Two-thirds of Britons say there are too many immigrants

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Most people are resentful and distrustful of immigrants and asylum-seekers, a survey published today suggests.

Most people are resentful and distrustful of immigrants and asylum-seekers, a survey published today suggests.

Eight out of 10 adults believe refugees come to Britain because they regard it as "a soft touch", according to the Mori survey of 2,118 people.

Two-thirds of those questioned believe there are "too many" immigrants in Britain and almost the same proportion felt "too much" was being done to help them. Nearly four in 10 felt that those settling in this country should not maintain theirnative culture and lifestyle.

Forty per cent of those surveyed thought racial prejudice would increase in the next five years and 37 per cent thought racism was worse now than five years ago. Only 25 per cent believed race relations would improve in the next five years and just 21 per cent said they thought race relations had improved since 1995.

Negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities and asylum-seekers were strongest among pensioners, Conservative voters and people living in the North-east. The poll, for Reader's Digest, discovered that many of these opinions were based on ignorance of the facts about immigration.

Russell Twisk, the editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest, said: "This widespread resentment of immigrants and asylum-seekers has worrying implications in a society that has traditionally prided itself on its racial tolerance. Do these attitudes reveal a deep-seated xenophobia or are they fuelled by segments of the media?"

The study follows the storm caused by the publication earlier this month of a report by the charity the Runnymede Trust, which suggested that the concept of "Britishness" was fundamentally racist.

Right-wing commentators had attempted to link the report to government thinking. The Home Secretary responded by attacking the document's authors for "washing their hands of the notion of nationhood".

Respondents to today's survey grossly over-estimated the financial aid asylum-seekers receive, believing, on average, it to be £113 a week. In fact, the magazine said, a single adult seeking asylum receives £36.54 a week in vouchers to be used at designated stores. Just £10 may be converted to cash.

On average the public estimates that 20 per cent of the population are immigrants. The real figure is 4 per cent. Similarly, those in the survey believe that on average 26 per cent of the population belong to an ethnic minority. The real figure is about 7 per cent.

Eight per cent of the people questioned were from ethnic minority groups.

Mr Twisk said: "Immigration issues are certain to be a factor at the general election and it is vital that the debate deals in facts, not supposition."

Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "This survey makes depressing reading but it is not surprising that, fed on a constant diet of prejudice, the public are hostile towards refugees and asylum-seekers. What is clear is that the public are badly misinformed. Politicians and the media have a particular responsibility to ensure that the asylum debate is based on the facts, not fiction."