Speaking for Ourselves

UK immigration and the future after Brexit

UK immigration and the future after Brexit

Xiaoxia Yin

 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - UK immigration and the future after Brexit

By mid-2015, the population of the UK was 65.1 million, with 13.3% born abroad. Among the foreign-born, there are both short term migrants such as students, and long term or permanent migrants, including EU citizens working in UK, international migrants from outside Europe, and refugees.

Though the latest report from British Social Attitudes Survey shows that British attitudes towards immigration have grown more positive in the past decade, the divide between supporters and opponents has widened as well.  Moreover, after the 2016 EU referendum, changes will take place to migration, and the future of migration from the EU will likely be very different.  

European Immigrants

More than three million migrants are from EU 28 countries in the UK. Under Freedom of movement in the EU, Union citizens can move freely within the territory of Member States, staying for the purpose of employment, studying and staying with family. However, sometimes they have to follow specific rules and can’t claim certain benefits if they don’t meet certain rules or.

The desire to control the number of EU migrants has been a hot topic in the UK as part of an overall desire to reduce the number of migrants. Whereas the Conservative party in their manifesto in April re-stated their pledge to keep reducing net migration to the tens of thousands, the inability to control EU migration due to Freedom of Movement rules has been a point of contention.

A growing concern over the number of migrants coming to the UK under EU freedom of movement rules was among the key arguments of the Leave campaign before the UK referendum on EU membership in 2016.  As PM Theresa May succeeded David Cameron, she promised to cut immigration, even at the price of leaving Europe’s single market, which has the freedom of movement of labour as a crucial principle for membership.

Though May’s proposal last month stated that the three million EU nationals living in the UK would be permitted to stay after Brexit, a number of EU nationals living in the UK are disappointed with the proposal as it falls as it would lead to a loss of rights and thus falls far short of Europe’s proposal, which would keep all existing rights.

Additionally there is no clarity about the process for application for settled status apart from the requirement that all those who already went through the complicated process of applying for permanent residency have to go through the process again for a new “settled status”.

Furthermore, though May stated that the UK wants to protect the rights of EU immigrants after Brexit, the cut-off date for when EU nationals in the UK would no longer be considered eligible to stay is unclear. The negotiations on Brexit and its impact for EU citizens in UK is still ongoing.

Non-European Immigrants

For all Labour migration whether European or Non-European, 60% tend to be male and the majority are aged 25-44. For Non-European labour migration to the UK,  in 2016 the largest group was coming from Asia followed by the Americas, Oceania and Africa under the category of Skilled, employer-sponsored workers (Tier 2 visa, 45%), as well as highly- skilled worker (Tier 1, 2%) and Temporary Worker (Tier 5, 32%).

Unlike the EU workers coming to the UK under the Free Movement rules, they must apply for a visa Under the Points-Based System which has been in place since 2008. Applicants have to meet the relevant criteria of the immigration rules.

Though non-European migrants are not directly affected by Brexit, the focus on driving down the numbers of migrants and a rise in xenophobia is an issue. Even those who spoke in favour of immigration in a recent British Social Attitude Survey often also voiced concern about the categories of immigrants and the conditions they should be required to fulfil.

According to the survey, significant majorities in UK felt specifics kills, knowledge of spoken English and a willingness to adapt to the “British way of life” were important criteria for selecting migrants.

Furthermore, in recent years, the requirements for non-European nationals obtaining visas have become stricter. Successive governments have tightened migration rules for migrants, with different categories of workers, students, and family members all facing increased restrictions.

As an example, when May was Home Secretary, in order to reduce immigration, she increased to £35,000 the annual minimum wage requirement to qualify for settlement in the UK from April 2016. If the government decides to keep cutting annual net migration, it might become more difficult for non-European immigrants staying in the UK.


For Asylum seekers, the case is even more complicated. The nationalities of asylum applicants are multiple, including Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, etc. In 2015, there were 32,733 applications for asylum excluding dependents, with 11,421 positive decisions.

Though the number of positive decisions increased compared to the previous year, the number of asylum applications received in the UK in 2015 – the year where Europe saw 1,321,560 asylum claims in total - when compared per capita were only 60 per 100,000 UK citizens, much lower than the EU average of 260.

In the meantime, according the BBC poll, British attitude towards refugees are becoming more negative, with 41% of people in 2016 saying they wanted to have fewer refugees, a 10% increase in those holding this opinion from 2015.

Moreover, the Conservative Party’s manifesto shared the idea of reducing the number of asylum claims to the UK, something which may not be legally possible, as seeking asylum is a legal right. But it may influence asylum decisions in the coming years.

The UK, compared to some other European countries like Germany, has not been that open to take refugees, though politicians may argue that the UK continues the policy of paying the countries next to the conflict area to support refugees living in camps there.

The rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and the rise in xenophobia, and islamophobia including an increase in hate crime generally affects all kinds of migration, including support for refugees.

However, at the same time, there has been a rise in the number of ordinary citizens and activists involved in the movement help and support refugees.

For example, during the Refugee Week in June, a number of individuals, institutions and organisations held events to encourage a better understanding of refugees and celebrate their contribution to the UK. Charities and other community organisations keep working to help refugees improve the quality of their lives, including the GP practices helping refugee children.


Views of whether immigration is beneficial to the British economy and creates jobs or whether migrants take jobs from British workers are polarised. Though the concerns of different kinds of migrants are not same, the rise of extreme anti-migrant sentiment might be a threat for all. Immigration policy is a contentious issue, and Britain is not likely to be very open to migrants in the coming years due to the governments’ commitment to bringing down migration numbers, the end of freedom of movement post Brexit and public opinion on migration.

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