One of the most important issues in the Brexit debate is immigration / refugees. It seems the argument is, that the EU has increased the total number of immigrants to the UK greatly. However, the UK has always had a very large percentage of immigration. There has been a strong Indian, Haitian, African and of course Pakistani community for a long time. Is this seen as part of the problem? Didn't these communities emerge long before the refugee wave in the EU?

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    It surely increased the numbers of immigrants from EU and Schengen countries. Are you interested in that as well, or only in the effect it had on immigration from non-EU countries such as the ones named in the question?
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 18:54
  • @phoog good point, yes both are relevant of course. Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 20:03
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    This question shows an important confusion that a lot of people have between "presence" and "rate of change", or "stock" vs "flow". While changes to the law can affect the flow, the only way to reduce presence - ie make people already settled or even born here leave - is effectively ethnic cleansing.
    – pjc50
    Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 11:44

2 Answers 2


Given that around half of UK immigration is from the EU, that the EU contains only around 7% of the world’s population, and that net EU migration increased markedly in the 2000s as the bloc was enlarged, approaching ten times the rate for the preceding ten years, I would say yes, EU policy has had “a significant impact on [the] total number of immigrants in the UK.”

However, the UK has always had a very large percentage of immigration.

No it hasn’t. Net migration for the 2000s approached ten times the rate for the preceding ten years. For most of the twentieth century (and indeed before) net migration was small in both relative and absolute terms.

There has been a strong Indian, Haitian, African and of course Pakistani community for a long time. Is this seen as part of the problem?

What problem are you referring to? Migration is a highly complex issue, and it is not possible to generalise it as a “problem”. EU migration policy has had an effect on non-EU migration: the number of migrants from non-EU countries into the UK has been proportionally reduced to compensate for the effectively unlimited migration from the EU to maintain migration levels that are politically acceptable.

Didn't these communities emerge long before the refugee wave in the EU?

Communities? Are you arguing that ethnicity defines the community you belong to? There has been no real refugee “wave” into the UK from the EU that I am aware of. Certainly, in 2016 some voters perceived that EU migration rules effectively made UK migration rules the same as the “lowest common denominator“ member-state’s migration rules. For example: when Germany, over a period of years, admitted millions of people from Middle Eastern war zones, some UK voters worried that these people, who would eventually be able to move freely to the UK as EU citizens, had not undergone a sufficient vetting process, particularly given the then heightened awareness of sectarian antipathy from those countries of origin towards countries like the UK.

EU rules result in effectively unlimited migration from countries with much poorer economies. As a high pull-factor country (English speaking, welcoming, open society, relatively strong economy, relatively strong currency etc), the volume of migrants into the UK from these countries increased quickly after they became EU members. The impact of this was mixed: for some it was positive, for others it was negative.

In the EU, the executive is the Commission. The Commission holds the sole right to formally propose and change laws. Being comprised of appointees, the EU executive cannot be directly held to account by any of the people it governs. In the Parliament, MEPs are indirectly voted for by most of the UK electorate but they cannot directly form or repeal EU laws: they can only accept or reject proposals from the Commission (if they can form a majority in the 751-strong Parliament). Like anyone, they can make suggestions to the Commission, but the Commission takes instruction from no-one: it is, after all, the executive. In extremis the Parliament can vote out the Commission, but this has never happened.

Migration was an important policy area for many UK voters in the 2016 referendum. Indeed, because of the design of the EU described above, it was the first time the UK electorate had a chance to vote directly on EU migration policy: indeed it was the first chance for the UK electorate to vote directly on the entire direction of the EU.

And they roundly rejected it in England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland on the other hand, areas that have seen almost none of the effects of mass EU migration, voted to remain in the EU.

The reasons for the rejection of EU migration policy are as many and varied as the people voting to leave the EU. One angle is that EU rules prohibit discrimination on the basis of the skills a migrant brings with them. This resulted in an abundance of unskilled and low-skilled labour in England and Wales, making the minimum wage the maximum wage for large sections of society and impacting public services and housing supply in some areas. This element of EU migration policy was highly regressive, with the poorest and youngest in society bearing the brunt of these negative effects, with the wealthy winning the benefits.

I’ll add references when I have time.

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    The referendum wasn't only about immigration policy, of course. To say that voters voted for or against the policy by voting for or against remaining in the EU is an oversimplification. Also, EU free movement rules did have some effect on the immigration of non-EU citizens because of its inclusion of third-country family members. I suspect that this effect was close to negligible, but maybe it wasn't.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 22:46
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    An important point is that EU migration was never an issue in the UK until the former Soviet-bloc countries joined the EU in the 1990s. Unlike other countries Britain (under Blair) agreed to waive a seven-year moratorium on the rights of Poles, Czechs and others to free-movement. It was this that caused a surge of East Europeans to Britain. However, it is important to bear in mind that overall immigration is as much determined by demand as supply, and fluctuations in numbers are closely related to whether the economy is booming or in recession.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 29, 2018 at 7:53
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    And East European migration has differed in character from Asian and Caribbean migration. Whilst the latter has historically brought white-collar and unskilled manual labour to the UK, the East European newcomers have brought skilled manual trades, in direct competion with the established white workforce, notably in such things as building and construction. People in Britain, with lives hitherto largely unaffected by immigrants, were suddenly faced with incomers prepared to work for lower wages than theirs.
    – WS2
    Commented Dec 29, 2018 at 8:04
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    I'm going to have to ask for support for "negative impact of immigration" given how highly charged this topic is.
    – pjc50
    Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 11:42
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    > Being comprised of appointees, the EU executive - Technically true. However, president of EC is directly voted for by MEPs. The rest of the EC is then still subject to vote of approval by MEPs.
    – Gnudiff
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 23:28

No, the effect of EU freedom of movement has been quite limited.

For a start, less than half of immigration is from the EU. Meaning that the UK has full control over more than half, and has chosen the level it will allow. The choice was influenced by things like the needs of industry and education (fee paying students), and to a much less extent family reunions. As such it is unlikely that in the absense of EU freedom of movement the overall immigration level would be lower, as the UK would simply have to allow more migrants in under the non-EU system to meet its needs.

As you note, the UK has been doing this for a very long time. The Windrush Generation are an example that recently came into the news, brought in to help rebuild after World War 2.

You can see evidence of this in the UK's decision to not impose any temporary limits on migration from new EU member states such as Poland and Romania, the same as France and other countries did. Immigration was viewed as a positive thing and as necessary. The UK made that decision freely and so the influx of Polish migrants is not attributable to EU rules, but rather the UK's decision to forego applying any temporary limits.

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