This topic was prepared before the referendum on the UK's membership of the EU in June 2016. It will be revised when the dust has cleared!
What kind of problem are we discussing?
We could see
immigration as a problem because of:
1) the number of
people we want to live here
2) the kind of
people we want to live here.
In the latter case,
is the concern with their ability to support themselves or with the nature of
their difference? What kind of difference causes a problem: wealth, talent, religion,
language, colour, dietary habits? Does it matter how great or how obvious those
differences are? Should immigrants assimilate
(conform to what they find) or integrate (join with the existing inhabitants to
create a new culture)?
Many arguments about immigration confuse these issues. We need to be clear what
we are arguing about.
When did the ‘problem’ arise?
We have always had
immigrants to the UK. French speaking Huguenots
were offered sanctuary in 1681, Jews have been variously welcomed and
persecuted since 1066 and the Irish arrived in significant numbers in the 19th
century, helping to solve a labour shortage. As populations settled, just
before the Second World War, citizens identified as being ‘ethnic minority
groups’ numbered just a few thousand. Then, in 1948 citizens of all
Commonwealth countries, including India and Pakistan, were granted the right to
live and work in Britain without restriction.
This was done to preserve
the significance of the British Empire as it broke up. It was assumed only
wealthy or middle class members of Commonwealth countries would come, in
limited numbers. Instead, nearly 500,000 people arrived, mainly low income
migrants from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean.
unrestricted immigration was ended for Commonwealth citizens in 1962, the
families of those migrants already in the UK (who had mostly been male) began
to arrive to join them. It had been assumed that the initial migrants would
remain temporarily, but the arrival of their families led to permanent minority
Falling and rising numbers
ended unrestricted immigration and started to focus on multicultural relations
and community cohesion. Immigration levels fell and remained low until the
mid-1990s, when net migration* was roughly 50,000 and ethnic minorities
numbered about 4 million people, or 7% of the population.
immigration increased dramatically. A net total of 4 million people came to
Britain between 1997 and 2010, with 2.2 million granted settlement*, almost all
of whom were non-EU nationals.
This was partly due
to a sharp rise in asylum seekers and the falling costs of long distance
travel, but it was also a product of four governmental decisions made between
1997 and 2003. The first was to repeal the primary purpose law, so it was
easier to bring in foreign spouses. The second was to pass the Human Rights Act
in 1998, which made deporting people much harder. The third was to issue
student visas and work permits in much larger numbers than before.
Lots of Eastern Europeans came, but they
often didn’t stay
The fourth and most
significant decision was to open the UK labour market to eight former communist
countries from Eastern and Central Europe in 2004, seven years before it was
legally necessary. These new member states had substantially lower living
standards than the UK. Within four years, 1.5 million East Europeans arrived in
the UK. Net migration peaked at 255,000 in 2010. However, Eastern Europeans
have proved much less inclined to settle in Britain than migrants* from the
Commonwealth. Many early arrivals have since returned to their country of
Points mean prizes
In an effort to
reduce immigration, a points based system was introduced from 2008. Migrants
are awarded points according to their age, experience and qualifications and
must achieve a minimum number in order to be awarded a UK visa.
Immigration policy turns right
Opinions differ as
to the benefits brought by migrants to the economy. However, the effect on the economy as a whole
is not the same as the effect on an individual or local community. High
immigration levels brought the issue to the forefront of British politics.
Before 2000, fewer than 10% of people believed it was one of the most important
issues facing the country. By 2007, nearly half thought it was. The result has
been a shift to the right by all parties on immigration, and the rise of UKIP.
From 2010 onwards,
government policy was to reduce net migration, with a target of ‘tens of
thousands’ by 2015. This has led to numerous restrictions on immigration;
capping the number of skilled non-EU workers permitted to enter the UK,
preventing foreign students from remaining in Britain unless they have a firm
job offer, introducing financial requirements for the settlement of foreign
residents and spouses, preventing EU citizens from claiming benefits until they
have been in the country for 3-6 months and requiring foreign residents to pay
for certain NHS services. Illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who have been
refused asylum now have restricted access to necessities such as accommodation, drivers
licences, jobs and healthcare. Their rights to appeal against deportation have
non-EU immigration declining by a third, net migration has remained stubbornly
high. It was in excess of 200,000 for the year ending September 2013. This is
because emigration from the UK is now at its lowest level since 2001, while EU
immigration increased by 27% in 2013.
Immigration and the UK’s membership of the EU
EU laws mean the
British government has very few options to restrict immigration from member
states. Unless they have a criminal conviction we must allow them to live here.
So long as they are
seeking to support themselves, we must allow them comparable benefits to those
of British nationals. Of course, we have the same right in their countries, but
fewer of us leave the UK to use them.
As EU immigration
to the UK has reached an all-time high, concerns have grown about freedom of
movement and Britain’s continuing membership. David Cameron has promised to put
this to a public referendum by 2017, following a renegotiation of Britain’s
membership. However, it is unlikely that fundamental reforms to the free
movement of labour will be possible.
Migrant – A foreign
national who remains in Britain for a minimum of a year
Net Migration – The
difference between the number of people who leave the UK and the number who
arrive over a defined period of time, typically a year
Settlement – The
process by which a foreign national with temporary leave to remain in the UK is
granted permission to stay permanently. This currently requires a minimum of 5
years residency and that the individual pass tests on the English language and
Life in the UK. From 2016, applicants will also need to have a minimum salary
of £35,000 a year. Anyone granted settlement can apply to naturalise as a
British citizen after a further 12 months.