Passport control at Gatwick Airport

Immigration has become one of the most contentious issues of our age. Many experts cite the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union as largely being attributed to the public’s desire to reduce immigration. Despite pledges by successive incoming governments to reduce numbers of foreign nationals coming into Britain in recent years, no government has achieved anywhere near the figures they had promised.

Today’s figures, released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has seen UK net migration – the difference between the number of people entering the country, compared with those leaving it – dip below 300,000 for the first time in two years standing at 273,000. However, the figure is nowhere near the government’s annual target of 100,000 – a figure referred to by the government as “sustainable levels”.

Theresa May and eurosceptic elements of the Conservative party along with certain sections of the press may seize on the figures as being linked positively to the referendum result. But these figures, which only include three months’ worth of data after the vote and based on a sample, are not statistically significant, according to the ONS themselves.
Nicola White, the ONS’s head of international migration statistics, said: “Although we have seen a fall in net migration of EU8 citizens [the 8 countries which joined in the 2004 enlargement of the EU] there have been continued increases in immigration from Romania and Bulgaria, so it is too early to say what effect the referendum result has had on long-term international migration.”

What is the current situation?

Immigration to the UK fell in the year from September 2015 to September 2016, by 23,000 to 596,000. Around 268,000 of those were EU citizens, 257,000 were non-EU citizens and 71,000 were returning British citizens.

These latest figures include the highest level ever recorded of Romanians and Bulgarians entering the UK, at 74,000.

However the number of people leaving the UK also increased by 26,000, standing at 323,000 during the same period.
A significant number – 39,000 – of Poles and other eastern Europeans left the UK in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, an increase of nearly a third on the previous year.

One theory for this increase, could be attributed to the rise in hate crimes in the aftermath of the vote. Figures surged in the wake of the result, with an increase of 49 per cent compared to the previous year, according to data from the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

Has immigration to the UK always been high?

In a word, no.

It is a relatively new phenomenon but, whatever your view on immigration, there are certain historical factors which have led us to where we are today. Despite future immigration levels being impossible to predict with any accuracy, looking at previous patterns may offer a clue as to what we can expect in the future.

Of course, the reasons for global immigration over the decades are many, varied and complex.

The 20th Century brought about great technological changes which aided people’s movement; it saw increased living standards for some countries but not for others and world wars displaced millions. All had an effect on UK net immigration.

In the late 1950s, when a fledgling EU began by way of the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) the idea of free movement of people was born.

Initial controls began during the 1960s when, despite the British government’s encouragement towards citizens of Commonwealth countries to come and help fill labour shortages during the aftermath of the Second World War, the Commonwealth Immigration Act was introduced in 1962 by the then Conservative government.

Labour were initially against the Act, but when they saw how many seats were lost by MPs who opposed the controlling of immigration at the next election, they were forced to reconsider their stance.

But in the 60s and 70s large numbers of Britons were leaving the UK – more so than those who were coming in – meaning that in 1969 net migration stood at -87,000 according to ONS statistics. Schemes such as the £10 fare to Australia saw over 1.5 million Britons known as the ‘Ten Pound Poms’ relocate to the other side of the world.

The period which saw numbers of people entering the UK outnumber those leaving, began in the early 1990s. The year 1993 was the last time when emigration outnumbered immigration when net migration stood at -1,000.

This leads us to our next question:

Why has net migration continued to rise and successive government’s failed to hit their targets?

One of the largest factors for the recent change was the creation of the EU in 1993. All EU citizens from member states were free to live wherever they wished. Add to this, the completion of the Channel Tunnel and the single market and countries which were seen to have a poorer standard of living gaining membership of the EU in the 2000s – and immigration rose significantly. The UK had very limited control over this whilst it was in the EU.

However, non-EU immigration counts for about half of all immigration to the UK. The highest proportion of non-EU immigrants stood at 69 per cent in 2002. In 2015, that figure stood at 44 per cent. The government does have control over this.

According to the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP), the majority of those who come from the EU, do so for work related reasons, whilst the majority of those who come from non-EU countries do so for study-related reasons.

Both positively contribute to the UK economy with the CEP suggesting both groups have had no negative effect on jobs or wages. This is one of the main reasons the government has found it difficult to reduce immigration.

Despite the positive economic impact, the public’s perception of immigration is now largely negative. An ORB poll in January found that 46 per cent of Britons agreed that greater control over immigration was more important than access to free trade, while 39 per cent disagreed.

Since 2006, immigration to the UK has hovered around the 600,000 mark, with March 2015 representing the peak at 644,000. This saw net migration stand at 336,000. Headlines surrounding this figure, talking of an ‘out of control system’ would have likely had an impact on voting habits during the EU referendum, just over a year later.

How net migration will change in the next few years and decades is almost impossible to predict before the government goes into EU negotiations in the coming weeks – but freedom of movement will be pivotal to any negotiations.