Back to the Future

This paper looks at lessons from recent history to illuminate the potential consequences of the UK Government’s proposed future immigration system in the UK. It draws four key lessons for UK policymakers today:

Lesson No. 1: Permanent Immigration Population

Greater immigration restrictions on well-established existing immigration flows can lead to an increased permanent lawful immigrant population.

For those immigrants already in-country, increased immigration restrictions combined with an offer to stay to those already here can convert some of what would have been circular migration into a permanent stay. And a number of aspects of the EU Settlement Scheme for EU citizens already in the UK may in fact incentivise and assist this.

For those immigrants not yet in-country, the UK’s proposals for greater restrictions on EU immigrants are accompanied by easing restrictions on non-EU immigrants, who have tended towards permanence as a way of securing their rights in the UK. And even for ongoing migration from within the EU, history suggests that placing immigration restrictions on an existing labour immigration route, which many used on a circulatory basis, may cause migrants to switch into other routes which may actually favour more permanent settlement.

Lesson No. 2: Irregular Migrant Entry

Greater immigration restrictions applied to well-established existing immigration flows can lead to increased irregular migrant.

The UK will remain open to visitors, tourists and students from the EU, so irregular migrants[i] from the EU are not going to be effectively controlled at the border. The proposed new temporary immigration routes are designed to help business adjust to the new ‘skills based immigration regime’. But history suggests that permitted temporary routes may themselves incentivise irregularity, where not sufficiently aligned with the economic and social realities of established labour market practices and incentives.

Lesson No. 3: Irregular Migrant Stay

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 both at the border but also in-country are key determinants of the size of the ongoing irregular immigrant population. This poses 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 is reliant instead on in-country controls. But the ‘hostile environment’ approach has significant limitations on the extent to which migrants no longer permitted to be in the UK can be practically identified, tracked and removed. And the UK’s increasingly effective border control regime might actually accentuate 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 impacted by the consequences of the EU Settlement Scheme. As applied in the UK, EU freedom of movement allowed for a fluid, neither here nor there immigration status for most, with few questions asked. This fluidity is now ending. The EU Settlement Scheme will instead set in stone the immigration status of EU citizens in the UK. And for those who for whatever reason are not able to access settled status, the status of being irregular in UK will henceforth become much more impactful to the migrant, and more visible to society; greater immigration control may therefore paradoxically give the impression of the opposite.


Lesson No. 4: Enforcement, Reality and Perception

An increasingly visible irregular immigrant population accompanied by increased immigration enforcement can give rise to greater public concern over immigration even if overall immigrant flows are reducing.

The recent history of the US provides a perfect example of this. Largely due to EU freedom of movement, the UK has had the luxury of not having to seriously grapple with irregular immigration. This is coming to an end. And given attitudes towards irregular migration in the UK, any spike in concern over this will likely be a deeply uncomfortable experience, for politicians and public alike.

A likely consequence will be focusing attention on the practical challenges in the UK of achieving realistic and scalable in-country immigration controls. And on difficult choices between a selection of unappetising options for identifying, tracking and removing unwanted migrants; an even more hostile environment? a local registration regime? a population wide ID card scheme? And whether such measures would assuage public concern over immigration numbers and/or control, or have quite the opposite effect?

In the light of these four lessons, the ending of EU freedom of movement in the UK represents the start of a significant new challenge for the UK in managing not only immigration, but also the public’s concerns, whether over immigration control or numbers. To address it the Government will need to 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. And the trade-offs inherent in this, that 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 UK society as those same people would like them. This is even more important to embark on now, because despite all the debate around EU immigration into the UK, all indicators point to the fact that going forward the main immigration pressures on the UK are likely to come from outside the EU, not from within it.

This Briefing uses the term ’irregular’ migration, migrants and immigrants as the preferred term to describe foreign citizens who enter, stay and/or work in a country without the required lawful permission. The terms ‘unauthorised’, ‘illegal’ and ‘undocumented’ used by others are however also used interchangeably.

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