Back to the future

This report from the UK think tank Social Market Foundation looks at lessons from recent history to illuminate the potential consequences of the UK Government’s proposed future immigration system in the UK.

This report focuses on four key lessons for UK policymakers today: Lesson No. 1: Greater immigration restrictions on well-established existing immigration flows can lead to an increased permanent lawful immigrant population. Lesson No. 2: Greater immigration restrictions applied to well-established existing immigration flows can lead to increased irregular migrant entry. Lesson No. 3: Greater immigration restrictions applied to well-established existing immigration flows can lead to increased irregular immigrant stay, and therefore an increased irregular immigrant population. Lesson No. 4: 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.

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