One of the main reasons often cited for voting Brexit is to curb immigration. I have a few issues which I'd like to set out.

Firstly, non EU immigration makes up approximately half of the total immigration into the UK in current figures, and has been much higher historically speaking.

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It has always been within the government's power since we've been in the EU to control and restrict non-EU immigration as they see fit. The fact that we haven't enacted policies which would curb non-EU immigration could suggest one of two things. Either there hasn't been enough support for such policies from the public, or the government believes their economic cost is more than offset by their economic benefits. Regardless, the power to reduce immigration was there, and the government didn't use it. So what's to suggest that after Brexit when the government has the power to reduce EU immigration, it will use it? As in, why not instead campaign for reduction of non-EU immigration instead of Brexit- which has many more economic disadvantages e.g. loss of single market access.

Secondly, the average EU migrant contribution post 2000 has been found by a study to be £1.34 in taxes for every £1 received from the state.



Therefore, the argument that increased immigration strains public services seems to be a fallacious one. Since they are on average net contributors, a reduction in immigration would lead to a proportionately higher drop in tax revenue, thus deteriorating public services per capita.

The only answer I can think of, is that it is a result of confirmation basis, and the lack of 'perceivable' benefits of immigration to the layman. But perhaps someone else could enlighten me.

  • Do the non-EU numbers include non-EU family of EU citizens? Those people are not in fact subject to national legislation, so the UK has not had the power to control or restrict such immigration "as they see fit."
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 8:14
  • Are those figures for gross or net immigration? I imagine UK emigration being much more to the EU than to the rest of the world.
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 16:56

6 Answers 6


Unfortunately, the Brexit referendum wasn't won on facts and figures like the ones you suggest. A large part of the pro Brexit rhetoric involved ideas like “people in this country have had enough of experts” - from Michael Gove, and the idea that Britain could “take back control” from an “unelected elite”. This type of emotional rhetoric formed a large part of the campaign, especially the idea of "taking back control", which encompassed things like immigration("Let's take back control of our borders"), and the perceived problem of an unelected elite.

This approach, coupled with outright lies (such as the "£350 million a week to brussels" - actually closer to £161 million) was what the Brexit referendum was fought and won on, not on analysis of facts and figures. Specifically in terms of immigration, the Vote Leave campaign simply stated "This puts a big strain on public services like the NHS and schools", deriding any suggestions that this wasn't true as being said by experts, or by an undemocratically elected elite. The 'commonsense' argument - I don't have a job/I don't like my job/I am underpaid. Immigrants are coming into this country and getting jobs. Therefore they are stealing our jobs. - is

was also very attractive.

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    The page you quoted as outright lies says "The EU already costs us £350 million a week Enough to build a new NHS hospital every week. We get less than half of this back, and have no say over how it's spent."
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 11:16
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    @AndrewGrimm Yes, it does say that, but it also says what I quoted - in the 2nd and 3rd last slides in the slideshow at the bottom. Anyway, something for which you contribute £350 million, and get back close to £200 million, doesn't cost £350 million, and certainly doesn't free up £350 million in public spending for the NHS - which is what the campaign claims to want to do with this extra money.
    – penalosa
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 11:46
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    @AndrewGrimm The main issue with the "EU 350 million a week" argument is the following. Taking 2014 as an example, we had a gross contribution of £19billion, which reduces to a net contribution of £10billion: bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-35943216. Therefore there is only a direct saving of £10 billion. Now when you take into account the fact that the UK would subsequently leave the single market - resulting in a certain degree of regulatory barriers and tariffs (the degree to which depends upon the negotiations), then it's clear the cost far outweighs the membership fee.
    – mrnovice
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 15:29

As in, why not instead campaign for reduction of non-EU immigration instead of Brexit

Some of the people who voted for Brexit wanted to increase non-EU immigration:

“It’s a racist immigration policy, in my opinion,” says Akhtar. “Anyone can come here from Poland or Bulgaria or Romania and do what they want, but now I can’t bring one chef or waiter here from Pakistan or Bangladesh. It’s hard for business.”

The pro-Brexit people took advantage of this weakness of the anti-Brexit forces by talking about a different kind of immigration system:

Gove and Johnson were very careful in the campaign not to attack migration or migrants and instead focus on the single issue of controlling migration. It went largely unnoticed in the campaign but neither actually promised to cut immigration.

Instead they talked only about an Australian-style immigration system and made a commitment to EU citizens living in the UK that their rights would be protected.

The Australian-style system is one where each applicant is scored on a series of criteria like contributing economically. People with skills in short supply would be given preference over those who would compete with existing workers.

Anti-Brexit rhetoric contributed to this. People who really cared about immigration and would be helped by a points system, would vote for that. People who only had vague fears of immigration were told that Brexit was racist because it would exclude immigrants by the anti-Brexit people. So the pro-Brexit people could stay on message for people who liked non-EU immigration while the anti-Brexit people ensured that the anti-immigration people voted for Brexit.

Your proposed rhetoric against non-EU immigration would have only made this worse. It would have pushed the non-EU immigrants who are now citizens to be even more pro-Brexit.

  • I think Mexico and Canada use same system as well (not just Australia)
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 15:18
  • @Brythan Please note I'm not making arguments based on attracting political support for a certain viewpoint. I'm making an economic analysis to understand the motives for those who voted Brexit. So for all the native born Brexit voters who feel impacted by immigration for whatever reason (they make up the majority of Brexit voters)- campaigning for curbing non-EU immigration instead of Brexit would have achieved their goals at a far lower economic cost, whilst only alienating a smaller percentage of the electorate.
    – mrnovice
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 15:25
  • @user4012 A number of countries use a similar system. Here though, proponents of this kind of system were pointing to Australia. Presumably there are reasons for this, but I don't know that they matter to this question.
    – Brythan
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 15:26
  • @Brythan You're misunderstanding me. I'm suggesting that all of the native Brexit voters, who wanted reduced immigration, should have been campaigning for the government to use its existing powers to reduce non-EU immigration, rather than for voting Brexit in the first place. Without the support of these native voters - the Brexit campaign dies. Also by staying in the EU, we don't have to lose single market access.
    – mrnovice
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 15:36
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    @mrnovice I doubt that those voting for Brexit consider the free movement of labor to be a priority. Their general aim is more likely to be to (re-)establish domestic control over domestic affairs.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 3:34

I'm surprised how no answer mentions this one word refugees.

I found a lot of far right pro-Brexit content saying that refugees settled in other European countries would eventually move in to the UK and cause lots of issues. These people got a lot of ammunition from Germany's policies to allow thousands of refugees and the Cologne incident propelled their narrative further.

In addition Turkey has threatened multiple times to "send refugees into the EU"

11 February: Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, threatened to send millions of refugees from Turkey into the EU unless Turkey is given more funds to host the refugees.

18 April: The Turkish government threatened to withdraw from its agreement with the EU unless the EU grants visa-free travel for Turkish citizens by June. Withdrawing from the agreement would mean that Turkey would no longer take back migrants from the EU.

17 March: In the wake of tensions between Turkey and several European nations over the Turkish constitutional referendum, 2017, Turkish interior minister Süleyman Soylu threatened to send 15,000 refugees to the European Union every month while foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has also threatened to cancel the March 2016 EU-Turkey migrant deal.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_European_migrant_crisis

This added to the pro-Brexit rhetoric that if the UK remained in the EU, these refugees would move migrate and cause trouble.

  • Okay, but then why is it better to be out of the EU and deal with the refugee crisis individually, rather than being in the EU and working together to deal with the refugees. Just because we leave the EU doesn't make the refugees disappear. Moreover, whilst being in the EU, the UK took in a very low amount of refugees compared to other countries - and we were allowed to decide this by ourselves.
    – mrnovice
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 23:28
  • @mrnovice It is probably thought that the EU would not be wiling to say the refugees couldn't become citizens, which also means UK couldn't keep them out.
    – Andy
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 1:38
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    @mrnovice As long as the refugees aren't citizens of their host countries the UK would be able to decide. But once they become citizens they can move within the EU freely. Populists use this well to their advantage. This is also similar to your question - politics.stackexchange.com/questions/9982
    – user13094
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 8:58

I have tried to understand this, too. Often the arguments seem to rely on ignoring some of the points that you mention. It is easy for people to see immigrants in their communities, queuing at the doctor or sending their children to schools. The assumption is that if these people were not there then services would be under less pressure, without considering that immigrants are often providers of these services, and also contribute to the taxes that pay for them. There also seems to be little notice taken of the figures for non-EU immigration, and how the British government has not reduced it.

I think the answer is that the specifics of the current situation are not considered as important as the principle that it ought to be the British government who decides when it comes to any matters pertaining to immigration. The British can always decide to allow entrance to workers that it needs, but it should not be obliged to accept anyone, just because they have EU nationality.

There is also some effect from British citizens that have ties to the Indian subcontinent, or other regions outside Europe, hoping that reduced immigration from the EU will allow more immigration from their favored places. I think this is unlikely to happen.


There are two questions here:

  • Why do people want to limit immigration?
  • Why did the government not reduce non-EU immigration more?

Why limit immigration?

I've seen three main arguments:

  • Practicalities - people need housing, schools, etc. When the population grows, provision for this needs to grow too. Even if migrants are net contributors, that doesn't in itself build houses or schools.

  • Economic changes - labour being in plentiful supply is a different economic scenario to it being in short supply. When I was young, I could easily get a job in a shop/pub for extra cash. It's harder for unskilled young people to do this now.

  • Cultural changes - high-volume immigration has created ghettos - concentrated pockets, where migrants interact primarily with other migrants from the same origin, and limit their integration with natives.

Whether these are valid is subjective. For example, some describe the economic changes as "forcing our workforce to be competitive" while others describe that as "encouraging exploitation".

There is a fourth argument, but it is rarely mentioned:

  • Brain drain - many migrants are skilled, the more productive members of their origin society. This causes migration to harm the origin country.

In the case of the EU, a particular concern is that migration is potentially unlimited. The entire population of Romania could - in theory - decide to move to the UK tomorrow, and the UK would be obliged to allow entry and guarantee basic rights. There are "emergency brake" provisions in the treaties, but many are concerned these would not be usable in practice.

Why not reduce non-EU immigration?

The reduction over recent years is the result of aggressive controls by the government that many view as draconian. In general, non-EU citizens can immigrate if there is a job for them that can't be filled otherwise, if they marry a UK resident, or a few other scenarios (e.g. refugees). The reduction came (roughly speaking) from forcing people to provide additional proof that the job/marriage/refugee is genuine. To reduce this further would require fundamentally changing the rules, and this risks negative economic impacts, or even violating people's human rights.

Personal opinion

I am ideologically progressive. I see all people as inherently equal, and feel we should strive for a fairer world.

I feel high-volume immigration is regressive. The economic changes benefit the middle class and up, while harming unskilled workers. Having many migrants from a country with lower living standards encourages economic disparity. For example, I've seen shared houses, originally meant for UK students, but a whole Polish family living in one student room. And the brain drain is a serious long-term threat to origin countries.

As a progressive, I cannot support a regressive policy such as high-volume immigration.

  • Immigration does indeed often lead to lower wages for the working class. However, it increases net tax revenues and also increases the competitiveness of UK exports/lowers the prices to the consumers. Now, lower prices benefit the poorest people as a percentage of income as these goods tend to be things like food etc.. so this is more progressive. Now the wage drop/increased structural unemployment experienced due to the migration, can be counteracted by the government investing in re-training those affected. Now is that done properly by the state? - that's what Brexiters should campaign for.
    – mrnovice
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 15:42
  • Hi @mrnovice. That may soften the blow a little, but I think it's still a net loss for working class people in general. Training could help a lot of people and I'd like to see more of that. Although the massive education push under the Blair government has failed to deliver the hoped outcomes. I don't think it's your place to say what Brexiters should campaign for. It's not a homogeneous group and many of the views have nothing to do with economics or training.
    – paj28
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 17:06
  • The 'net loss for working class' is a fallacy in economic terms. Here's a very interesting article, worth a read if you have the spare time economicshelp.org/blog/6399/economics/…
    – mrnovice
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 17:31
  • @mrnovice - Why is it a fallacy? I've only skimmed your link, which is interesting, but I don't see a clear answer to that.
    – paj28
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 18:37
  • Well when you compare the analysis in that article, with some of the statistics of migrant contributions, it is quite clear that the economic benefits from immigration and globalisation in general far outweigh the costs. The main issue of contention is the resulting inequality. However that is a matter of reinvesting the money gained from taxation revenue into addressing that.
    – mrnovice
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 18:41

Non-EU immigrants are seen as skilled migrants, while EU immigrants who immigrate as a result of the UK being a member of the EU are often seen as unskilled immigrants (so-called Polish plumbers) who drive down wages and working conditions for the UK's working class. The former are preferred over the latter.

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    Plumber is a skilled trade. Unskilled labor is more along the lines of restaurant workers and hotel custodial staff.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 8:16
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    @Andrew Grimm Actually the complete opposite is true: telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/11209234/…. Many other sources are available, but the consensus is EU migrants on average contribute a lot more than non-EU ones. This is another case of confirmation bias being used to make decisions, rather than statistics.
    – mrnovice
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 15:31
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    Any data to back up this claim apart from a probably non-pleasant experience with a plumber from Poland? I will also second that plumber is not an unskilled worker. You can't just grab any guy from a street and expect him to find a problem with your pipe and fix it, neither you can teach that in a week. In comparison to this any non-disable person would be able to clean a few tables or to move a few bricks from one place to another after 10 minutes of training. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 17:28
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    @Salvador your comment is rather patronising. Also, "Polish plumber" is political shorthand that has its own Wikipedia article.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 20:07

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