Navigating Narratives: Understanding Public Perceptions of Refugees

The Cliffs of Dover

Navigating Narratives: Understanding Public Perceptions of Refugees

This week we're looking at how public attitudes towards refugees have changed in recent years, and in particular in response to different refugee crises.

Ben Roberts

In recent months, we’ve seen British politics hit something of a fever pitch around the topic of migration. This is nothing new, obviously. These arguments are a mainstay of ‘culture-war’ politics, and can often target refugees and asylum-seekers above other groups. Even in the past few weeks, new legislation has been suggested to make it harder to claim asylum, an appeal has been sought to continue pushing for deportation to Rwanda, and an asylum intake unit housing children has had art removed to reinforce a “law enforcement environment”.

With all this raging on, we’re sharing our latest research into public attitudes once more to find out what the public makes of refugees in the UK – is there sympathy for new arrivals, or are we more keen on seeing our government make good on its plans to “stop the boats”?


Current attitudes

Our research with the public in May gave us some new insight into how the public’s attitudes towards refugees have shifted in recent years. Our figures show that 71% of the public are concerned about what the refugee crisis means for the UK. This figure is almost identical to our highest ever recording, wherein 72% were concerned about the arrival of refugees from Syria and the Middle East in 2015.

It’s clear then that public concern has been inflamed by recent news and events, but what do they want to see done about it? Well, 58% of respondents want to see the UK take fewer refugees, while 32% want us to accept more. These preferences have a distinct generational split, however. For example, only 15% of Baby Boomers versus 52% of Gen Z would prefer the UK government to welcome more refugees. Similarly, Gen Z and Millennials are significantly more likely to feel sympathy for refugees, and importantly, are far keener to see UK charities help them. 


The impact of refugee origin

By comparing the various years that we’ve been collecting this research, we can build a basic idea around how the public have reacted to various refugee crises since 2015. The results are somewhat shocking and indicate that, perhaps disappointingly, there are not unanimous attitudes towards refugees from all origins.
For example, we can see a drastic shift in public sympathy towards refugees following the invasion of Ukraine. When asked about Ukrainian refugees, the public were far more likely to suggest welcoming them to the UK and housing them in our homes than we’d ever seen before (we had previously asked solely about Syrian or Middle Eastern refugees). More than a year on from the start of the crisis, and we’re now asking about refugees in general, not from a specific place. Based on this prompt, public attitudes largely reflect what they were before 2022, returning to the majority of respondents hoping to see fewer refugees in the UK. 

The invasion of Ukraine resonated with many people because it felt close to home, and the public’s open-armed response can be a source of pride for our nation – but it is a shame, in my eyes, to know that all victims of war and persecution aren’t received with equal fervour.


How charities are navigating unhelpful narratives

Several charities have taken the initiative to resist the narratives which seek to distinguish ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ attempts to seek asylum within the country.  These arguments are a mainstay of the news agenda, and promote some of the harmful attitudes we might see at the far extremes of public opinion. Therefore, charities such as the Refugee Council and Refugee Action provide a host of information and definitions which highlight the rights of displaced or persecuted peoples. This helps to tackle the common misconceptions and misuses of language that are perpetuated in conversations around migration. As well as this, we’ve seen many charities engage in effective storytelling to promote refugees’ experiences and bring a human element to the conversation.

As indicated by the research we shared above, the younger generations are more likely to back this cause and are likely to form a larger base of support in coming years provided that refugee charities continue to engage with them. Ultimately, the goal must be for compassion: the charity sector has its hand in legitimising the role of refugees in our communities, and mitigating the public’s lack of sympathy towards people who simply need a safe place to call home. Hopefully, we’ll be able to share that we’ve seen some of this indifference diminish by the time we conduct our next wave of public research. 

For more information about our research with the public, download a briefing pack below.

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