Posted on January 3, 2024

Brexiteers Vowed to ‘Take Back Control’ of U.K. Borders. What Happened?

Mark Landler, New York Times, December 23, 2023

Inflammatory warnings from politicians. Knife-edge votes in Parliament. A looming election against a backdrop of national crisis. Britain’s ruling Conservative Party has been caught up in a clamorous debate over deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, which has at times sounded like a not-so-distant echo of Brexit.

Yet for all the fury it has generated, the Rwanda plan is little more than a sideshow in the surprising story of immigration in post-Brexit Britain. While refugees who make hazardous crossings of the English Channel in rickety boats pose a humanitarian challenge, they constitute a fraction — less than 5 percent — of the number of people who immigrate to the country legally every year.

Far from closing its borders, Britain has thrown them open since voting in 2016 to leave the European Union. And as the coronavirus pandemic has subsided, legal immigration has exploded. Net legal migration — the number of people who arrived, minus those who left — reached nearly 750,000 people in 2022. That is more than double the number in the year before the Brexit referendum.

Immigration is replenishing Britain’s labor force and deepening the diversity of its cities — a deliberate, if largely unspoken, strategy that is perhaps Brexit’s most tangible early legacy. But it has come as a shock to people who voted to leave to make the country’s borders less porous. And that has made it a volatile political issue for the Conservative Party. Many of its lawmakers, including the current prime minister, played on fears of a foreign influx to propel the Brexit campaign, only to find themselves presiding over a new era of mass legal migration.


Madeleine Sumption, the director of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, said that “there is a sort of left-hand, right-hand issue” with immigration. The government’s blustery messaging — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently warned that migrants could “overwhelm” the country — is often belied by its actions, she said, most visibly in Brexit’s core trade-off: While Britain cut back immigration for E.U. citizens, it loosened restrictions for people coming from many other parts of the world.

There were also important one-time boosts to the numbers. Britain has taken in some 174,000 refugees from Ukraine and about 125,000 British overseas passport holders from Hong Kong, who were granted residency after China imposed a draconian national security law on the former British colony.

But even discounting those effects, and other recent policy changes that are expected to lower legal immigration numbers over time, Britain has become an indisputably more ethnically and racially diverse country than it was before Brexit.

What has changed is the kinds of migrants who are granted visas. There are fewer young people from Italy and Spain working as waiters in London restaurants, and more medical professionals from India and the Philippines working as doctors and nurses in Britain’s understaffed National Health Service. There are fewer Polish plumbers, and more Nigerian graduate students.

That shift is by design: Brexiteers promised that if Britain were unshackled from the European Union, it could devise a policy that would attract the best and the brightest from around the world. When the post-Brexit immigration system came into force in January 2021, the previous cap on visas for skilled workers was scrapped, as was a requirement that employers show jobs could not be done by British residents.

Predictably, arrivals spiked. In 2013, 33,000 people emigrated to Britain from India. A decade later, it was nearly eight times that number, at 253,000.