People want facts rather than “politicians’ lies”, they say. Well, here are some facts. Immigration is probably the one big issue fuelling the Leave lead in the polls. Well, the statistics show that more immigration comes from outside the EU than inside, and the former tend to stay, while the latter much less so. It is said that being an EU member means we have to accept the free movement of people. The Brexit immigration case is that by “re-gaining control over our borders” we can stop all this immigration. How true is this?
The difficulty for Remain is that they can’t deny that the free movement of people is a core freedom entailed in membership, in that citizens of EU countries have the right to live and work where they choose in the EU. Business argues strongly in its favour as it enables it to import skills into the country that it can’t find within the UK. People like me get to have a “place in the sun”. The NHS say that it is an important source of health service staff. The government says that generally we can absorb immigration since unemployment is low and the economy, until the referendum, has been booming. Leave campaigners by contrast argue that immigration is putting severe strain on services like the NHS, driving down the price of labour and depriving local people of jobs. They say they “want our country back”.
Pattern of immigration since we joined
Looking at the independent Office of National Statistics data gives an interesting perspective as what is going on. We need to distinguish between people who come for work and return home and those who come and stay. It seems that the bulk of permanent immigration, ie people who come and stay, favours people who come from outside the EU and therefore are not covered by the EU’s free movement principles. This has been growing along with the growth of the UK economy.
In 2014 for example, in descending order, 34,000 came from India, 20,000 from China, 15,000 from Poland, 14,000 from the USA and 12,000 from France. In 2010, it was 53,000 from India, 29,000 from Pakistan, 18,000 from China, 11,000 from Poland and 6,000 each from the USA and Australia.
As regards the EU, it seems that about 10% come from Western Europe countries like France and Germany, mainly highly skilled workers for areas like the City of London, while 15% come from Eastern Europe. Apparently there has been a fall-off in immigration from Poland, about half the number that came after 2004 when it became possible for these former Soviet-bloc countries to access free movement rights. Moreover about half this number tend to return home each year. Thus we are not looking at a stable pattern of immgration.
It should also be borne in mind that such EU migration into the UK is a product of economic success, as happens with other advanced economies. During times of recession and poor economic performance such as in the 1960’s and 70’s, emigration tended to exceed immigration. Over time it fluctuates.
It is however those outside the EU that tend to settle permanently. For example, while 49,000 have come each year from India over the last decade, 12,000 per annum have returned, and 30,000 have come each year from China and 11,000 returned.
So, it doesn’t sound like the Brexit argument stands up to the facts. Leaving the EU won’t deal with the bulk of our immigration. Limiting EU immigration could be economically disadvantageous (see my post on the EU and the economy for more on this)
The global migration debate
So far, the UK is not being “swamped” by migrants from the Middle East and Africa. They are not among those figuring most prominently in ONS statistics. The concern however must be that, rather than obsessing about EU immigrants, we should be looking at global migration patterns. Here, the EU has had a recent influx of migrants from war-torn countries in the Middle East and North Africa. However they aren’t coming to the UK in any significant numbers because the UK has an opt-out from the Schengen area passport-free zone, one of the special arrangements that the UK has benefitted from in recent years.
The problem that the EU faces is how to manage this influx. So too does the UK, although perhaps from different areas. What we all face is the population movements due in a sense to Islamic fundamentalism and other related conflicts but really due to climate change. The conflict in Syria has as an underlying cause the drought in the region, people being forced into cities and then a struggle for control over shrinking resources. It is estimated that very large numbers will in due course shift northwards. We all need to find a way to manage that. The UK on its own, without international collaboration, would struggle. The UK like Greece or Italy has a long coastline.
Migration, compassion and racism
The UK has a long and proud tradition of giving shelter to refugees from oppression. It would be a tragedy to lose that, and refugees have traditionally made up a small number of people. However we still need to cope as a country that seeks to support its whole population. It also needs to handle the home-grown conflicts that arise from unmanaged movement of peoples. The Brexit debate has stirred up unpleasant forces, as has Trump in the USA. Opposition to immigration can be a cloak for racism, a legal outlet that escapes the contraints of the Human Rights Act and other legislation that protects things like diversity and freedom of religion, and prevents abuse based on ethnicity and religion.
Thus we share common global rather than EU-specific issues with our European partners and are more likely to be able to successfully manage such migration through a common approach that a body like the EU as a Europe-wide body can implement.