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This article was written by Marnie during her work experience with VotesforSchools, inspired by her passion for human rights.

If you're an individual under 18 years of age and are interested in getting involved, head over to our Young Writers page to learn more.

Are social attitudes towards refugees increasingly negative in the UK?

By Marnie

part of our Young Writers Collection

Headlines about refugees have covered all areas of the news; increasingly so since Brexit, the war in Ukraine and introduction of new and controversial Government policies. While many of these news stories are sympathetic and factual, others aim to skew the public image of refugees and their place in the UK. This controversial topic divides the opinion of the public and can result in a more negative and fearful outlook on those seeking refuge. Some more negative points of view, which are currently prominent in the media, pose the risk of increasing xenophobia and influencing the views of young people in particular. It can result in a hostile and angry attitude towards refugees rather than compassion and aid. With so many dying in the Channel on their journey for safety, we must question what the UK’s social attitudes towards refugees are and whether this truly aligns with what the media is presenting.

Life after Brexit

Since Brexit and its anti-migrant messaging, the issue of negative social attitudes to refugees has become abundantly clear. One third (33%) of Leave voters' main reason for voting leave was the offer for the “UK to regain control over its borders and immigration”, with 73% of those who have worries about immigration in the UK voting Leave. These statistics highlight a clear anti-immigration culture in the UK with many having direct opinions on the matter. With a large percentage of the population’s voters having such a strong view on immigration policies, an unwelcoming and hostile environment is unfortunately unlikely for those moving to and seeking refuge in the UK. News headlines and certain media outlets have drawn upon this in the past 7 years, utilising news about migration to align with the narrative of these voters. With the rallying of these opinions and the initial motivations of the public's vote, a large section of the UK’s public hold passion towards the hostility against refugees.

In more recent years with the entrance of a new Government, solutions to tackle the "problem" of immigration and refugees have been front and centre, with some directly violating human rights according to supranational organisations. For example, the Court of Appeal ruled the Government's Rwanda plan unsafe, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission repeatedly highlighted the risks of such policies. Despite this backlash, many people in the UK support the Government’s attempts to proceed with these policies; a YouGov poll found 35% of participants in support of the action. While not a majority, it is still a far larger percentage than might be expected of such a policy. The recent news has been dominated by the topic of the Bibby Stockholm barge, and has brought dividing queries to the surface. With many harbouring concerns for the less than adequate conditions and possible human rights violation posed by the barge, others are pressing the stereotypes of refugees. Some have claimed it is a "parasite" to Portland Port, worrying about drug dealing and the safety of young girls. While the issues of violence against women and drug-related crime are a growing problem in the UK, many residents conflate this with individuals' refugee status and their home country rather than any other factor. This only serves to reinforce existing negative attitudes and perspectives of refugees, rather than acknowledging these problems as domestic issues.

Furthermore, the Ukrainian housing scheme in response to the Ukraine and Russian war brings up questions around whether refugees are the problem, or whether there are other factors at play. As of 20th February 2023, councils In the UK have supported 163,500 Ukrainians in settling in the UK; this included 47,800 through the Ukraine Family Scheme and 115,800 through the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme. In comparison, after the fall of Kabul, 24,000 Afghans have settled in the UK, 21,000 through the Afghanistan settlement scheme. This is a significant decrease from those supported from Ukraine in almost half the time period. This has raised questions about the role of race and ethnicity in public perception of refugees (as well as "Europeanness"), despite their shared experience of fleeing danger for safety.

two people seeking refuge holding hands

Shaping Compassion: Youth Attitudes on Welcoming Refugees

While some aspects of the media paints a poor image of refugees, in many respects the younger population has not given into such news. VotesforSchools data on the topic: “Should Homes for Ukraine scheme be for more refugees?” highlights an overall outcome of Yes. While the percentage of Yes votes declines with age from 84% in Key Stage 1 to 72% of 16+ voters, Yes was still overwhelmingly more popular than No. This makes it clear the younger population hold empathy for refugees, viewing that all should be helped, regardless of where they come from. This is best summed up by comments from younger voters, that said: “We should be welcoming all refugees” and “After all, we are all human”. This heart-warming attitude is abundantly clear and provides learning points for the general population, with Primary schools clearly reminding us “other countries are at war as well and they aren’t getting attention or help” and a Secondary school in Surrey claiming “we should treat people as people, not as refugees”. There were also pertinent questions raised, such as: “Why is there an incentive for one and not the other?” It is evident that these young voters see those in need as simply those in need, with no political instigation or prejudice applied.

Ukraine VoteTopic comments

On the topic of “Do we know how to make refugees feel welcome?”, the results were intriguing: 50% of voters aged 9-11 said No. At Secondary level, 60% of voters also said No to the question “Has the Ukraine war changed our perception of refugees?” While previous data makes it clear that the younger generation is far more open and supportive to refugees, when it comes to their awareness of how the UK welcomes them, they are not ignorant. With comments such as “We don’t always respect every refugee as much as UK nationals” and “Some people in the UK have set opinions on refugees. It is difficult to change this perception”, the awareness of these young people is very obvious. This leads to the bigger picture in the UK, in which, while social attitudes are changing, there is still ignorance and preconceptions of those in need. Those voting clearly understand refugees have a need for support yet are still aware of how unwelcoming the UK can be, giving deeper insight to the attitudes within the UK as a whole.

Ukraine results

Older data reiterates this theme amongst children and their views towards refugees, one that continues to sharply juxtapose the views of parts of the adult population. From 2021, a vote on “Should we do more for Afghanistan?” resulted in a 63.7% Yes vote from Secondary students and a 63.1% Yes vote from 16+ and College voters. Once again, the home country of the refugees in question does not prevent the majority from voting in favour of providing more aid. The younger population have an unchanged opinion on whether we should help and give support to those fleeing, with a reoccurring overall vote of Yes: “It is not enough to leave people suffering when we do have the ability to help” sums up the perspective many members of the younger generation. When we have the ability to help, we should. Not because it is an obligation or a requirement, but because we are all human and should not allow others to suffer when we have the resources to help: “these are human lives”, after all.

afghanistan results

Light at the end of the tunnel

Despite the heavily featured view of prejudice and disdain towards refugees, many statistics argue otherwise. According to data on how UK adults view refugees and British Government policy, 75% of the public show strong support for the principle of refugee protection, with only a third showing a preference for deterrence-centred policies. A further 50% see immigrant skills as necessary for economic recovery in 2022, a statistic doubled from 25% in 2010. 70% see the social benefits of refugees and migrants, where it was voted that respondents felt immigration strengthened cultural diversity. Despite negative media coverage and populist view of an overwhelmingly negative attitude, in the past 15 years the acceptance of refugees and immigration has greatly grown. While a clear anti-immigrant culture and hostile nature towards those moving to the UK in hopes of a better life is still prominent, it is evident that much of the UK aligns with the views of young people, seeing those coming to the UK with compassion and understanding the UK’s need for migration both culturally and economically.

Overall, it is clear that the population remains somewhat split on the issue, with many still having no strong opinions. However, with the young population's voice in the side of acceptance, and much of the adult population already standing on this side, there is hope for a future society in which refugees are accepted and supported without prejudice and hostility.