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The Emigration of Immigrants

Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive, National Centre for Social Research

March 2019

In December 2018, the Government set out plans for immigration post-Brexit. Shortly afterwards, a much criticised Home Office video reinforced the basis of the settlement scheme for EU Citizens set out earlier in 2018. So what effect might these plans have on EU citizens living in the UK?

Despite reassuring messages that EU citizens living here are vital and we want them to stay, the latest data from the Office for National Statistics show the emigration of EU citizens from the UK has almost doubled in the last 5 years and has increased sharply since the EU referendum. In contrast, the number of non-EU citizens emigrating has reduced.

Net international migration (the difference between immigration and emigration - those coming to and leaving the UK for a year or more) added about 273 thousand to the population in the year to June 2018, higher than in 2010, with 625 thousand coming and 351 thousand leaving.

Where this leaves the Government’s “goal”, set out in the Conservative Party’s 2010 manifesto and reinforced in subsequent ones, to reduce annual net migration to the tens of thousands is unclear.

It is not being met but is still potentially a vote winner with the public. NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey shows over 60% of the public wanted immigration reduced even in the 1990s, when net migration was last that low. By 2013, that figure had risen to 77% although there appears to have been some softening of views since.

Perceived wisdom is Governments control immigration, not emigration. Besides, why would Government want to stop Brits going to live in Spain in later life or to study or work abroad?

However, it seems reasonable to assume that the choice of a net migration goal, rather than an immigration one, was not by chance. One advantage of such a target is it can be achieved not by just reducing immigration but by increasing emigration. The latter can be influenced by creating a less welcoming environment for recent immigrants.

Between 2004 and 2017, the Migration Observatory notes the UK foreign-born population rose from 5.3 million to almost 9.4 million. Many of these recent migrants will be settled here - partners, neighbours, work colleagues and friends of dwellers in our major cities.

This begs the question: do we wish to encourage the emigration of such immigrants? The answer seems to be “yes” for specific groups, most obviously those here illegally or who engage in criminal activity, but there is some appetite to go further.

Making it more difficult to renew visas (for example, students wanting to stay beyond their courses) or to claim benefits, introducing skills levies on employers or targeting those with poor English language skills (say, by restricting access to frontline public sector jobs) can all stimulate emigration.

The public approves of making life difficult for those here illegally. Previous NatCen data has shown 4 in 5 of people welcome a tough approach.

However, recent data from opinion pollsters Ipsos-MORI show some softening of this position and that people would prioritise those living here legally not being forced to leave. Most of us were ashamed at the treatment of the Windrush generation.

So, if the Government does want to encourage EU citizens to stay as we exit the European Union, one signal could be the dropping of its net migration target, replacing it with immigration targets (which could include or exclude students). If it wishes to increase the emigration of immigrants, whether EU or non-EU, reinforcing its net migration goal provides a signal of this.

Either way, we should expect more EU citizens to leave as Brexit is implemented - the question is how many.

A version of this blog post originally appeared in The Times.