After Brexit: Immigration Policy in the UK

When the UK voted to leave the European Union, nearly 33 percent of those who voted “Leave” cited immigration as their main justification. It seemed reasonable, given that migration from other parts of the EU skyrocketed from a net of 10,000 in 2005 to 185,000 in 2015. However, if immigration is really what drove voters to the polls, how effective will Brexit be in changing the face of immigration? The answer depends upon the approach that the UK decides to take, but Brexit will probably only have a conservative impact on immigration flows.

Assuming it wants to maintain strong relationships with countries in the European Union, the UK will probably remain a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), like Norway. Although not beholden to the same financial obligations as full EU members, it would nonetheless participate in the European common market and be expected to pass laws similar to those of other EU countries in areas like consumer protection and social policy. Under this approach, the UK would have little trouble renegotiating already-existing trade treaties. In addition, the country would still have privileges such as freedom of movement for British goods and services within the EU and the economic benefits such freedoms provide, which is an attractive proposition for most UK policymakers. However, this choice comes with a catch—the UK, under this policy, would need to require freedom of labor movement of EEA and EU citizens, including its own. According to the Migration Observatory, based at Oxford University, 68 percent of migrants from the EU into the UK come for work-related reasons; another 21 percent come to study. So, if the UK adopts this policy, the flows of young, largely Eastern European immigrants who tend to take on lower-skilled jobs would be mostly unaffected, and there is unlikely to be much of a demographic change in immigration into the country.

The second possible approach is to expand the points-based system that is already used to admit immigrants from non-EU countries. Under this scheme, the more in-demand a certain profession or skill is, the higher the likelihood that an immigrant who has it will be let in. Recently, this system has been applied most prominently to migrants of South Asian and Caribbean background, which accounts for the smaller proportion of immigrants into the UK who come from those regions (45 percent of immigrants in 2015 compared to the 55 percent who came from within the EU). If this program was expanded, it is likely that migrants into the UK would generally be of a higher skill level and more highly educated. So as a result of this policy, the UK could theoretically curb immigration to what it deems ‘desirable’ levels.

However, this decision could also mean an increase in immigrants finding ways to circumvent more stringent regulations. Instances of people claiming family reunification instead of work, or entering illegally altogether, could rise. Stricter immigration controls don’t affect the primary economic forces that drive migration (employers have a demand for labor that the national workforce just cannot fill). The same people who would immigrate for economic reasons would still immigrate—they would just find other ways to do it. This is consistent with a 2009 report from the Migration Policy Institute, which found the same dynamic at work in the US. Therefore, although it would align more closely with what voters intended, this policy’s unforeseen ramifications still make it unclear whether it would change the face of immigration.

Yet the degree to which each policy approach would affect immigration needs to be understood in the context of other facets of immigration. Immigration from non-EU countries is unaffected by any change to EU policy. Some of the largest groups of immigrants come to the UK from China (46,000), India (33,000), and Australia (29,000). Considering that their incentives to migrate remain largely the same, there would be little change to their numbers and presence in the UK. In addition, the impending integration of twenty thousand refugees over the next five years is not affected by the changes either policy would bring.

Theresa May’s ascent to political power may usher in an era of stricter immigration controls. She has declared that we [can’t] allow freedom of movement to continue as it [has] done hitherto,” and she was a hardline home secretary who instituted novel immigration reforms, like only allowing the spouses and children of immigrants already living in the UK to remain if they earned over $32,000 a year. As yet it is unclear whether she will endorse the UK Independence Party (UKIP)-supported plan to expand the points-based system to immigrants from EU countries. However, such a proposal now seems more likely than the alternative (free movement as a member of the EEA), given her public statement. Her hardline history and implementation of the second approach might also extend to non-EU immigration.

Although concerns over immigration are legitimate in a country that has witnessed record-breaking levels of it over the past few decades, demographic changes due to immigration still largely depend on which approach UK policymakers choose. Each leads to substantially different ends, and neither affects non-EU immigration as it stands, which somewhat dampens their impact. Now, with Conservative Theresa May at the nation’s helm, the coming changes in immigration are harder to predict than ever.

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