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Talking about Brexit (1): What does it mean for immigrants?

Two years on from the European Union Referendum, the future of migration in the United Kingdom is uncertain. Many things have been said, but do the numbers reflect what is being said about them?


Marcella Via


In June 2016, the British population voted to leave the European Union. Soon after this choice, the value of the pound fluctuated widely on currency markets because investors had been expecting a “remain vote”.

Negotiations about the future political scenario that will be faced by a post-EU United Kingdom are currently taking place, as the country will officially leave the European Union on the 29th of March 2019.

Since the media has published a lot of information – and dis-information – during the last two years, the question is: what does Brexit exactly imply for migrants?

 This question is not easy to answer. However, even though the current changes in migration policy should discourage the flow of people from coming to the United Kingdom, statistics demonstrate the opposite. In fact, the Office for National Statistics reports that in September 2017, related to net migration, there were 244,000 more people coming to the country, adding to the UK population (66,573,398).

That is why The Prisma has prepared a series that aims to put in context this complicated and even mysterious process, and its consequences for migrants. An important motive is to clarify the relationship between Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy , migration statistics and the erosion of social rights for asylum seekers.

The first part contextualizes the phenomenon of Brexit, explaining its key steps and exploring the main impacts it has had so far.

Birth, evolution and the reality of Brexit

There is a perception that the United Kingdom has never been too sympathetic to the European Union, and in that sense it is interesting to look at the main reasons that led to the victory of the Leave campaign in the referendum of the 23rd of June 2016.

The key points put forward by the “Brexiters” have been focused on the reduction of terrorism, the support of the NHS through paying less to Brussels, and a cut in immigration, as explained by The Independent.

The cut in immigration is, perhaps, the main one of the three key promises made by the Leave campaign to the British electorate. They actively appealed to fear, declaring the situation “out of control”, points out The Guardian, as long as Brussels was taking away control on immigration from the hands of the British Government.

Moreover, Politico explores the main characters of the “Brexit storm”, attributing the victory also to the charisma of some leading figures. And in their view, the top four to credit – or to blame – for the outcome of the referendum are the campaign director, Dominic Cummings, for his detailed research into the public’s attitudes towards the EU; and Boris Johnson, who has made the EU an object of fear and mockery since the 1990s.

Another very important person, without whom there would have been no referendum, is the UKIP’s leader Niger Farage.

Indeed, it is Farage who started pressuring the Tories and David Cameron back in 2013 over his concern on migration.

Finally, David Cameron himself has been a key figure for the victory of Brexit: he called the referendum and fought “to remain”, but once the result was known he resigned and left everything in Theresa May’s hands.

Currently, negotiations are taking place about the future relations between the European Union and the United Kingdom. The BBC explains that the two sides have reached agreement on the three consequences of the “divorce”.

These reasons concern how much the UK owes the EU, the future of the Northern Ireland border, and what happens to Britons living in the European Union and to EU citizens living in Great Britain. Now, talks are focused on future relations between the two, having agreed on a 21-month transition period that will last until the 31st of December 2020.

It does not add up

One of the main points on the leave agenda is to cut in immigration. So, one question is how much migration has been affected so far by the campaign. Not much, it seems, because despite the narrative of fear and the active propaganda of dehumanization and demonization by the media, which also use the discriminating expression of “illegal immigrants”, the figures show interesting movements of citizens of the European Union arriving and leaving the UK.

Indeed, it has been recorded that, by looking at the media coverage of migration during the last 10 years, the term that has most often been associated with “immigration” is “illegal” (source: Migrants Organize). This is particularly important because it generates the idea of being “under invasion” and that migrants are “stealing” jobs and houses from Britons.

However, figures show that non-EU net immigration is 205,000 a year, the highest level recorded in the last seven years (Full Fact), and this has nothing to do with Brexit.

Further, in 2017, net total migration was 106,000 lower than it was the year before. It is also important to note that this fall was from a very high net migration figure of 336,000 in the year to June 2016 (Office of National Statistics).

Moreover, as pointed out by the BBC, within this context, EU net immigration was 90,000, the lowest for five years.

Net immigration is the difference between arrivals and departures. In this case, while 130,000 EU nationals left the United Kingdom, 220,000 people from the European Union arrived in Great Britain.

So, what do all these numbers actually mean? To reduce net migration after the UK leaves the EU, the rules for non-EEA skilled workers ought to be applied to EEA workers, as suggested by some pressure groups. This seems to be the most straightforward option for the government, as it would be a simple extension of the current rules for non-EEA migrants. However, the analysis carried out by The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)shows that extremely large proportions of EEA migrants across different sectors would become ineligible under the rules for non-EEA skilled workers.

For example, in sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, wholesale and retail, transport and storage, and hotels and restaurants, more than 90% of EEA migrant employees would not be eligible. This means that employers in these areas would be virtually unable to recruit workers from the European Union under the standard worker immigration path. At the same time, IPPR adds that other sectors, such as finance, information and communication, would be less affected because they are more highly skilled, although a substantial proportion would still not be eligible.

Who is the problem: dangerous dichotomies

It is clear so far that there is a lot of anxiety around migration and that the Brexit scenario has lead a large number of EU nationals to leave the UK. But, it is still true that the number arriving is larger in than the number leaving. At the same time, asylum seekers have been facing a more bitter reality.

In order to appease this concern, the UK government have continuously introduced new immigration control measures, falling into a vicious cycle. The Corporate Watch  explains that asylum rights have been under attack, and that the detention and deportation system have been dramatically expanded. This means that the control of immigration after Brexit, does not simply imply a cut in immigration, but rather an attempt to make sure that only the “right” kind of migrants enter the country.

Therefore, in relation to migration movements, Brexit does not just mean a reduction of immigration, as supported by the figures. It is still true that more people are arriving in the country than leaving. However, the erosion of the human rights of those in need of protection (mostly from outside the EU) is worrying.

Next edition: “Theresa May and the hostile environment”. Hostility is not for everyone and there is a division between “right” and “wrong”, plus the border between “legality” and “illegality” is stronger than ever.  

(Photos Pixabay)

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