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Brexit supporters are wrong; the U.K. benefits from migration

1972 anti-immigration march by London’s Smithfield meat market porters. (Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)

With the referendum vote to determine whether the U.K. will stay or leave the European Union just two weeks away, the debate over what the country should decide has intensified. There are numerous issues at play, but it is immigration that has galvanized support for Britain to leave (aka Brexit).

As a rising number of migrants and refugees seek new homes in Europe, support has grown for nationalist and anti-immigrant parties. These groups argue that people coming in take away jobs and are a major burden on public services. It is an alluring idea to cast foreigners as the problem, but the truth is quite different. In fact, research on migrants coming to the U.K. shows they are assets.

More than 1 million migrants and asylum-seekers reached Europe in 2015. Prior to the surge, we know that migrants flocked to the U.K. at much higher rates than any other European country. The U.K. accepted 500,000 people in 2011, the highest recorded number for that year and twice that of neighboring France.

The issue of migration has been contentious for years. Reduced immigration restrictions instituted by the Tony Blair government made it easy for citizens of European Union member states to seek employment in the U.K. The conservative coalition government now in power pledged to reduce net migration to levels not seen since the 1990s. A proposal from the Lib Dems to allow migrants already in the U.K. to bring their grandparents into the country, was met with opposition.

“It seems as if the Liberal Democrats still want to turn the [National Health Service] into the World Health Service and the British welfare state into the world’s welfare state,” said the UKIP’s Director of Communications Patrick O’Flynn in 2014. “Hardworking people in Britain cannot afford this reckless and ill-considered approach to immigration.”

He hits on a common complaint: migrants go to the U.K. in order to reap the benefits of a robust social welfare system. The logic goes that they are taking advantage of hard-working Brits and provide nothing in return. Researchers Christian Dustmann and Tommaso Frattini show that it is exactly the opposite.

“Recent immigrants, i.e. those who arrived since 2000, are less likely to both receiving (sic) benefits and living in social housing than natives. Furthermore, recent immigrants, both those from [European Economic Area (EEA)] and non-EEA countries have made a positive net contribution to the U.K. fiscal system despite the U.K.’s running a budget deficit over most of the 2000s,” wrote Dustmann and Frattini in a 2013 paper for the Center for Research and Analysis of Migration.

While the government wants to reign in migration, the country has benefited from it over the past few years. Not only are migrants making a positive fiscal contribution to the country, it appears that the ones from fellow European countries are having the biggest positive impact.

The native British population has held steady at around 52 million people, while the immigrant population has grown from 4.8 million in 1995 to 9 million in 2011. Notably, the proportion of European immigrants has increased. At the same time, jobs have grown in the U.K. for both immigrants and non-immigrants alike. Other benefits include more highly educated immigrants coming to the U.K. and shorter terms of stay. Most important, immigrants are not abusing public benefits.

“Recent immigrants are far less likely than natives to draw state benefits or receive tax credits both overall and in comparison to natives with the same age structure,” the researchers wrote.

The U.K. is benefiting from the immigration, especially from European Economic Area countries. In fact, European immigrants made a net fiscal contribution of £22.1 billion between 2001 and 2011. That means that the amount of money that the immigrants are making for the U.K. far exceeds what they are taking out. In doing so, they helped contribute to the financial needs of other people, including natives, who enjoy public benefits.

Economic benefits to taking in asylum-seekers is a bit of a trickier question to answer, but that is a much smaller part of the total number of foreigners going to the U.K. The issue has to do with the fact that membership in the European Union allows people to move within the member countries freely. While not all countries have had the same positive fiscal impact as experienced in the U.K., the evidence shows that attracting highly-skilled workers can benefit a country.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]