of refugee acceptance. Polling data also suggests that Czechs and perhaps Eastern Europeans in general are greatly opposed to the acceptance of refugees into the Europe Union.


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