Immigration, that is “the action of coming to live permanently in a foreign country”, regularly tops lists of British people’s concerns. Or at least it did until 2016. After the UK voted to leave the EU in the Brexit referendum, the importance placed on immigration by much of the British public waned significantly. In the year or so before the EU referendum, between June 2015 and June 2016, 56% of people surveyed named immigration as the most salient issue facing the country. By November 2019, this was at a lowly 13% (link).
Recently, however, these numbers have been creeping back up. Almost daily reports in the media of dinghies packed with migrants washing up on UK beaches have thrust the issue of immigration back into the spotlight. Right-wing politicians and press have been clamouring for Home Secretary Priti Patel and Boris Johnson to do something to “stem the flow” of illegal migrants. Large sections of the UK population, egged on by the likes of Nigel Farage and GB news agree with hardline declarations from the Home Secretary such as: “We do not rule out any option that could reduce illegal migration and ease the pressure on our broken asylum system”.
But is there really a flow? Is there really a stream of endless people coming to the UK to make a better life for themselves as is portrayed in the press? And is there a need for such bullish language from our politicians? Let’s delve a little deeper.
After the 2010 election, the government promised to get immigration numbers down to below 100,000 a year. This target was never reached, and that number was scrapped by Boris Johnson when he came into government because it was viewed as impossible to achieve.
According to the House of Commons library (link) In the year ending March 2020: 715,000 people migrated into the UK and 403,000 people emigrated from it, leaving a net migration figure of 313,000. At the moment, more people enter the country than leave it. What is not known is the number of undocumented people entering the country. The two most recent studies estimate the number of illegal immigrants currently living in the UK to be between 594,000-745,000 and 800,000-1.2 million respectively (link), but it is not known exactly how many cross into the UK on a yearly basis.
These figures ring alarm bells for many. The somewhat controversial website Migration Watch, which has been criticised in some quarters for what are perceived to be anti-immigrant views, says the scale of immigration into the country is “huge” and is putting untold strain on the health service and housing sector.
One of their other main points of contention is that the UK is overcrowded. They point to the fact that England has a population density of 430 people per square kilometre, almost twice that of other European countries such as Germany and France (link). They maintain that increasing numbers of immigrants will put a strain on health services and that due to heightened demand from incomers, the housing sector will become increasingly stretched too, putting the purchasing of property beyond the means of all but the very well off.
New Points-based System
In response to such claims, and in acknowledgement of past failures to reduce immigration levels, the UK government introduced a new points-based system for legal migrants in January 2021 (link). This system aims to reduce overall net migration by focussing on selecting migrants who will, it is believed, contribute the most to the UK’s economy. While the previous system aimed to restrict immigration across the board, the new system is more open to “skilled” migration, while closing doors to those perceived to work in less skilled areas such as construction, hospitality, the care sector and agriculture, who make up the majority of immigrants into the UK.
The government has doubled down on its hardline stance post-Brexit, with the June 30 2021 deadline now past for EU citizens in the UK to register their presence in the UK, hundreds or even thousands of EU nationals may face deportation over the next months. This ultra tough stance says Jonathan Portes, an immigration expert at the “UK in a Changing Europe” think-tank, is because Home Secretary Patel is trying to defend her reputation “for being an ideological, right-wing conservative pro-Brexit hardliner. She has built her career on that.”
However, this bullish stance and the favouring of high-skilled migrants over those doing lower-paid work has combined disastrously with Brexit and Covid-19 to produce a labour shortage in the UK, with farmers having to leave produce in the fields to rot, unable to harvest fruit and vegetables due to a lack of pickers and at a loss to find drivers, who often come from EU countries such as Poland and Lithuania, to deliver them.
But what of those poor souls we see daily being picked up and rescued by the RNLI around the southern coastlines of the UK? Although it is impossible to put an exact number on how many undocumented people arrive in the UK each year, some right-wing commentators such as Nigel Farage have suggested that 20-30,000 illegal migrants will cross from France to the UK this year and have even accused the French navy and coast guard of facilitating illegal migration by guiding migrant boats into UK waters (link).
Again, the UK government seem to be acting tough. According to her latest plans, Patel intends to introduce a two-tier asylum system, whereby refugees and migrants who have arrived in the UK by irregular means of migration will suffer long-term disadvantages and restrictions compared to those who arrive in the UK by legal means, such as UN resettlement programs. But with such options for legal immigration to the UK being complicated and highly limited, Patel has even drawn criticism from the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. The UN even went so far as to say in a statement that if the British were to implement a “discriminatory two-tier system” to asylum as planned, it would violate the UN Refugee Convention, which it played a key role in agreeing to in 1951. It is also unlikely that new, tougher rules would do much to deter criminal people-smuggling gangs on the continent who make large sums of money from the migrants who look to make the UK their home.
More general criticism of the government’s approach to immigration points to the fact that the number of migrants into the country has remained largely stable for several years now and views Britain as having an unnecessarily hardline stance on immigration. Critics go on to point out that because the UK is an island and relatively inaccessible, it does not have the number of migrants of EU countries such as Germany and call on the the UK to accept more of its share.
While there are a lot of unknowns, what is certain is that the issue of immigration will not go away any time soon. The endless headlines and new articles and fluctuating public opinion on immigration as borne out in polls and surveys show what a volatile, contentious and wide-ranging issue it is.