Britain and Immigration: Before and After the Referendum

When citizens of the United Kingdom headed to the polls on June 23, they became the first group in history to opt out of the European experiment by popular vote. While many reasons prompted the British exit, growing migration was a prominent justification given by the Leave campaign. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, leaders of the Leave campaign, stated that there was no consent for the scale of migration witnessed in the past few years. They promised to bring migration to the normal levels of the 1990s when more people were leaving the UK than entering.

In the past few years, British citizens have continuously voiced their desire to halt or at least reduce the influx of migrants. After failed attempts by Prime Minister David Cameroon to fulfill these requests, Brits decided that leaving the EU was the only viable way to control their borders.

Now that Brexit is a reality, immigration continues to be a complicated issue as many EU citizens in Britain remain uncertain about their future in the country. Anxiety about growing migration is intricately woven into the decision to leave the EU and will remain a defining issue in the post-Brexit world. To understand Brexit, then, one must first understand migration.

United Kingdom Migration Laws

The European Union has adopted an open border policy to facilitate traveling and working throughout the continent. The Schengen Area is a zone of twenty-six European Union countries that have agreed to ease travel requirements with other Schengen Area members. The agreement allows EU citizens within the Schengen Area to travel throughout the area only using an identity card. It also allows non-citizens within the Schengen Area to acquire one visa and move throughout the twenty-six countries.

There are different types of Schengen visas including work and student visas. Work visas, for example, are acquired by individuals who would like to work in one or more of the Schengen area countries. The student visa is used by students who have secured a place to study within an educational establishment in a country in the Schengen Area.

The two European countries that have opted out of the Schengen Agreement are the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. According to laws in the United Kingdom, migrants are divided into non-visa nationals and visa nationals. Non-visa nationals encompass a variety of groups including EU citizens. These non-visa nationals do not require a visa to enter the UK at ports or other points of entry. However, if migrants want to remain the country for longer than six months they must receive entry clearance. Additionally, European Union nationals traveling to the United Kingdom must show a passport or identity card which is strictly scrutinized against security databases.

Around 3.2 million people living in the United Kingdom in 2015 were citizens of another European Union country. European Union migrants make up half of the migrants in the United Kingdom, most of whom hail from Poland, Ireland and Germany. European Union nationals are more likely than UK citizens to participate in the labor market. Currently, 78% of European Union citizens are working in the United Kingdom compared to 74% of UK citizens.

Although foreign born citizens are employed in a variety of sectors, their presence is most prominent in low skilled sectors. In 2015, 59% of EU born workers were in a low skilled job compared to 45% of UK-born citizens. Conversely, 41% of EU born workers were in a high skilled job compared to 55% of UK-born citizens. The presence of EU workers in low skill sectors shows that EU workers are more likely to take on jobs that may be undesirable to those born in the UK.

So if the United Kingdom is mostly benefitting from European Union migrants why did the country choose to leave the European Union?

The Referendum and Immigration

While the Leave campaign presented several justifications for leaving the EU, a persistent theme was an emphasis on national sovereignty and the reduction of migration.

In 2015 the United Kingdom welcomed 630,000 migrants and in 2016 thus far the UK has welcomed 333,000 more. This influx of migrants, prominent throughout Europe, has prompted 77% of Brits to declare that there needs to be a reduction in migration. In fact, 50% of Brits believe that immigration is the most important issue facing Britain, compared to 27% who say the same about the economy.

This anxiety over booming migration played a major role in the Leave campaign’s justification for a European Union exit. The UK Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, focused on the threats of migration leading up to the Brexit referendum, and anti-immigrant rhetoric persisted throughout European Parliament debates over the Syrian refugee crisis. Like U.S. presidential candidate, Donald Trump, UKIP painted migrants as potential criminals and terrorists taking over the United Kingdom. Nigel Farage even used a poster to emphasize that if the UK remained part of the European Union, the country would be flooded with migrants. The poster displayed by Farage leading up to the referendum depicts a long line of Syrian refugees on the Slovenian border with a caption which reads “Breaking Point: The EU has failed us all.” The poster also cautions readers that Britain must break free and take control of its own borders. Now that referendum results are in, the country has “broken free” but what does that mean for its borders?

Immigration after Brexit

The Leave campaign proposed an Australian style point-based immigration system which would apply to all migrants, even those from the European Union. Under this system, the more in demand the skills and qualifications of an immigrant, the more eligible the immigrant is for a visa.

As resentment over Brexit mounts in Europe, it is likely that European countries will use migration as a concession for any future trade deals with the UK. In fact, Germany, Portugal, and the Czech Republic say the UK must accept free movement of people in return for access to the single market. The EU single market is an association of countries which trade with each other without restrictions or tariffs.

There are three main models for the UK’s post- Brexit relationship with the EU proposed by the Leave campaign. The first option is the Norwegian model whereby the UK exits the European union to join the European Economic Area which is what Norway did in 1994. Under this model, EU policies not covered by the EEA Agreement such as agricultural and fisheries policy would not apply to the UK. The UK would need to retain a range of EU legislation, however, including the free movement of people. So, under this model the promise of curbing migration would not be fulfilled because the UK would be forced to maintain the free movement of people.

The other alternative is the Swiss model. Under this model, the UK would join the European Free Trade Association but not the European Economic Area. The Swiss model is unique because Switzerland enjoys some access to the single market through bilateral agreements. In order to maintain access to the single market, Switzerland was required to allow the free movement of people, which would likely be a prerequisite for any bilateral agreements with the UK as well.

The last alternative is a total exit from the EU and the single market. Under this model the UK could join a Customs Union. The EU does not impose tariffs on goods traded from Customs Union countries in exchange for those countries’ compliance with EU single market regulations. The UK could also rely on the World Trade Organization rules on nondiscrimination whereby trading partners are not treated any less advantageously than others, unless there is a separate free trade agreement between the members. Under WTO rules, the UK would be treated as a third country that does not have a free trade agreement with the EU. The last option is the negotiation of a completely new free trade agreement with the EU. Even with a new agreement, however, there is a chance that free movement of people would be a prerequisite for any access to the EU market.


As European Union and British politicians continue to negotiate, European migrants in the United Kingdom are living in uncertainty. While those who have lived in the UK for more than five years are afforded permanent residence, no one knows if the EU migrants who have been in the UK for less than five years will be asked to leave. Additionally, there has been no clarification as to when European Union migrants will be forbidden from freely entering the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom was never fully integrated in the European Union system of free movement but the country has welcomed EU migrants for decades. With growing hysteria about migration, however, Britain was unable to sustain its open border policy any longer. Capitalizing on anxiety, the Leave campaign framed migration as a threat to both security and sovereignty. The consequences of this fear mongering were grave—Britain became the first and only nation to leave the European Union by popular vote. Anxiety about migration led to a catastrophic decision which will have lingering effects for years to come.

So, as the world prepares to assess the state of geopolitics in 2016, it must consider the impact of Brexit. As individual nations and as a collective, we must not let anxiety about migration be a leading factor in any future elections. We must pick leaders who can unite us as a global community which can tackle the problems of the 21st century, not leaders who will divide us into fragmented nations living in fear.