The issue of how to respond to refugees fleeing from the war in Syria has been rumbling on for months, but became far more of an issue last week because of photographs of the body of toddler Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach and media coverage of groups of refugees travelling across Hungary.
The coverage provoked a strong reaction on social media and led to petitions and campaigns in favour of Britain doing more to welcome more Syrian refugees to the country. There was a perception that public opinion had shifted in favour of doing more to help Syrian refugees as a result of the emotive photographs. However, social media is not necessarily reflective of wider public opinion, people making a noise and signing petitions are not necessarily reflective of those keeping quiet. Is there any actual hard evidence that people have become more welcoming towards Syrian refugees… or did that proportion of British people who have always welcomed refugees just speak up more vocally?
Since last week there have been polls from ComRes, Survation and YouGov asking about whether Britain should accept more Syrian refugees:
ComRes for Newsnight (tabs) asked if Britain should take more or fewer refugees from Syria and Libya than it currently does – 40% said more, 31% fewer, 26% about the same. A later question asked if Britain was taking its fair share of responsibility to deal with people coming to Europe from Syria, and found a pretty similar split: 39% said Britain wasn’t doing enough, 22% too much, 36% about the right amount.
Survation for the Mail on Sunday (tabs) asked how many Syrian refugees people thought Britain should accept: 29% said none at at all, 27% less than 10,000, 15% 10,000, 9% more than 10,000. They also asked specifically about Yvette Cooper’s suggestion of each local authority taking 10 families – 35% supported, 42% opposed.
Finally YouGov asked some questions split between the Sun, ITN and their own site (tabs here, here and here). They found 50% of people said that Britain should be doing more to deal with the migrant crisis… but of course, “doing more” does not necessarily equate to letting more people in. Some respondents could have imagined doing more as meaning doing more to help refugees in camps in the Middle East, or doing more to prevent refugees getting into Europe. Asking specifically about the number of Syrian refugees that should be allowed into Britain 36% said that we accept a higher number of refugees from Syria, 24% about the same number, 27% fewer or none at all.
YouGov also asked how many Syrian families should be allowed into Britain, but most respondents said don’t know (perhaps because YouGov asked about families, rather than individuals, or perhaps because the Survation survey had already asked about Yvette Cooper’s proposal of 10,000, so respondents had a reference point for their answer). 22% said Britain should not accept any Syrian refugee families, 14% less than 10,000, 8% more than 10,000.
Overall the three points paint a pretty consistent picture. A significant minority of the British public want the country to accept more refugees from Syria, but it is a minority. Most people think the current numbers are about right or we should admit even less, a significant minority would like to accept none at all.
But even if most people don’t want to accept more Syrian refugees, did last week’s harrowing coverage increase support for accepting Syrian refugees at all? YouGov found 9% of people said seeing the images of Aylan Kurdi changed their view and made them think we should accept more refugees, however I’m always rather dubious about such questions. What we really need is a question that was asked before and after to see how views have changed. The only one I can find is in this YouGov poll. Way back in May 29% of people agreed with the statement that the UK should be a place of refuge for Syrian refugees, when that was reasked last week it had gone up to 41%. With four months between the figures it’s not possible to pin it upon a single event, but it does look as if people have indeed become significantly more positive towards the idea of accepting refugees from Syria over the last few months… opinion just hasn’t moved so much that a majority would welcome more Syrian refugees.