The desire to reduce immigration to the mythical tens of thousands promised by the Coalition and subsequent Conservative administrations, through regaining control of borders allegedly governed by Europe, was largely featured in the first call for an in/out EU referendum, and later in the lobbying of the Leave campaign. There are a range of possible scenarios in the event of a vote to stay in the EU or to leave, but whatever the outcome of the referendum, it is likely there will be little change in net migration figures.

Taking a look at some background, the arrival of unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers from over 100 different countries in the late 1990s, followed by nearly 1 million EU migrants after the accession of central and eastern European countries from 2004, heralded a new era of migration. The arrival of people from such a variety of countries resulted in the superdiversification of smaller UK cities, towns and rural areas. It also intensified diversity in Britain’s major cities. At the same time, public unrest started to grow over immigration, which led to the emergence of anti-immigration lobbyists, such as Migration Watch. We also saw the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), whose sole policy in the early years was to campaign for Brexit on the basis that the UK would be exempt from free movement policies, which they argued had led to the UK’s immigration crisis. 

Wide ranging claims have been made about the dangers of 'unfettered' immigration for the UK, many of them without any empirical support. Arguments that EU migrants were responsible for spiralling house prices, depressed wages, pressure on the NHS and welfare budgets were later joined by concerns about so-called 'open borders'. These posed a security risk allowing criminals, sex offenders and terrorists free reign to rampage across the UK. The claims had a clear impact on public opinion. Around 75 per cent of the population has been opposed to immigration for the last 15 years, a figure that is higher than other EU countries and the US, despite having proportionally fewer migrants (1). An IPSOS MORI survey showed that the population massively over-estimated the numbers of migrants in the UK and refused to believe evidence of the actual numbers.  The immigration debate has been fuelled by Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempts to negotiate a better deal in Brussels, demanding more control over EU immigration and restrictions on migrants’ access to welfare. But the failure to opt out of free movement has left the Leave campaign arguing that in order to control immigration our only option is to leave. But, will departure end free movement or reduce numbers ? 

Open Europe argue that in order to have access to the single market we would have to pay the same 'price' as Switzerland and Norway and continue with free movement. Even if we manage to opt out, ending intra-EU migration will not enable the government to reach its net migration targets. In the year to September 2015 net migration was 323,000, including 172,000 EU citizens. And with over 2 million UK citizens living in Europe, there is a possibility that some will have to return: we are yet to hear what the EU policy on British citizens living in Europe would be. Their return could, in fact, inflate net migration, as fewer British citizens depart.

 There are other reasons for thinking that Brexit may have little effect on migration.

Policy and legislation to determine which EU migrants we allow to enter will take time to develop so it’s likely that in the first instance existing approaches to non-EU migration would be adopted. With EU citizens becoming subject to the same labour migration requirements as non-EU migrants and 75 per cent of EU migrants in low-paid jobs earning below the income threshold to gain a work visa, EU migrants would be unable to come as documented migrants, with some possibly choosing to overstay and become irregular. At present, EU migrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. A shift from documented employment to undocumented would mean contributions end while having a minimal effect on numbers, given that the UK labour market is so heavily dependent on EU migrants for unskilled labour. The alternative would be to shift demands to non-EU labour. Evidence suggests people are even more reluctant to see an increase in arrivals from outside of Europe. The leave campaign have not addressed the question of how we negotiate access to the single market without conceding free movement. Furthermore, there are no plans addressing how we meet the needs of UK residents in Europe, or how labour shortages and skills gaps would be filled without EU migrants. Until they devise some convincing arguments about these matters, and acknowledge the complexity that surrounds intra-EU migration, there is every reason to believe that Brexit will either mean business as usual for free movement, huge labour shortages or massive increases in undocumented migration. 

 Professor Jenny Phillimore

Professor of Migration and Superdiversity, School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham

 1. Blinder, Scott. "Imagined immigration: The impact of different meanings of ‘immigrants’ in public opinion and policy debates in Britain." Political Studies 63.1 (2015): 80-100.