Would the UK immigration situation change after Brexit?

Would Brexit mean that migration could be reduced? What is the impact of EU law on the UK, now and after the referendum? 

Regarding the EU law on asylum, called Common European Asylum System (CEAS), the UK has the right to opt in or out. The UK opted in to the EU laws regarding Dublin, Eurodac and EASO, and opted out of the second-phase asylum Directives (meaning the Directives on asylum procedures and reception, reviewed in 2013). However, it is still covered by the first-phase Directives, the “old” version. Currently the CEAS is under review, with some of the proposals already published by the Commission. The UK has also opted-out from the EU’s visa laws, which means that the UK can check people at its borders and refuse entry to non-EU citizens according to UK law.

If staying in the EU, it would be up to the UK to decide whether to participate in the new proposals; if not, the current Regulations continue to apply. If they opt out of the discussions on the proposals, they could still opt in later after adoption of the legislation. In the event of Brexit, the UK would no longer be subject to any of the EU asylum laws it is now participating in, unless the EU and the UK negotiate an agreement to that effect. So far, the EU has in practice only ever been willing to extend the Dublin rules to non-EU States if those States are also Schengen associates. On the contrary, due to the opt-out on visa law, the decision to withdraw from the EU would not change the rules as regards non-EU citizens seeking to enter the UK from (the rest of) the EU – other than the small minority who apply for asylum or who are family members of EU citizens.

 The impact of International law on the UK, now and after the referendum

Under the 1951 UN Convention, signed and ratified by the UK, a refugee is defined as a person who is outside of his or her country, and unable to be protected by that country ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’. This definition applies to people fleeing conflict and persecution across the world. The convention contains also the prohibition to send back a refugee before having assessed his claim, even if the person entered irregularly in the country. When a person flees to the UK, they must first have their story assessed by the UK Border Agency before being given leave to remain as a refugee.

Staying or leaving the EU will not have an impact on the obligation of the UK to respect the Refugee Convention. Similarly, they will need to respect the European Convention on Human Rights, to which they are part as well, that contains many articles that have been applied in cases related to asylum.

Would Brexit mean that migration could be reduced?

The topic of migration has been central to the referendum debate. In April, 47 percent rated immigration as the most pressing concern; just half that number identified the economy as the most important issue. However, when asked specifically about their vote on Europe, respondents cite the economy as their primary consideration, with migration a close second.

However, with EU Member States having received more than 1 million asylum seekers and migrants in 2015, the United Kingdom has played a highly limited role in the refugee crisis thus far. The Office for National Statistics estimates that non-EU net migration stood at 188,000 and EU net migration at 184,000 in 2015. Subtracting net British emigration of 39,000, net migration would not have been below 100,000 even if net EU migration were zero – unlikely even in a Brexit scenario. In addition, the UK refused to take part in the EU scheme to relocate 160,000 refugees across Member States.

The government’s Migration Advisory Committee has argued that further restrictions to skilled work visas for non-EU citizens would bring a “significant risk [of] detrimental impacts on UK productivity, innovation and competitiveness […]”.Leaving the EU to restrict EU migration will have to deal with the implication of leaving the European single market, as a trade-off.  Therefore, if free movement came to an end, the task of designing a new immigration system would need to take into account whether and how to satisfy demand for migrant labour in low- and middle-skilled jobs, as well as how to manage trade-offs between the costs and benefits of different types of migration.

One factor that could – in theory – reduce both EU and non-EU migration in the medium term would be if the UK became a less attractive destination. In particular, if the UK economy performed less well economically relative to migrants’ countries of origin, this would be expected to reduce migration even if it would, of course, be undesirable for other reasons.

Federica Toscano

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