Jonathan Thomas outlines four key lessons from recent history to illuminate the potential consequences of the government’s proposed immigration system. He concludes that the ending of freedom of movement represents the start of a significant new challenge for the UK in managing not only immigration, but also the public’s concerns over it.

With the ending of freedom of movement to the UK, the government’s White Paper proposals for the post-Brexit immigration system look to take back control – and to the future. But looking backward can be instructive. Taking a historical approach to the potential consequences of ending freedom of movement can help to illuminate the challenges, and indeed risks, of the UK’s plotted course.

The UK has its own history with ending freedom of movement, with the case of Commonwealth citizens in the 1960s. And examples abound of countries that, as the UK is now proposing, have tried to manage immigration through temporary stay regimes. Most instructive of all though may be the United States’ experience in seeking to regulate immigration from Mexico. Across a 70-year period US immigration policy has ranged from allowing relatively free, but temporary, movement for work, to total prohibition of such, accompanied throughout by a fluctuating enforcement approach. Across these examples, the consequences were often unexpected, sometimes counterintuitive, but all instructive as to how immigration policies can have a profound and lasting impact on a nation. From these experiences one can identify four key lessons for UK policymakers.

First is that greater immigration restrictions on well-established existing immigration flows can lead to an increased permanent lawful immigrant population, even if immigration flows themselves reduce. For those immigrants already in-country, increased immigration restrictions combined with a one-time offer to stay to those already here can convert some of what would have been circular migration into permanent stay. And for those immigrants not yet here, the UK’s current proposals pair greater restrictions on EU immigrants with easing of restrictions on non-EU immigrants, who compared with EU citizens have tended towards greater permanence once in the UK. So, while new flows from the EU will be curtailed, placing immigration restrictions on an existing labour immigration route, which many used on a circulatory basis, may cause migrants to switch into other routes into the UK which may actually favour more permanent settlement.

Second is that greater immigration restrictions applied to well-established existing immigration flows can lead to increased irregular migrant (overseas citizens who enter, stay and/or work without lawful permission) entry. The UK will remain open to visitors, tourists, workers and students from the EU. EU migrants will not be irregular as such on entry, but may become so through overstaying. This cannot therefore be effectively controlled at the border. The White Paper proposes temporary immigration routes to help business adjust to living without EU lower-skilled labour without resorting to irregular workers. But history suggests that temporary routes, unless rigorously enforced, themselves incentivise irregularity.

Third is that greater immigration restrictions applied to well-established existing immigration flows can lead to increased irregular immigrant stay, and therefore an increased irregular immigrant population. Immigration enforcement dynamics pose a particular challenge for the UK, seeking to restrict a long-established migration flow in circumstances where it will not meaningfully be able to control that flow on initial entry at the border, and reliant instead on in-country controls. The ‘hostile environment’ approach has significant limitations on the extent to which migrants no longer permitted to be in the UK can be practically controlled, in the sense of identified and tracked. The UK’s increasingly effective border control regime might actually compound the problem, incentivising migrants who become irregular to stay put, knowing their chances of re-entry, should they depart for a period, are increasingly slim.

The size of the irregular migrant population in the UK will also be more directly impacted by the consequences of Brexit. In the laissez-faire form applied in the UK, EU freedom of movement allowed a fluid immigration status, with few questions asked. No more. The one-off Settlement Scheme for those EU citizens already in the UK will instead set in stone their immigration status. And for those who for whatever reason are not able to access settled status, the status of being irregular in the UK will become more impactful to the migrant, more visible to society; greater immigration control may therefore paradoxically give the impression of the opposite.

Finally, an increasingly visible irregular immigrant population, accompanied by increased immigration enforcement, can give rise to greater public concern over immigration even where immigrant flows are reducing. Look at the US. Largely due to EU freedom of movement, the UK has had the luxury of not having to seriously grapple with irregular immigration. This is now coming to an end. Given UK public attitudes towards irregular migration, any spike in concern over this will likely be a deeply uncomfortable experience for politicians and the public alike. Media interest in irregular migration that has largely lain dormant during the EU immigration debate may well be reawakened.

This will focus attention on the practical challenges in the UK of achieving realistic and scalable in-country immigration controls. An even more hostile environment? A local area registration regime? A population-wide ID card scheme? Periodic ‘earned regularisations’ of status? Will any such measures assuage public concern over immigration or have quite the opposite effect?

The ending of EU freedom of movement thus heralds a challenging new era for the UK in managing immigration and the public’s reaction to it. And the White Paper only sets out the baseline; the policy which the UK will adopt in isolation, but with the possibility that trade deals may result in less controlled access to the UK for certain countries’ citizens.

The government needs to design its policy inputs accordingly, but also think about how to best manage the outputs. It should inject a dose of honest realism, coming clean about the complexities and unintended consequences of immigration policy, about the control that it does have, but also the practical limits to that control. It must also be honest about the trade-offs: it may not be realistic to have the degree of control over immigration that many people in the UK say they want, while at the same time keeping other aspects of society as those same people say they would like them.


Note: read the full report on which the above draws here.

About the Author

Jonathan Thomas is Migration Researcher at the Social Market Foundation.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).


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