Media Release

No Brexodus: low-skilled EU migrants want to stay in the UK

European Union migrants working in low-skilled jobs in Britain have not been encouraged to leave by the Brexit vote or subsequent changes in UK politics and immigration policy, new research shows today.

Social Market Foundation research with low-wage migrant workers in Cambridgeshire published today shows that these EU migrants pay almost no attention to national politics or policy changes. Migrants’ decisions to stay or go is based on family needs and the availability of work.

In 90 interviews with low-wage migrants using an advice centre in Wisbech, the SMF found none who said that political events such as the 2016 EU referendum or the 2019 General Election had changed their immediate plans to stay in the UK.

Nor had policy changes such as the end of EU Freedom of Movement rules or the introduction of the EU Settlement Scheme made any difference to migrants’ plans.

In recent years, some pro-EU campaigners have argued that Brexit will cause EU workers to flee Britain, while some anti-immigration advocates have suggested new UK migration rules will mean fewer migrants want to be here.

The SMF, a cross-party think-tank, said its research challenges both those claims, and should be a reminder to politicians and campaigners alike that issues which can consume attention at Westminster are often irrelevant to the people concerned.

Key findings:

  1. There is no Brexodus of lower-skilled EU migrants, who pay little attention to UK politics and policy

None of the interviewees said they intended to shorten their time in the UK in response to Brexit or changes in UK immigration rules or the 2019 general election outcome. In fact, 39% said they intended to stay in the UK for longer than they planned on arrival. The rest said their plans were unchanged.

Interviewees almost universally said their decisions about staying or leaving were based on financial and family opportunities and concerns.

Those intending to stay were asked what might make them change their mind and leave. Only 12% said immigration status issues. The most common factors named were family issues and lack of work. Almost one third of the group intending to stay said nothing could make them leave.

  1. The EU Settlement Scheme is unknown to many migrants, and poorly understood by users

Barely half of interviewees were aware of the EU Settlement Scheme. Even among those intending to stay in the UK past the cut off point for applying to the Scheme, over 40% said they were unaware of it.

Neither Government communication nor media reporting is a major source of information about the EUSS for the interviewees. Only 7% said they got information about the scheme from those sources. Most relied on friends (39%) family (20%) and colleagues or employers (18%) for information on immigration rules.

Migrants using the EUSS think it is fair. Asked to rate its fairness on a scale of one to ten, users gave an average of 7.25. However, asked how easy the scheme is to use, they gave an average rating of only 4.9.

  1. Even a number of longstanding migrants struggle with English

57.5% of interviewees needed interpreter assistance to understand and answer the two-page Survey. Among interviewees who had been in the UK the longest, at over 10 years, 75% of them still made use of an interpreter for completion of the Survey.

The number of migrants needing interpreter assistance to complete the Survey, even after having been working in the UK for some considerable time, suggests that the challenges for the acquisition of English language skills amongst groups of European co-nationals living and working together remain formidable. This may point to the need for greater engagement with employers on this issue, and some form of in-working hours language provision.

Jonathan Thomas, SMF Migration Researcher, said:

 “The clear sense is that for many migrants the UK continues to be seen as an attractive place to find a good job and earn money, but also to build a better life for themselves and for their families, providing greater opportunities for the future than are available in their home country.”

Many migrants just do not think the way that immigration policymakers, or those advocating on either side of the immigration debate, think they do. Or even hear what is being said for, against, and about them. They tend to get their information from friends and make decisions because of family.”

 “The Government clearly faces continuing challenges in getting the message out to all EU citizens that they have to apply under the Government Scheme if they wish to lawfully stay in the UK after the end of the Brexit transition period.”


For inquiries about the report’s findings or to arrange an interview with SMF, please contact SMF Impact Officer, Linus Pardoe, 07402 756995,


The report, Best intentions: EU migrant workers in Fenland, is published at

This report is based on the results of survey interviews conducted with mostly lower-skilled EU migrants using the Rosmini advice centre in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, sometimes called the capital of the Fenland.

The vast majority of the 90 interviewees live in the PE13 postcode, which includes Wisbech and villages to the west. This area of is within the 10% most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK, and in the bottom 20% in terms of income.

It is part of the Fenland local authority area, which had a 71.4% Leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum.

29% of interviewees were Lithuanian. 26% were Romanian. 24% were Bulgarian. 14% were other EU nationalities and the remaining 7% were non-EU migrants.

The interviews were conducted 28 January 2020 – 23 March 2020


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