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UK migration after Brexit

Peter William Walsh

/ 8 Minuten zu lesen

Politicians in favour of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU promised to “take back control” of the UK’s borders and to significantly reduce immigration. Has this goal been reached?

Passengers cross the British border at Terminal 2 of London Heathrow Airport (July 21, 2017). (© picture-alliance, Steve Parsons)

On 23 June 2016, the population of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Survey data show that the issue of immigration was a key reason that people voted for Brexit.

Pro-Brexit politicians argued that if the UK left the EU, the government would be able to “take back control” of the UK’s borders, and reduce immigration.

The free movement of EU citizens to the UK ended at 11pm GMT on 31 December 2020. Since then, how has immigration to the UK changed? Did the government meet its promise to reduce immigration? And what have been the major policy issues in the areas of immigration and asylum since the UK left the EU?

The post-Brexit migration system

Brexit ended freedom of movement, under which nationals of European single market countries could move to the UK freely to join family, study, or work in any job. In 2020, approximately 3.5 million people born in the EU were living in the UK, according to an official estimate. An estimated two million were working in the country, many of them in low-skilled occupations.

After Brexit, a new system for work migration was established. It prioritises skilled work with limited exceptions for social care and seasonal workers. The post-Brexit “points-based” immigration system requires EU citizens to apply for visas in the same way as citizens from the rest of the world. The post-Brexit work migration system is therefore considerably more restrictive for citizens from the EU than the system it replaced. However, it is more liberal for citizens from the rest of the world, primarily due to lower skill and salary thresholds.

Student migration policy was also liberalised after Brexit, with the reintroduction of a post-study work visa, the ‘Graduate Visa’, which allows university students to remain in the UK for two years after graduation to look for work (or three years if they are a PhD graduate).

But what has been the impact of these policy changes to immigration to the UK?

Immigration since Brexit: higher not lower

Since Brexit and the end of EU free movement to the UK, overall migration to the UK went up, not down.

The UK’s main statistic for measuring migration is “net migration”, defined as immigration minus emigration in a given period, usually one year. This statistic therefore provides the net addition to a population that is due to migration. The number typically includes British citizens, from whom net migration is often negative (i.e., more leave the UK than enter).

From 2010 to 2019, the UK’s migration policy was driven by the aim to reduce net migration to below 100,000. As Figure 1 shows, this goal was never even close to being achieved, before it was abandoned in 2019 under the government of Boris Johnson.

In the five years before Brexit and the pandemic, from 2015 to 2019, net migration was between 219,000 and 332,000 in any given year. In 2022, net migration reached an estimated 606,000 – the highest on record (Figure 1) ((in November 2023 this number was revised upwards to 745,000).

Estimates of long-term international migration in UK (Interner Link: Grafik zum Download) (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/4.0/

This unprecedented level of net migration is the result of three main factors. The first is unrelated to Brexit: China’s political repression in the former British colony of Hong Kong, and the war in Ukraine. In response to these geopolitical developments, the UK government introduced special visa schemes for Hongkongers and Ukrainians. Together, these humanitarian visa schemes made up around a fifth of non-EU long-term immigration in 2022.

The second cause is high employer demand for workers, particularly in the health and care sector. Work routes made up 25 per cent of non-EU long-term immigration in 2022.

Finally, the third main driver is increasing numbers of international students, following a government-sponsored strategy to recruit more foreign students and diversify away from China (by far the main country of origin of international students enrolled in UK universities from 2009/10 to 2019/20), as well as the reintroduction of the Graduate Visa. Students made up 39 per cent of non-EU long-term immigration in 2022.

With all other things being equal, net migration can be expected to come down in the coming years, as students return home, and as the rate of arrivals of Hongkongers and Ukrainians continues to fall.

Higher non-EU migration has more than offset lower EU migration

Since Brexit, it is not only the level of migration that has changed, but also its composition. In the three years preceding the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016, EU migration to the UK was larger than non-EU migration. Since the Brexit vote, this pattern has reversed: non-EU migration has increased substantially, while EU net migration has fallen, becoming negative in 2020 and remaining negative in 2021 and 2022 (meaning that more EU citizens left the UK than entered).

Estimated net migration to the UK (Interner Link: Grafik zum Download) (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/4.0/

The initial impact of the end of free movement has been to reduce work migration to sectors that were previously reliant on relatively lower-skilled and lower-paid workers from the EU, especially hospitality and transport, aggravating labour shortages. By far the largest increase in work migration has been to the health and care sector, where the system is more liberal (with migrants not having to pay the Immigration Health Surcharge), and where an exception has been made to allow migrants to work in low paid jobs in social care.

UK universities have become less attractive for EU students, who before the end of free movement benefited from the same lower tuition fees as domestic students, and were entitled to the same taxpayer-subsidised tuition fee loans, which meant that they did not have to pay any money up front for tuition fees. However, this decline in EU students has been more than offset by an increase in international students from outside the EU, with the new Graduate Visa proving particularly attractive to Indians and Nigerians.

Small boat arrivals and asylum migration

Public concern about overall migration has softened since the run-up to the Brexit referendum. Public and political concern has instead focused on the rapid growth in the number of people crossing the English Channel from France in small boats. In 2018, around 300 people were detected making the unauthorised crossing. In 2022, the number was over 45,000. This led the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, to make “stopping the boats” one of his five main political pledges.

Most people who reach the UK by small boat claim asylum on arrival. The government’s response to this phenomenon, therefore, has been to legislate to make it more difficult for people to claim asylum in the UK. This response has only indirectly been influenced by Brexit. Although EU membership did constrain and influence UK asylum policy, it remained primarily under the control of the UK government. But Brexit has made it more difficult for the UK to return asylum seekers to France and other EU countries as the UK is no longer part of the Dublin Regulation, which allows EU member states to send asylum claimants back to other EU countries they have passed through before, generally those of first entry.

The most recent and most important legislation designed to deter Channel crossings is the Illegal Migration Act 2023, which prevents most people who arrive in the UK without authorisation from receiving a decision on their asylum claim. Under the policy, the UK government plans to detain people arriving illegally, and remove them to a “safe third country”. The UK currently has an agreement with only one third country that is willing to accept asylum seekers: Rwanda. The UN has described the Illegal Migration Act as an “asylum ban” and in breach of the Refugee Convention. And in November 2023, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled the UK’s agreement with Rwanda is unlawful, because Rwanda is not a safe country to which asylum seekers can be removed. To circumvent the Supreme Court’s decision, the British government agreed a new treaty with Rwanda, which provides for additional safeguards, and introduced to parliament a new draft bill, which declares that Rwanda is “safe” for asylum seekers to be transferred there.

What has been the effect of Brexit on immigration to the UK?

The overall effect of Brexit on migration to the UK has been varied. The end of free movement has meant that more EU citizens are now leaving the UK than entering, despite high demand for workers in the UK. However, this has been more than offset by higher non-EU migration. The changing composition of migration will in part have been influenced by Brexit changes: lower salary and skill thresholds for workers, making low-skilled care workers eligible for long-term work visas, and the reintroduction of post-study work rights for international students (Graduate Visa). Nevertheless, even if the post-Brexit liberalisation of work and study visas had not happened, migration to the UK would still be unusually high due to humanitarian migration from Hong Kong and Ukraine.

The government has not yet met its promise to reduce immigration to the UK. In 2022, net migration was around twice the level it was before Brexit. The biggest issue in the UK’s migration debate – small boat arrivals – also suggests that the government has not “taken back control” of the border. The small boat issue, and high net migration, look set to be the two biggest issues in the UK’s future migration debate.

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Dr Peter William Walsh is a Senior Researcher at The Migration Observatory, and Departmental Lecturer in Migration Studies, University of Oxford. His research focuses on immigration to the UK, and UK migration policy.