Greece leads the way as Europeans’ anti-immigration attitudes intensify

London-based poll finds increasing opposition to people crossing borders

Far-right nationalists militants demonstrate against illegal immigration in Thessaloniki on March 8, 2020, as tens of thousands of asylum-seekers have been trying to break through the land border with Turkey for a week after Turkey last month said it would no longer prevent people from leaving the country. (Photo by Sakis MITROLIDIS / AFP)

Opposition to immigration has hardened across Europe in 2020 with nearly four in five Greeks calling for a reduction in people crossing its frontiers.

In seven out of eight European countries, more people in 2020 called for immigration numbers to be cut compared with last year, according to a poll by London-based research company YouGov.

The study of around 26,000 people across 25 countries worldwide found that anti-immigration sentiment in Europe was at its strongest in Greece. In addition to widespread calls for immigration to be cut, 62 per cent said it should be heavily reduced, the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project found.

In Britain, it was found that 54 per cent of those polled wanted the number of immigrants entering the country to be cut, up just 1 per cent from the previous year.

Greece has been on the front line of Europe’s immigration battles with tens of thousands of immigrants crowded into squalid camps on its islands.

Greeks have long complained about a lack of support from the European Union in shouldering the cost of immigrants fleeing from conflict in Syria.

The country faced a further wave of immigration this year after the breakdown of an agreement between the EU and Turkey on dealing with refugees from war in the Middle East. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan orchestrated the mass movement after opening its borders in February and taking immigrants by bus to areas close to the border.

The survey, designed with the Guardian newspaper, found that attitudes towards immigration had strengthened significantly in a number of countries compared with the previous year.

Some of the strongest sentiments were expressed in Sweden where 65 per cent of those polled said immigration should be cut, compared with 58 per cent last year.

In France, more than half of respondents said immigration numbers should be cut compared with 36 per cent in 2019.

Of the European countries polled, only Poland saw a reduction in numbers calling for less immigration.

The polling runs counter to previous findings that suggested a fall in populism, the anti-elite movement that was credited with driving political gains for far-right, anti-immigration parties since 2015 in countries such as Hungary, Poland and Germany.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a refocusing of political priorities, although experts warned that far-right sentiment could surge again after the immediate pandemic is over.

"You could think of the virus like a volcano," Matthijs Rooduijn, a political sociologist at the University of Amsterdam and an expert on populism told the Guardian. "It has hit populism hard, but it will leave behind fertile ground for the future."