Finding the facts: The truth behind referendum claims on immigration

The UK in a Changing Europe provides independent impartial information, from leading academics, on the UK’s relations with the EU. The ITV News series 'Finding the Facts' is based on the initiative’s work, together with fact check organisation Full Fact, around claims made by both the Leave and Remain campaigns in the upcoming EU referendum.

The Leave Claim:

"Brexit is the only way we can control immigration."

The Remain Claim:

"The free movement of people helps Britons study, work and retire to Europe. A total of 2.2 million Britons live in other EU countries – almost as many as the number of EU citizens living here."

It is true that as long as we remain in the EU, we will have limited control over immigration from other EU countries.

That is because EU citizens have the right to live and work in any other EU county, with some exceptions.

However, about half of immigration into the UK comes from outside the EU and the UK does have control over which non-EU migrants it chooses to admit.

ITV News' National Editor Allegra Stratton reports:

  • Countries outside the EU that participate in the single market accept EU immigration

Leaving the EU would not automatically lead to a large reduction in immigration, for two reasons.

If we wanted to continue to participate in the EU single market after leaving the EU then one obvious way to do so would be for us to join Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein as members of the European Economic Area.

But free movement applies to EEA members, as it does to Switzerland, a non-EEA member with more limited single market access.

Switzerland has higher EU immigration per head of population than the UK. Credit: PA

A Swiss referendum vote in 2014 to cap immigration from the EU was criticised by the EU as against the rules of the treaty dealing with free movement of people, and led to the suspension of talks over cooperation in research funding.

Norway and Switzerland both have higher immigration per head of population from the EU than the UK, as of 2013.

So “controlling immigration” might require leaving the single market as well as the EU.

  • The end of free movement doesn’t necessarily mean a big drop in immigration

If free movement were to end, with or without single market access, this still wouldn’t automatically mean a large reduction in immigration.

Migration Watch estimates that applying broadly the same rules to EU migrants as non-EU ones at the moment might reduce net immigration by up to 100,000, from its current level of about 300,000.

However, it has also been argued that leaving the EU could see higher levels of non-EU migration, which would partly offset any reduction.

It depends on what the government chooses to do with immigration policy if we were to leave the EU.

It has been argued that leaving the EU could see higher levels of non-EU migration. Credit: PA
  • Over a million British-born people live in other EU countries

It’s also likely that specific arrangements with other EU countries would have to be negotiated, either as part of an overall withdrawal negotiation or as two-way ‘bilateral’ agreements.

For example, this may be needed to clarify the position of EU citizens already here (deporting them seems politically unlikely).

There’s also the issue of UK citizens living in other European countries (repatriating large numbers of people from Spain would also be controversial).

The 2.2 million estimate for the number of Britons abroad is wrong and has since been updated.

Although data is imperfect, the best estimate is that there are over a million British-born people living elsewhere in the EU.

Most Britons abroad will be working, studying, or retired – Spain is the most popular destination.

More than one million Brits live and work in other EU countries. Credit: PA

The 2.2 million figure comes from a 2008 estimate by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank, which calculated that 1.8 million UK nationals lived in other EU countries for at least a year. This rose to 2.2 million when including people who lived abroad for at least part of the year.

This estimate was produced before the most recent round of census returns from those countries were available, so the researchers filled in the gaps using various assumptions.

The IPPR now gives a figure in line with what other researchers say.

  • Immigrants and public services

There are about 3 million EU citizens currently living in the UK. The evidence suggests that impacts on jobs and wages have been small, and are most likely to affect lower-skilled workers.

Recently arrived EU immigrants pay more in tax than they consume in welfare or public services, so they benefit the public finances.

Immigrants may add to demand for public services but also contribute to financing them. Credit: PA

The impact on public services is difficult to measure with certainty. Immigrants may add to demand for and pressure on public services, but also contribute to financing and providing those services, particularly in the NHS.

Impacts are likely to vary by local area. However, research shows that higher levels of immigration are not associated, at a local level, with longer NHS waiting times.

And 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.

The UK in a Changing Europe views and information are not necessarily reflective of ITV News.