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NIESR: Facts can beat fiction in the immigration debate

Today NIESR publishes a new report which argues that the immigration debate could be ‘detoxified’ through use of some simple facts and statistics. Its findings have particular relevance for public engagement in the debate leading to the EU referendum, where immigration looks like being a deciding factor in how votes are cast. The report’s authors conclude that a ‘small dose of statistics’ on issues of particular interest to the public might help improve the quality of the debate.

The research, which involved focus groups watching and then discussing a specially-commissioned video, was carried out to test the prevailing view that public attitudes on immigration are stubborn and based on emotion, not evidence. In a four minute cartoon animation, the video conveys some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the impacts of immigration.

The research found that while big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK were not of much interest, participants found some statistics useful in considering the benefits and costs of immigration to the UK. These include rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. Research participants also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

The report says that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. It says there is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and that there is considerable demand for this among people who do not have strong preconceptions on the immigration debate. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

Heather Rolfe, project lead and Principal Researcher at NIESR said:

‘Immigration isn’t the only issue on which the public is misinformed but the toxicity of the debate has led governments to reformulate policies and rules according to opinion rather than facts. This has to be troubling to anyone who believes in evidence-based policy making’.

‘Politicians have underestimated the ability and willingness of the public to engage in reasoned debate about the impacts of immigration. Our research participants wanted to look beyond tired statements that migrants are taking jobs from British workers or here as ‘benefit tourists’. They wanted to be better informed and to have a more reasoned discussion’.

Notes for editors:

The report ‘Changing the debate: video animation on the impact of immigration on the UK’ can be viewed here and the video used in the focus groups can be viewed here

The research was carried out by Heather Rolfe, Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp with additional input from Yano Moussavi. It was funded by the City of London Corporation.  Heather Rolfe can be contacted for further information and comment on 020 7654 1937 or 07766 122991

NIESR aims to promote, through quantitative and qualitative research, a deeper understanding of the interaction of economic and social forces that affect people's lives, and the ways in which policies can improve them.

Further details of NIESR’s activities can be seen on or by contacting 

Switchboard Telephone Number: +44 (0) 207 222 7665


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