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The Brexit effect Leavers didn’t expect: A rise in immigration

By ending the free movement of people between the UK and Europe, Britain has unexpectedly created a record flow of migrant workers from lower-income countries

Image: The New European

On June 24 2016, the day after the Brexit vote, some Indian friends of mine were heckled in the streets of London: “Oi! Why haven’t you gone back home yet?” jeered a group of angry Leave supporters. “We voted for you to leave!”

If that was their aim, Brexit failed them. Six years on, a record number of migrants is flowing into Britain – and the biggest group is from India. According to Home Office figures, 672,266 migrants were granted study or work-related visas in 2021 – an increase of over 40% as in 2019, the last year untainted by Covid lockdowns. This includes 98,747 sponsored study visas for Indians – up 164% — and 64,839 skilled work visas (which make up around two thirds of all work visas).

Focusing solely on employment immigration, 239,987 work-related visas (including 151,106 skilled worker visas) were issued in 2021 — less than a tenth for EU citizens. That was a 25% increase on 2019, before the new post-Brexit system was introduced, and nearly 32% more than in 2016, the year of the vote. The numbers had remained broadly similar – around 163-166,000 until a jump in 2019 when the UK geared up to leave the EU, and a bigger rise in 2021, after the deed was done.

Looking at wider immigration statistics, according to the Migration Observatory there was a 62% increase in the net migration of non-EU citizens for any reason between 2015 (an estimated 86,300), the year before the Brexit vote, and the end of 2020 (an estimated 227,600).

My friends’ confused hecklers clearly thought Brexit was a vote for all foreigners, not just European workers, to leave – there’s such diversity in London that it must be hard working out which kind of racism you’re going for at any one time.

Even so, the screaming headlines that passed for public debate around the vote six years ago did give the impression that it was all about barricading the borders against foreigners. Inflammatory posters of refugees walking across Europe, front-page warnings that Turkey would soon join the EU and unleash a deluge of Muslim migrants, and angry politicians claiming unwashed foreign masses were taking British jobs and depressing their wages didn’t disappear into thin air.

Did we miss something? In one sense, no. The number of EU nationals – who in January last year lost their automatic right under EU free movement rules to live and work in the UK – applying to come over has fallen drastically. They make up only 10% of skilled workers and 5% of the study visas. So that’s most of them gone, as advertised.

But then came the much-vaunted Australian-style points system – paraded (or feared, depending on your point of view) as a strict method of weeding out wannabe immigrants. The system, debuted as free movement ended and updated since then, involves many different types of work and study visas, awarded on the basis of points given for various skills and qualities such as type of job offer, language capability and salary. It can be hard to clock the necessary 70 points for a skilled worker visa – even a relevant PhD give you just 10 points.

Yet this system has opened up half of all jobs in the UK to foreign workers– many of them in healthcare and technology. Many Indians are also working in business, while their involvement in ICT may have reduced the need to offshore technology jobs to Mumbai. The professions that qualify for visas have been expanded, and now include welder, chef and electrician, with the cap on numbers removed in many cases.

“Free movement was such a great thing and I do in some ways regret its passing, but this system is considerably more liberal than we expected 3-4 years ago,” Jonathan Portes, economics professor at King’s College London, told me. “It’s positive for Britain,” although tougher on EU citizens.

It’s hard to credit, given the rhetoric from Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, but on their watch, Britain has created this unexpectedly liberal immigration system. It might be tougher than before on EU workers, who must now apply for visas and would mostly not qualify under new rules because of the kind of jobs they did in care and building services. But for those in lower-income countries, it’s easier than it was. Applications from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Philippines have soared.

It has been a long process to get here from Theresa May’s restrictive immigration system as home secretary from 2010 and her tough post-Brexit plans outlined in 2018 to the ever-expanding visa regime of the post-2019 Johnson era. New categories of visa have kept being added during the Johnson government, sometimes at the behest of businesses disgruntled at losing their EU workers. The requirement for employers to prove that they could not find a British worker to fill a vacancy before looking abroad was scrapped, the salary and skill thresholds for migrants was progressively lowered. 

The Johnson government also abandoned May’s controversial curbs on foreign student numbers and her tough, never-achieved net migration target of 100,000 a year – which itself inflamed anti-immigrant sentiment. A post-study visa that allowed foreign students of British universities to stay on and work for two years, scrapped by May, was also reinstated. Students can also bring their families, too, and many have done so.

Alp Mehmet from Migration Watch, the right wing think tank that campaigns for lower immigration overall, said the latest figures showed that ministers had chosen to betray Brexit voters in favour of “higher inflows”. Nigel Farage, predictably outraged, says the people hadn’t voted for more non-EU migrants.

But according to Portes, what’s happening is exactly what was in the small print in the last election. “I was on the Farage show a month or so ago and he was complaining…and told him they did vote for this. It was what the campaign said, it was in the Conservative manifesto,” Portes told me. “People got the system they chose if only they had bothered to read it – he just harrumphed.”

It’s not the anti-foreigner portion of the Brexiteers who called it right, but South Asians persuaded to vote Leave in the hope of being able to bring in more family members under “Global Britain”. Even the fictional Pakistani community leader Citizen Khan managed to work that out in the television series’s Brexit episode. New migrants are replacing, not directly, but numerically, those Brexit drove away.

Although Indians make up the largest contingent, the fastest-growing group is Nigerians. Nigeria has been registering as on the immigration radar for some time, in a quite different way. Eight years ago Tatler magazine caused a stir in Lagos and Aruba with an article about an influx of rich Nigerians to London so strong and lucrative that Harrods had to look for Yoruba-speaking staff. It described a champagne swilling, polo-playing, hard-partying elite under the headline: “The Nigerians have arrived!”

They have now. The jaunty Tatler article focused on the profligate few, but today’s cohort is a more sober, hard-working wave of new migrants. They say they want to leave home because of increasing unrest, a stalled economy, high unemployment and a disrupted education system, and find the relaxed visa scheme attractive. Nearly 53,500 Nigerians were granted sponsored study or work-related visas to come to the UK in 2021, a rise of 413.3% and 161% respectively. They include tech entrepreneurs, engineers, lawyers, and many doctors.

Then there’s the Philippines, the biggest supplier of nurses across the world. And education is a big pull for Indians, who for several years during the May wilderness era had focused more on the US.

It’s striking these numbers don’t come with fearmongering stories about immigration. Instead, The Daily Telegraph asks “can Nigerians save the NHS?”, while The Times has invited us to meet the highly educated “Nigerian new wave”. Maybe the current ire towards the asylum seekers the government is trying to send to Rwanda is enough angry anti-foreigner clickbait for now.

The softer-touch media and calmer atmosphere comes alongside a shifting public attitude. Heather Rolfe, director of research and relationships at British Future, which runs six-monthly immigration surveys, told me that respondents expressed much less concern over the number of immigrants compared to five years ago. This could be put partly down to the feeling that Britain now “controlled its borders”. “There was a reassuring effect of ending free movement,” Rolfe said.

Interestingly, she says toxicity over immigration leading up to Brexit sparked a debate that, rather than increasing opposition to migrants, appears to have made many people more informed and positive, according to British Future’s analysis. Studies showing the positive economic effects of much migration may have changed some minds. Familiarity with immigrants means misperceptions that they came to abuse the benefit system hold less sway, while the Tiger Mother image of education-mad immigrant families have calmed worries about educational standards. The idea that employers prefer migrants because they are cheaper has been disproved by analysis – they actually cost more to employ than locals, Rolfe explained. “People are much more interested in the principles around immigration – the control versus numbers principle, the contribution principle. There has also been overwhelming support for employers to be able to recruit from abroad when they haven’t been able to recruit from the UK.”

This makes it easier for the public to accept the idea of increased skilled migrants coming to fill gaps in UK employment – although ironically many of the East Europeans who did unskilled work under EU rules were overqualified and could have taken on skilled jobs, too, if only they had been given a shot at them. 

It’s also likely that Britons were never as xenophobic as insinuated by the newspapers and politicians that took advantage of worries around jobs to whip up the anti-immigrant frenzy in the first place. It’s a shame all this didn’t happen in advance of the Brexit vote, and that the same progress hasn’t been made with the shameful public rhetoric on refugees.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory, touches on another point – the NHS. “The health sector is the tail that wags the dog of the skill workers system, and a growing share of all skilled work visas has gone to health,” she told me. The already revered NHS got an enormous public boost during the pandemic as the dangers, difficulties and sacrifices of their work was laid bare. Nobody is in the mood to criticise immigrants recruited to help the NHS.

Unrelated to Brexit, another large group of migrants is settling in: the more than 100,000 people fleeing China’s anti-freedom crackdown in Hong Kong. Well-educated and with language skills, they’re expected to adapt well, but since most haven’t yet settled into careers it’s too early to say where their impact will be.

They’re believed to be settling outside cities and near good schools, meaning they often cluster around the south-east. The post-Brexit migrants have tended to settle in or around London, rather than in poorer parts of the country, in the way EU migrants did as a result of the jobs they did. Although this could affect levelling up, it also means they avoid accusations of taking poor people’s jobs.

But before this all looks rosy, there are problems. With all the focus on the skilled, medium-wage jobs, the issue of some sectors suffering because of a lack of EU migrants is ignored. The care sector is crying out for staff and has just gone on the shortage list. Hospitality, delivery, retail and food production struggle to fill slots. Because these are considered low-skilled, low-wage jobs, there isn’t the same opportunity to recruit from abroad. If Britons don’t take on the roles, how are these sectors going to survive? The surprisingly high employment and vacancy levels after the pandemic are also over-egged. Jobs may now equal or outnumber jobseekers, but many are revealed to be precarious and badly paid.

The HGV driver shortages that led to empty shelves as the UK came out of lockdown have not been fully resolved, and EU citizens were unimpressed by the short-term visas created for them to come and plug the gap. There are more EU workers still in horticulture and agriculture, but not enough, and farmers are struggling, with a shortage of vets and fruit pickers. Some produce has been rotting in fields as a result. Nigerian surgeons, Filipino nurses and Indian IT whiz kids aren’t going to harvest those raspberries.

Farmers had liked working with Eastern Europeans and when their numbers started dropping off they complained, pushing the government into reintroducing a seasonal workers’ programme – which had existed since the second world war until Eastern European free movement made them redundant – with agents looking once again to Ukrainians, who had been recruited in the past. “In 2021, before the Ukraine war, 70% of seasonal workers were Ukrainian,” Sumption told me. “There were historic ties. And it’s a big country with a large population, with its average income below the EU average,” said Sumption. These were not refugees from Russia’s war.

This hasn’t been an unqualified success, as some Ukrainian former agricultural workers have gone public with stories of exploitation and poor working conditions.

There can also be downsides for the nations supplying the migrant workers, and those left behind lamented the resulting brain drain. “We do not have enough workers in this vital sector,” said Professor Chris Bode, chief medical director at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, when Nigerian doctors began to leave in greater numbers for Britain two years ago. “We make huge investments to produce them. Richer nations simply harvest these workers free from our system. We seem powerless to stop the trend.” It doesn’t always work this way – the demand for Filipino nurses has led to the training of many more at home.

There have been other controversies around new rules. The bid to attract the so-called “brightest and best” by offering graduates of 37 top-ranking universities the opportunity to work in the UK, has upset both ends of the spectrum of opinion on migrants. Pro-immigration liberals such as the writer Arwa Mahdawi have pointed out that none of the universities on the list are from Africa, India or Latin America: “yet another reminder that borders only exist for the poor”. But Mehmet worried that less successful graduates from those institutions would try their luck, displacing British students from job opportunities.

It’s hard to look at today’s immigration policy, with its widening of geographical access, and not lament the social polarisation and economic decline that came with Brexit, not to mention the shrinking of opportunities abroad for British workers and students. Was it worth it? And couldn’t it have been achieved while still in the EU? The NHS always had a facility to recruit extensively from abroad if necessary. And the UK always had control of non-EU migrant numbers. It also had the right to repatriate EU citizens who were not working, self-sufficient or studying after three months – it just chose not to.

As for my Indian friends, they shrugged off the racist slurs and continue to live in London. The Brexit vote is likely to make it easier for them to stay on for longer with their family. So, Indians – 1; racists – 0.

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