UK referendum: How to voteMany BREXIT voters are motivated by the feeling that being a member of the EU has led to uncontrolled immigration and that leaving the EU will significantly reduce it.


  • over-estimate the level of immigration
  • feel that it is too easy to get into the UK
  • see immigrants as mostly a burden, either because they are enjoying social benefits or taking jobs from Britons, or driving down wages
  • think there are too many refugees
  • think that restricting immigration will automatically result in a fall of net immigration

So what are the facts?

Immigrants currently make up 12.4% of the UK population.

The UK is not part of the Schengen area of passport-less free movement. Everyone arriving in the UK has to show a valid passport. Passports are checked against the European database to see if the bearer is wanted by the police. EU citizens have a right to stay in the UK for three months if they are looking for a job and indefinite rights to stay when/if they do have a job.

Most immigrants come to work or study as the graph from the Office of National Statistics shows. Research shows that immigrants tend to be younger and working and draw on state benefits less than native Britons. And if you come to study you have to show that you have sufficient funds to support yourself during your course. The numbers coming to work usually vary with the strength of the economy with more coming when there is a strong demand for labour and less at other times. This is how the economic system is supposed to work.


Refugees accounted for 6% of immigration in 2015 (not 6% of the population but 6% of the immigrant population, ie 6% of 12% which is much less than 1% of the total UK population).  If you want to know more about refugees see chapter 8 in North’s book. Basically the number of refugees varies with the conflicts in the world, some of which are a result of Britain’s foreign policy.

Immigration or net migration?

Net migration = Immigration – emigration

Although the numbers leaving the UK have overall been increasing, so has the number coming to Britain and the gap between those two has been growing wider, hence the rise. Generally UK politicians do not seek to influence emigration, only immigration. Therefore net immigration is dependent on one factor that CAN be influenced and one factor that cannot.

The number of immigrants coming from non-EU countries is about the same as the number coming from the EU with India, China, USA and Australia accounting for the majority.

Fewer immigrants after BREXIT?

According to North, it is unlikely that we would see big changes in immigration for various reasons:

  1. Existing EU immigrants could not easily be deported as this would be retro-active which is against standard legal procedure. This goes for UK emigrants to other EU countries too.
  2. If the UK adopts a Norway solution (free trade agreement with the EU), then free movement is an unavoidable condition of free trade.
  3. 50% of current immigration is non-EU so would not be affected by BREXIT
  4. Large-scale deportations of immigrants, whether EU or not, would be politically very damaging for the UK especially if it is trying to position itself as a leading global economic player.

And I would add that although students are classed as immigrants, they are in fact customers of a very lucrative UK export which is education. This is worth billions to the UK each year and is therefore unlikely to be curtailed. Aggressive immigration control such as this type of experience does not do much for international marketing of the UK as a welcoming choice for students.

North does make a good point about the process by which UK organisations find it cheaper to employ EU staff than to train their own. His recommendation to exert stricter control over sub-standard cheap accommodation where these migrants live is a good one. And I would add some requirement to offer training places for likely future labour demand, although interestingly, the UCL study frames this lack of training as a saving saying EU immigrant workers:

have endowed the country with productive human capital that would have cost the UK £6.8bn in spending on education.

Again though, I can’t see why this can’t be done anyway, while the UK remains within the EU.

What’s the verdict?

There is a great deal of anger about immigration. I would argue that a great deal of this anger is looking at the wrong cause. Some of it is about lack of integration, though this is normally not directed at EU immigrants, therefore leaving the EU won’t address this.

Some of it is about the overuse of public facilities and “stealing our jobs” even though immigration ebbs and flows with the economy so if jobs are scarce, there are fewer immigrants and I have already mentioned research showing that immigrants have been a net financial benefit to the UK.

I had an interesting Facebook conversation a few months ago which started with somebody’s rant against immigrants in the UK and which, after I stuck with it, refuting factual errors and trying to find the source of the anger eventually led to the underlying reason. In this case it was the extended pension age for women in the UK, which my chat partner blamed on the immigrants as she was close to retirement and had just seen her likely date of retirement recede by several years,   And yet the immigrants and the EU are not the reason for the austerity package which led to extended working lives for women. Rather it is the collapse of the global economic system in 2008 and the policy instrument chosen by the last two British governments for dealing with this global phenomenon whose symptoms we continue to see, for example in the recently released Panama Papers.

FB immigration

So there is no reason to expect any or much reduction in immigration as a result of leaving the EU. If that is your main reason for voting to leave then you should probably look for another more compelling reason.


R North, ‘Flexcit: The market solution to leaving the EU’ Free 2016

ONS A recent history of international migration

UCL  Positive Economic Impact of UK Immigration from the EU