The truth about post-Brexit immigration

Brexit halted immigration from the EU—but overall numbers are up. Reducing them wouldn’t be easy

November 29, 2023
Image: Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Kathy deWitt / Alamy Stock Photo

In 2016, net migration to the UK was 335,000, and reducing that historically high number was a big factor behind the campaign for Brexit. In the last year it was 745,000.

So Brexit has more than doubled immigration. Or rather, the Brexiters have more than doubled immigration, which amounts to the same thing.

This is quite separate from the small boats, responsible for tens of thousands of asylum seekers in the last year. But since they too have surged after Brexit, and the Brexiters seem unable to stop them, it may not be long before the time when “invited” migrants and “uninvited” asylum seekers become part of the same political story of open borders and surging immigration. Maybe when the Tories go into opposition and can attack their own record even harder than Suella Braverman is doing now.

There is nothing illegal or even surreptitious about this immigration surge. It is the result of open, deliberate decisions by prime ministers since Theresa May, especially Boris Johnson who put in place most of today’s post-Brexit immigration arrangements.

It is the cumulative effect of three decisions in particular. First, a largely uncapped offer to refugees from Hong Kong and Ukraine to come and settle in the UK, at least temporarily (though most of the Hong Kongers are unlikely to return). Second, an expansion of international student numbers, which are now at record levels and make up about a quarter of the UK student body, with India and China by far the largest sources. Most of these students have a right to work for a period after graduation, and many then succeed in changing their visa status to stay indefinitely.

And third, work-based visa routes, not only for skilled workers but broader defined care workers and staff in a variety of other “shortage” sectors including agriculture, who also have a right to bring dependants. Here the effect of Brexit has been to replace Poland and eastern Europe with India and its subcontinent as the main sources of economic migrants, while increasing the overall numbers.

Two facts stand out. In the care sector and some others the number of dependants now exceeds the number of workers, which is part of the reason why the overall numbers are so high. India, Nigeria and the Philippines top the list of origin nations for care workers. In respect of EU citizens, astonishingly there is now net migration from the UK.

So Brexit worked in halting migration from the EU, although the number of Poles in particular was already falling fast by the time Brexit took effect, partly because Poland’s economy has been transformed by EU membership. But the Brexit effect was dwarfed by other decisions which led to 1.2m immigrants arriving in 2022 (net 745,000, subtracting the number of migrants from the UK).

It is important to understand the diversity of sources of today’s immigration to UK, because you then appreciate that there is no one “tap” which can be turned up and down. Rather, there are a dozen or more taps, including higher education, a range of economic- and job-related routes, refugees and asylum seekers. The refugees and asylum seekers range from those warmly encouraged (Hong Kongers and Ukrainians) to those strongly discouraged (on boats, arriving from a range of poor and war-torn countries), whom ministers call “illegal” but who mostly end up being allowed to stay when their claims are processed.

If immigration is to be reduced substantially, as politicians of all parties have suggested this week, then universities will suffer, the NHS and care sectors will be massively short staffed, fruit and veg will go unpicked, and the open door to Hong Kong and Ukraine will have to be closed despite our previous assurances.

Is this what the majority of the public want? Probably not on a case-by-case basis. But if the small boats aren’t stopped, and/or Nigel Farage, Richard Tice and Suella Braverman succeed in turning the media gaze from “unstopped boats” to “uncontrolled immigration”—or the two together—then it could be the next big issue to dominate our politics. For whoever is in power next year and thereafter.