No, Brexit didn't help UK 'take back control' – it made immigration rise. Here's how
Governments must acknowledge the fundamental reality that migrant workers don’t take jobs and benefits, but fill in essential labour needs
by: Hein de Haas
4 Dec 2023
Brexiteers like Boris Johnson wanted to ‘take back control’ of UK borders, but several factors mean the reality is now very different. Image: horst friedrichs / Alamy Stock Photo
One of the key ideas behind Brexit was to “take back control” of immigration. Back in 2010, David Cameron pledged to bring net migration to under 100,000 a year, but the promise was never met. Brexit was widely thought to “get the job done” by stopping unlimited inflows from EU citizens.
However, in the post-Brexit years, immigration has soared to unprecedented levels. Net immigration, which hovered around 200,000 in pre-Brexit years skyrocketed to an all-time high of 745,000 in 2022. Paradoxically, this hike in immigration occurred not despite of, but rather because of Brexit. This is because Brexit had a number of knock-on effects that paradoxically led to more, instead of less, net immigration.
So, how could Brexit have possibly led to more immigration? A big part of the answer is that while Brexit successfully curtailed free inflows of EU workers, it did not eliminate labour shortages that had been driving increasing migration to the UK ever since the 1990s.
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Politicians commonly portray immigration as something happening to us, with increasingly massive waves of immigrants and asylum seekers “pouring in” – taking away jobs, benefits, housing and other precious resources. As I show in my new book How Migration Really Works, the evidence tells a totally different story.
In fact, labour demand has been the main driver of growing UK immigration. Immigrants don’t take jobs from native workers, but they fill vacancies, such as in jobs in agriculture, hospitality, cleaning, transport and other services that native workers are not able to willing to do – while the demand for highly skilled workers such as doctors, engineers and scientists has also been increasing.
Other factors behind soaring immigration were the growing immigration of foreign students and refugees from Ukraine. Despite all the political uproar about ‘Stop the Boats’, asylum is only is a small fraction (about 5%) of total UK immigration. Much of the post-Brexit immigration hike has been driven by an increase in legal labour immigration, with unemployment reaching a 50-year low and labour shortages soaring, particularly after Covid.
The UK’s reliance on migrant labour became clear in the autumn of 2021, with shortages of essential workers like lorry drivers resulting from Brexit’s restriction of free inflows of East European workers. As vacancies were no longer filled, this caused a major supply chain crisis, leading to empty supermarket shelves and petrol shortages. This prompted the government to recruit foreign workers again.
Likewise, the NHS would already have collapsed were it not for the immigration of foreign doctors and nurses. In 2023, 35% of all doctors working for the NHS are foreign-born, up from 26% in 2012. Similarly, 27% of all NHS nurses are immigrants, up from 14% in 2012. The proportion of new healthcare workers recruited from abroad has been growing fast. Between 2017 and 2022, the share of NHS nurses with non-UK nationalities rose from 20% to 45%, the vast majority of them from outside the EU.
Half of all foreign-born NHS nurses are either from India or the Philippines, and two-thirds of foreign-born doctors are either Indian or Pakistani, while the number of health professionals from African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Egypt is increasing fast.
So, the very same immigrant workers who politicians routinely portray as an existential threat to the economy, welfare and healthcare, are in fact very much needed.
This reality forced the UK government to lower entry barriers to attract foreign workers from outside Europe, and Asia and Africa in particular. At the same time, the deployment of undocumented workers is largely tolerated, despite political rhetoric about creasing a “hostile environment” for illegal migrants.
Workplace enforcement is minimal. For instance, in 2016-17 in Britain only three employers were prosecuted for employing undocumented migrants, with little evidence that enforcement levels have gone up in recent years. This shows the huge gap between politicians’ tough talk on immigration and their much more lenient practices.
But labour shortages also existed pre-Brexit. So, what explains how net immigration soared to such astonishing levels after Brexit? This seems totally counterintuitive. After all, if it gets more difficult to enter, you would expect immigration to come down, not to accelerate.
A large part of the explanation is a phenomenon that is well known among migration researchers: border restrictions often lead to less immigration as they push temporary migrants into permanent settlement, essentially by discouraging them to go back. The paradoxical result is that net immigration increases. Until Brexit, open borders with EU countries worked like a revolving door: much migration was circular, with migrants constantly travelling back and forth. After Brexit, the dynamic changed. As immigration increased, return rates decreased for several reasons.
While some Eastern European workers returned, others decided to stay put and apply for residency through the EU Settlement Scheme, effectively pushing them into permanent settlement. With the end of free EU movement, more workers were recruited from non-EU countries in Africa and Asia. These recent immigrants tend to stay longer. Essentially, this is because the more difficult you make it to migrate, the more migrants want to stay.
When migrants have to come from far afield, have to fill in a lot paperwork and pay a lot of money to come, they are less likely to go back. Long-distance migrants who stay longer are also more likely to bring their spouses and children along. More and more foreign students are staying longer and transitioning onto work visas.
What does such evidence tell us? First, significant levels of immigration are inevitable in an ageing, wealthy society like the UK. This is not to deny that immigration can also lead to problems, particularly in low-income neighborhoods where migrant workers concentrate, while evidence shows that the already affluent reap most of the economic benefits of immigration.
The point is rather for governments to acknowledge the fundamental reality that migrant workers don’t take jobs and benefits, but fill in essential labour needs. As we have seen, the politics of denial don’t solve any problem, they have made them worse. It is time that our politicians come to terms with this reality, and design better and more effective policies that protect, rather than vilify, migrant workers, prevent their exploitation, that avoid the errors of the past and make migration work better for all members of society.
Hein de Haas is professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam and one of the world’s top migration scholars.
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