Myths on migration

It has been an incredibly sad few days. What happened to Jo Cox MP is tragic, and I’m struggling for words to describe my thoughts on such an awful event. I understand that there have been various suggestions that this may in some way be linked with the referendum, but I would urge us to avoid that sort of speculation until we have ascertained the facts of what happened. Instead, I think we should focus on the beautiful words of Jo’s husband:

“She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.”

RIP Jo Cox MP, my thoughts are with your family.


This post focuses on what has been the the big issue of this referendum debate – immigration. I confess I’ve felt quite nervous about writing this post. Immigration has proven such a thorny issue, and it all too often becomes mixed up with more sinister political rhetoric. Let’s be clear – it is not racist to be concerned about immigration and its effects on a country. However, the problem is when a debate about immigration becomes about certain populations, when it singles out certain sections of society, or when it involves baseless accusations about “foreigners” and “foreign criminals”. That’s when the debate takes an unacceptable tone. There has been too much of this in the EU referendum debate. If we want to talk about the effects of immigration – that’s fine, but there is absolutely no need to demonize others in the pursuit of this. In fact, I am really saddened by how this referendum has been fought – it hasn’t been about facts, but instead has often revolved around accusations or claims made without evidence. It is irresponsible to have a referendum which does not involve educating the public as to the very thing upon which they are asked to vote.

In this post, I aim to explain the rules on EU migration, and give you an overview of the statistics I’ve managed to find on this area. I have four overall points:

  1. It is untrue to say that we have no control over EU migration;
  2. There is little evidence to suggest that EU migration is having a negative economic effect on the UK;
  3. By contrast, there is evidence that suggests that EU migration is more likely to have a positive economic effect than non-EU migration; and
  4. Voting to leave the EU does not guarantee a reduction in immigration to the UK.

What are we talking about when we refer to EU migration?

Before I get into the detail of this, it is important to explain what is meant by EU migration. Here we are talking about people in one EU Member State moving to another. This might seem obvious, but I’ve often seen this overlooked. For example, I have read newspaper articles which blame the EU for a given set of migrants coming to the UK, but when I read the article more closely it transpires that they haven’t come from an EU Member State! The recent “breaking point” billboard Nigel Farage has started publicising is another example – the photo is actually a queue of Syrian (i.e. non-EU) refugees crossing the Slovenia-Croatia border. So – if you read stories that suggest they are about EU migration, check that they are actually about the EU.

I have also become quite uncomfortable with the terminology used in this debate. Increasingly I’ve noticed that individuals from other EU countries coming to the UK have been termed “immigrants”, whereas UK nationals benefitting from the right to live and work in another country are termed “expats”. Why? There is absolutely no difference between the two sets of people. They are both exercising the same sets of legal rights to live and work in another country.

A final point worth making here is that non-EU migration has nothing to do with the EU. The UK is free to set its own policies on non-EU migration, so any problems with this system cannot be blamed on the EU.

What are the rules on EU migration?

One of the most common things I read about EU migration is that it is “uncontrolled”. This isn’t true. There are rules on who can go to another EU Member State, and for how long. They are spelled out in a piece of EU law called the Citizens Rights Directive,[i] which was passed with the UK’s approval.[ii] The rules can broadly be summarised as follows [to which the usual disclaimer applies that nothing in this post should be relied upon as legal advice]:

  1. Any national of any EU Member State has the right to travel to another State and stay there for up to three months.[iii]
  2. After three months, an individual can stay for a longer period if they are:[iv]

a. A worker (i.e. employed);
b. Self-employed;
c. A student; or
d. Someone who has “sufficient resources for themselves and their family members not to become a burden on the social assistance system of [the country to which they are moving] during the period of their residence and [has] comprehensive sickness insurance cover in [that country].”

Family members of any person falling within the categories above can also move with them.[v]

It is also worth noting that the Court of Justice of the European Union has held that jobseekers can move to another EU country in order to look for work, and should be given a reasonable time to find a job. If they cannot obtain employment, an EU Member State can require that person to return to their home country. It has been held that 6 months would be a reasonable time unless that person can demonstrate that they have a genuine chance of securing employment.[vi]

Another point to mention is that these rights apply to UK nationals as well. We have the right to move to another EU country if we fall within the categories above. To give you an example, I was extremely fortunate to spend a year studying in Belgium, and my rights to go to Belgium were derived from EU law. It is estimated that over 1 million UK citizens currently live in another EU Member State.[vii]

I’ve also seen claims that we are not able to restrict the free movement of those individuals falling within the categories I’ve mentioned above, particularly if they have criminal convictions. This also isn’t true. Article 27 of the Citizens Rights Directive reads as follows: “Member States may restrict the freedom of movement and residence of [EU] citizens and their family members… on the grounds of public policy, public security or public health.” On criminal convictions, Article 27(2) of the Citizens Rights Directive reads “Previous criminal convictions shall not in themselves constitute grounds for taking such measures. The personal conduct of the individual concerned must represent a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat affecting one of the fundamental interests of society.” In other words, the fact that someone has a previous criminal conviction would not be enough to stop them entering the UK (for example, it may be a very minor conviction), but it would be enough if the UK can explain why that conviction means that the person is a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society.

So: i) it is not true to say that EU migration is uncontrolled – only certain individuals have the right to move to another EU country, and it is the UK’s responsibility to check that individuals coming to the UK have the right to do so; and ii) even though an individual has the right to come to the UK in principle, the UK still has powers to restrict the free movement of those individuals on the grounds listed above (i.e. public policy, public security and public health).

What rights do EU migrants have to benefits?

Another key issue that has cropped up in this debate has concerned the extent to which EU migrants can claim access to benefits. The position on this is that if an individual falls within the categories mentioned in points 1 and 2 above, they are entitled to equal treatment in access to benefits.[viii] This means that an EU national falling within those categories would have to satisfy the same conditions to access benefits in the UK as a UK national.

If an individual does not fall within the categories above, they are not entitled to access benefits in another EU country. This has been confirmed by the Court of Justice of the European Union.[ix] In fact, just last week the Court of Justice ruled that the UK was correct in refusing child benefits and tax credits to an individual who did not fall within these categories.[x]

What are the statistics on EU migration to and from the UK?

One point that is often overlooked in the debate on EU migration is that EU migration is only part of the total migration to the UK. What follows is a summary of the statistics on long term international migration (i.e. migration for 12 months or more).[xi] It is worth noting that the exact statistics on migration can vary depending on which source you read because there is no authoritative set of figures. Nevertheless, the overall trends found in the data are very similar. As a result, I have been particularly careful to identify my sources below so you can ascertain where I have obtained this data.

In 2015, the London School of Economics calculated that net migration to the UK (i.e. those coming to the UK vs those leaving) breaks down as follows:[xii]

  1. EU citizens = 172,000 (47.4%)
  2. Non-EU citizens = 191,000 (52.6%)

It is also worth comparing the reasons that migrants give for coming to the UK. This data is based on the 2015 International Passenger Survey, which is data obtained from passengers in airports:[xiii]

Reason for immigrating to the UK EU Nationals Non-EU nationals
Definite job 41% 22%
Looking for work 32% 9%
Accompanying/joining someone 7% 18%
Study 15% 47%
Other 5% 4%

This is backed up by the UK’s Labour Force Survey, which estimates that around 3 million migrants from the EU live in the UK, and 2.15 million of them are in employment (which represents around 7% of the UK’s working population).[xiv] It does not follow that the rest of those migrants are unemployed as they could, for example, be students or self-employed.

What is the impact of EU migration on the UK?

Given that, as I’ve just mentioned, 2.15 million EU migrants are in work in the UK, it would stand to reason that these individuals (or at least some of them) would be contributing to UK public finances through paying taxes and therefore financing public services. It is true, however, that: i) they might also be using these public services; and ii) other migrants that are not working might be benefitting from public services whilst not contributing via taxes. So – in order to assess the impact of EU migration we need to know: what is the overall impact of EU migrants’ benefits to the UK vs their consumption of public services?

The short answer is that there is no conclusive answer to this question but any impact, positive or negative, is likely to be relatively minor. Fullfact have looked at the various studies on this area and concluded that “there is no single “correct” estimate of this impact” but “most studies suggest that the fiscal impact of migration in the UK is relatively small (costing or contributing less than 1% of the country’s overall Gross Domestic Product.”[xv]

However, Fullfact noted that the economic studies on this area are consistent in concluding that “estimated fiscal impacts of European Economic Area (EEA) migrants and of recent migrants are more positive than those of non-EEA and longer-established migrants.” It therefore follows that migrants from the EU are more likely to benefit the UK than non-EU migrants. This would seem in line with the table above – if more EU migrants coming to the UK are workers, whereas the majority of non-EU migrants coming to the UK are students, it would seem logical that EU migrants are more likely to be financially beneficial to the UK.

It is often argued that migrants have wider effects on the economy such as decreasing wages or living conditions. The London School of Economics looked into these claims in a study.[xvi] Their conclusions were as follows:

  1. “Many people are concerned that immigration reduces the pay and job chances of the UK-born due to more competition for jobs. But immigrants consume goods and services and this increased demand helps to create more employment opportunities. Immigrants also might have skills that complement UK-born workers. So we need more empirical evidence to settle the issue of whether the economic impact of immigration is negative or positive for the UK-born.”
  2. “New evidence in this Report shows that the areas of the UK with large increases in EU immigration did not suffer greater falls in the jobs and pay of UK-born workers. The big falls in wages after 2008 are due to the global financial crisis and a weak economic recovery, not to immigration.”
  3. “There is also little effect of EU immigration on inequality through reducing the pay and jobs of less skilled UK workers. Changes in wages and joblessness for less educated UK-born workers show little correlation with changes in EU immigration.”
  4. “EU immigrants pay more in taxes than they take out in welfare and the use of public services. They therefore help reduce the budget deficit. Immigrants do not have a negative effect on local services such as crime, education, health, or social housing.”

The study therefore concludes as follows “… we can confidently say that empirical evidence shows that EU immigration has not had significantly negative effects on average employment, wages, inequality or public services at the local-level for the UK born. Nor, it should be said, are there large positive effects. Any adverse experiences of UK-born workers with regard to jobs and wages are more closely associated with the biggest economic crash for more than 80 years.”

Another claim that often features in the EU migration debate is that increased EU migration will place pressure on the NHS. As I’ve mentioned above, the London School of Economics study states that immigrants do not have negative effects on health services. In addition, the University of Oxford set up a study specifically looking at the effects of migration on the NHS.[xvii] They concluded that immigration does not have a significant impact on NHS waiting times in A&E and in fact they noted that immigration seemed to reduce waiting times for outpatient appointments. In particular, they noted that “recent migrants (i.e. those who came after 2000) are significantly less likely to use hospital services compared to the UK-born.”[xviii] In the interests of being balanced, it should also be noted that the study did note an increase in waiting times in more deprived areas of the UK in the years immediately following the 2004 enlargement of the EU, but any increase in waiting times reduced to an insignificant amount after 3-4 years.[xix]

In terms of the impact of migration on education, an article on Fullfact notes that “in schools, increased numbers of pupils with English as a second language doesn’t have any negative impact on levels of achievement for native English speaking students. If anything, pupils in schools with lots of non-native speakers do slightly better.”[xx]

What happens if the UK were to vote to leave?

A UK vote to leave the EU would only have the potential to reduce the number of EU migrants coming to the UK. It would not reduce non-EU migration which, as I’ve mentioned above, is over 50% of migration to the UK. In addition, a vote to leave would not reduce EU migration to zero, as it is likely that the UK would still permit some migrants to come to the UK. For example:

  1. Given that a number of EU migrants come to the UK with jobs, this would suggest that there is demand for workers in the UK. Therefore, it would be in the UK’s interest to continue to permit these individuals (and their families) to come to the UK; and
  2. It is likely that the UK would still permit students based in the EU to come to the UK to study.

As I’ve detailed above, workers and students make up the vast majority of EU migration to the UK. Furthermore, it is not clear how many of the 1 million+ UK citizens currently living abroad may choose to return to the UK if we were to leave the EU.

It is also worth pointing out that voting to leave the EU does not necessarily mean that we would be able to limit EU migration, as it would depend on the outcome of our negotiations for the future of our relationship with the EU. As I’ve argued in previous posts (here and here), if the UK were to join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) we would still be required to accept the free movement of people in the same way as we would at present, and similarly Switzerland was also required to accept the free movement of people as part of its relationship with the EU. Therefore, at present there is no model available to the UK which would allow it to access free movement of goods and services within the EU without being required to accept the free movement of people, and the Leave campaign have not presented any such solution. Whilst it is true that the UK could seek to negotiate such a solution, it is important to keep in mind that it would be open to the EU Member States to insist that the UK accepts the free movement of people as part of any agreement, so such an outcome is not guaranteed.

Final point

It follows from all of the above that:

  1. It is untrue to say that the UK has no control on EU migration because EU law only confers the right to live in another EU Member State for longer than three months to workers, the self-employed, students and those with sufficient resources to support themselves and medical insurance;
  2. There is limited evidence to support the claims that EU migrants have a negative economic impact on the UK, and instead recent studies indicate that they are more likely to have a positive impact on the UK; and
  3. A vote to leave the EU does not mean we would be able to restrict EU migration, as it will depend on the outcome of our renegotiation with the EU. At present, there appears to be no clear plan for what form this renegotiation will take.

Notwithstanding all of this, I want to finish on a different note. Very little has been said in this referendum debate about the cultural benefits of immigration. I am very proud of the fact that the UK is a multicultural country. I think it is one of our many strengths. Multiculturalism brings huge benefits to the UK. To name just a few, we benefit from different food, different views, and different ways of life. This diversity should be something we celebrate. I think that it is extremely sad, and shows just how negative the referendum campaign has been, that so much has been said about the negative impact of immigration, and so little has been said about how much the UK has benefitted from immigration.


Footnotes (aka things for the super keen)

[i] The text of the Directive can be found here – http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2004:158:0077:0123:en:PDF

[ii] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_PRES-03-259_en.htm?locale=en – as you can see in this document, only Austria indicated their intention to vote against the Directive.

[iii] Article 6 of the Citizens Rights Directive.

[iv] Article 7 of the Citizens Rights Directive.

[v] Article 7(1)(d) of the Citizens Rights Directive.

[vi] See Case C-289/89 Antonissen [1991] ECR I-745 – http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:61989CJ0292.

[vii] https://fullfact.org/europe/immigration-eu-referendum/

[viii] Article 24 Citizens Rights Directive.

[ix] Case C-333/13 Dano ECLI:EU:C:2014:2358 – http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf;jsessionid=9ea7d2dc30d5a48ba62f13ea49f08cfbe2d02c30efcc.e34KaxiLc3qMb40Rch0SaxuTax90?text=&docid=159442&pageIndex=0&doclang=en&mode=lst&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=317687

[x]  http://curia.europa.eu/jcms/upload/docs/application/pdf/2016-06/cp160063en.pdf

[xi] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/bulletins/migrationstatisticsquarterlyreport/may2016

[xii] http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/brexit05.pdf

[xiii] http://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/internationalmigration/bulletins/migrationstatisticsquarterlyreport/may2016 – see table 3a

[xiv] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/uklabourmarket/june2016

[xv] https://fullfact.org/immigration/how-immigrants-affect-public-finances/

[xvi] http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/brexit05.pdf

[xvii] http://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/research/working-paper-series/working-paper-005

[xviii] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/immigration-may-reduce-the-time-you-wait-to-see-the-doctor/

[xix] http://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/research/working-paper-series/working-paper-005

[xx] https://fullfact.org/europe/immigration-eu-referendum/

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