The real immigration debate

22 Feb 2017


Immigration has been one of the biggest political issues of the past decade. It has been the spark for UKIP's rise to prominence and forced David Cameron into commitments to reduce migration to "tens of thousands" then to call a referendum on Europe. 

The referendum was fought and arguably won on the immigration issue. Consequently there has been even greater attention paid to the issue as Theresa May appears to be placing immigration control over the health of the economy in Brexit negotiations. However what are the real facts in the immigration debate, how much of a problem is specifically immigration from the European Union and has the country been having a fully informed debate on the issue? 

In the year up to June 2016 migration to the UK was around 650,000 while 315,000 left the UK, meaning a net immigration figure of around 335,000 between June 2015 and 2016. In both immigration and emigration figures the most common reason given was to do with work, closely followed by study. Included in the 650,000 is an estimated 77,000 British people who return to the UK after more than a year away. Of the 650,000 the majority was from non-EU countries (289,000 compared to 284,000 from EU countries) this is a smaller majority than recent years but non-EU immigration has been a heavy majority for years.   

 Source: Full Fact

This shows that the debate over immigration during the European referendum was a false argument. Although immigration from EU citizens has been growing at a higher rate it has been the case for decades that the largest sector of immigration has been from outside of the European Union. This sector of immigration is already under British control, meaning British governments and businesses have decided to allow this number of people in to the country which begs the questions why it would be any different post-Brexit when Britain has or wants full control of immigration.   


To add further to this area is the fact that the UK already has the right to refuse entry to anyone who does not have the right travel documents or those who fail identity checks, even if the person has travelled from a country within the European Union. Non-EU citizens must conform to all of the UK's border and security checks as well as facing different visa or waiver requirements. It is far from the so-called 'open door' which was heard so often particularly during the referendum campaign. 

The point that EU immigrants are arriving in the UK to use the benefits system or NHS is another misplaced argument as the reasons given while immigrating show. Of all the EU immigrants almost half have a definite job, almost a third are looking for a job and a further 13% arrive to study. This is compared to 21% of non-EU immigrants who arrive for a definite job and 47% for study. 

Source: Full Fact

These figures disprove the accusations of immigrants abusing their welcome or only arriving to use the NHS or the benefits system. It also shows once again that immigration the UK controls not only allows a greater number but also fewer arriving for certain jobs. The argument that Brexit could solve all of the UK's immigration problems looks to be a false narrative because non-EU immigration is the bigger slice of the pie and is already firmly under UK control. 

During the referendum campaign the Leave side  championed an Australian points system immigration system. However this was never a guarantee to reduce immigration numbers because a similar system already operates within the UK in the efforts to control non-EU migration and has done since 2008. 

Non-EU immigration has for decades, even after the points system was introduced in 2008, outnumbered EU figures. This is, in large part, due to 40% arriving to study at UK universities which is a lucrative and in demand area for both universities and employers. It was estimated in a May 2015 study that foreign students contribute around £2.5bn to the UK economy meaning any clampdown after leaving the European Union would face major opposition and cost. 

Another fact which disproves the argument over specifically EU immigration is the employment rate compared to UK and non-EU nationals. According to the Office of National Statistics about 80% of working age EU citizens in the UK are in work, compared to around 75% of UK nationals and 62% of people from outside the EU. This means that not only do EU citizens help create, build and innovate but they contribute in taxes and in spending money within the UK, much more so than those from outside of the EU and even those born in the UK. 

A closer look at the statistics shows the argument made during the referendum, that immigration from the EU was a major problem, was in large part false. Not only is immigration from the EU a smaller number than non EU but figures show EU immigrants arrive in larger numbers for work and contribute more in taxes. When looking specifically at non-EU immigration, not only is it larger while making less of a financial contribution through taxes and wages. but it is already under UK control. This seriously brings in to doubt whether immigration will fall at all even after Brexit and UK has complete control of it's borders.


If the electorate wants to debate immigration it needs to be fully aware of the facts and those suggesting EU immigration was the issue and that Brexit would solve it were willfully misleading and misrepresenting the reality. If you truly believe immigration should be reduced then EU immigration is not the only area that should be focused on, non-EU immigration has gone largely without blame despite being entirely under UK control instead the focus for years has been Europe and according to UKIP, the millions that could arrive especially after Turkey joins the EU. 


The UK government's record on the immigration it controls does not inspire any confidence or belief that it can or wants to restrict immigration. If you voted Brexit in order to reduce numbers then you may want to question why this information was not made more widely available because the story is  not  quite as clear as Johnson, Farage and co would lead you to believe. 

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