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Will today's migration stats influence referendum debate?

Will today's migration stats influence referendum debate?

University of Exeter

4 min read Partner content

Dr Simon Peplow, from the History Department at the University of Exeter, responds to the ONS annual net migration figures and asks if BME voters in the UK will decide the referendum result.


Released today, figures from the Office of National Statistics show that annual net migration to Britain rose to 333,000 in 2015, the second highest figure on record. Despite being the result of a decrease in emigration rather than increased immigration, in the run up to an EU referendum already tainted by the behaviour of both sides these will be unwelcome statistics for the remain campaign – especially considering the Conservatives’ ‘ambition’ (previously a ‘promise’) to cut net migration to 100,000.

Immigration is clearly a key issue in the upcoming vote. As has been noted by UK in a Changing Europe, at least half of people who believe that too many immigrants have been admitted into the country indicated they will vote to leave, and a recent Ipsos MORI study found that over half of the respondents believe the British Government should have total control over immigration, even if that means leaving the EU. Despite various polls suggesting similar concerns towards both EU and non-EU migration, it is clear that EU membership has been linked with immigration - more so after a sharp rise in EU migration following its 2004 expansion and inclusion of ‘A8’ countries. However, although EU migration accounts for just under half of the total, it is not certain that net migration would fall following a Brexit, as continued participation in the EU single market would demand acceptance of the free movement of people and some have argued it might result in higher levels of non-EU migration, somewhat countering any reduction.

In stark contrast, despite other similarities, the 1975 referendum regarding Britain’s place in the European Economic Community saw no significant relationship between immigration and voting preferences. Interestingly, mass emigration was far more of a concern – reflecting the change in comparative wealth of Britain’s fellow member nations.

The 1975 referendum came soon after Britain’s Immigration Act 1971 – indeed, on the same day that Britain joined the EEC on 1 January 1973 the Act came into effect, severely restricting Commonwealth citizens’ ability to settle in the UK. Increased immigration controls were linked by successive governments with anti-discrimination legislation as ostensibly the best way to tackle race relations; however, the effect is that immigration has thus been viewed in racial terms. Such a context has seen Vote Leave claiming that Turkey’s ‘criminal’ citizens would pose a threat to national security with their non-existent EU membership, and Boris Johnson suggesting that Barack Obama’s pro-EU encouragement was due to his ‘part-Kenyan’ heritage and ‘dislike of the British Empire’.

Despite the EU, and particularly Eastern Europeans, becoming linked with immigration, it is black and minority ethnic (BME) people who have historically been the targets of immigration controls. However, they have thus far been relatively neglected in the referendum debate. The Runnymede Trust and Operation Black Vote have suggested that unequal EU/non-EU immigration barriers, perceived competition for employment, and the emergence of far-right groups – surely heightened following recent events in Austria – has left BME people ambivalent about the benefits of the EU. It is possible that, following Britain’s record of selectively controlling ‘coloured immigration’, the EU referendum may be seen by some as an opportunity to redress the historical balance.

The Runnymede Trust research concludes that BME communities seem more latently pro-EU due to the potential of wider protection from discrimination and younger generations’ likelihood to holiday/work/study in Europe. However, estimates suggest that around 30% of over four million potential BME voters, who generally express less trust in the electoral process, are not currently registered – something the recent Operation Black Vote poster was designed to address. Recent polls (for what they’re worth) suggest the remain campaign have increased their lead with a month to go; although following today’s migration statistics the final result, and the role that BME voters will play, remains to be seen.

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