Results released last week from an international survey by UK-based research company, Ipsos MORI, found widely divergent levels of concern about immigration in the 19 countries surveyed.
In the UK, 43 percent of people identified immigration control as one of their country’s top three issues of concern, compared to 32 percent in Australia (the next highest), 15 percent in Sweden and one percent in Poland and Brazil.
The degree to which immigration has become a focus in the UK seems to have little to do with the size of its immigrant population, estimated at about 7 percent. In Spain, non-nationals make up about 11 percent of the population but only 6 percent of respondents in the Ipsos MORI survey identified immigration control as a major concern.
The largest number of non-nationals living in the European Union by January 2012, were found in Germany (7.4 million), where about 22 percent of people expressed concern about immigration in the Ipsos MORI survey. The next highest is Spain (5.5 million), followed by Italy (4.8 million), the UK (4.8 million), and France 3.8 million), according to statistics from the European Commission's Eurostat database. As a share of the national population, however, Luxembourg tops the charts with 43 percent of its population made up of non-nationals. Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Cyprus and Latvia also have high proportions of non-nationals.
A number of researchers have tried to discover why attitudes toward immigration vary so widely from one country or region to the next, but have found no simple or definitive answers.
An analysis by the Ipsos MORI researchers found that the surge in concern in the UK has accompanied a steep increase in immigration, starting around 1999. In 2011, the UK reported receiving the largest influx of immigrants of all EU countries (566,000), followed by Germany, Spain and Italy.
Concerns driven by perceptions
While there has been a significant increase, people in the UK tend to significantly over-estimate the percentage of the population that are foreign born, with the average guess coming in at 31 percent. They also over-estimate the proportion of the immigrant population that are asylum seekers and refugees - the least common immigrant type - and overlook foreign students, who made up the largest category of migrants to the UK in 2011.
Concerns about immigration are often driven by the perception that immigrants put too much pressure on public services, and unfairly access welfare benefits. The recent negative reaction in the UK to the lifting of travel restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians, allowing them to seek work in other EU countries from 1 January 2014, appears to be less about concerns that they will compete with Britons for jobs and more about the belief that they will come to the country to take advantage of its social services, in what has become known as "benefit tourism".
It is unclear why other countries in northern Europe appear less concerned about this potential influx. However, in comparing immigration attitudes, the Ipsos MORI survey reveals a greater generation gap between Britons and other European nationalities. An article in the Economist suggested this could be the result of differing life experiences.
Before the mid-1970s, the UK was mostly homogenous compared to continental Europe. The baby boomer generation therefore grew up "Eurosceptic and dubious about diversity", but for later generations, "mass immigration, European integration and multiculturalism are part of the furniture".
The Migration Observatory at Oxford University, which analyses migration data, notes that opposition to migration in the UK is "more common among older, UK-born, white, and less educated groups."
Is it the economy?
Three basic theories as to why this is so have been extensively researched. The first - contact theory - suggests that sustained positive contact with people from other ethnic or national groups produces more positive attitudes towards that group. The second - group conflict theory - posits that those who think migrants pose a threat to their interests, identities or status are most likely to be opposed to immigration. Finally, economic competition theory suggests that opposition to migration is rooted in native workers having to compete with migrants with similar skill sets, and the perception that migrants represent a financial burden on native tax-payers.
The Migration Observatory says "evidence is quite strong for the first two theories, and mixed for the various economic explanations".
Europe's financial crisis and the rise in anti-immigration attitudes that appears to have accompanied it may have given undue credence to economic competition theory in recent years. "Economic conditions are not as powerful a determinant of attitudes as many people would assume," Scott Blinder, the Migration Observatory's acting director, wrote in an email to IRIN.
Findings from an examination of the determinants of anti-immigration attitudes in European countries, by Yvonni Markaki and Simonetta Longhi of the University of Essex, also provide little support for economic explanations.
The study did find a correlation between higher anti-immigration attitudes and regions with large percentages of immigrants, but found that most of these attitudes were driven by higher percentages of non-EU immigrants.
More counter-intuitively, the study found that higher levels of unemployment among natives were associated with more positive attitudes, while an increase in the unemployment rate of immigrants was linked to an increase in anti-immigration attitudes. "What we found is that [anti-immigration attitudes] are not so much related to characteristics of the native population as characteristics of the immigrant population," said lead author Yvonni Markaki. She and Longhi note that a "threat to cultural values seems to drive more opposition to immigration than economic threat".
Media to blame?
The media is often blamed for contributing to anti-immigration attitudes, but the extent to which media coverage drives or caters to public opinions about immigration is very difficult to prove. Certainly, the British tabloid press have devoted an inordinate amount of space to issues such as "benefit tourism", but UK Prime Minister David Cameron has also used the term on numerous occasions and is pushing for legislation that would make it more difficult for immigrants to access social benefits.
"I suspect that media coverage and political rhetoric and position-taking in domestic politics also play an important role in cross-country differences [to immigration attitudes]," wrote Blinder, adding that this has yet to be demonstrated by researchers.
Markaki suggested that policies and leadership on immigration issues played an important role in driving public attitudes. "The lowest anti-immigration attitudes tend to be in Scandinavia... It has to do with institutions and more liberal asylum seeker systems," she said.
In countries where politicians have seized on popular discontent about immigration and used it to push popular anti-immigration policies that discontent has tended to multiply.