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We cannot know how migration would affect the UK after Brexit

10 Mar 2016

It is not possible to estimate the economic impacts of post-Brexit migration with any confidence, new analysis from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford concludes today.

The latest Migration Observatory commentary – Project unclear: Uncertainty, Brexit and migration – notes that confident predictions about the economic effects of migration after Brexit should be treated with caution.

The fundamental question of what treaty agreements or migration policies would follow Brexit will not be resolved before the referendum, preventing any clarity about how EU migration flows would be affected by a vote to leave.

While EU exit could mean tighter controls on the migration of EU citizens, some non-EU countries such as Norway and Switzerland have implemented free movement in return for access to the EU’s single market.

Carlos Vargas-Silva, Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “Some Brexit scenarios involve much tighter immigration policies for EU citizens, while other scenarios would bring no change to immigration policies at all. It’s not possible to resolve this question before the referendum, since post-Brexit policies would depend not just on the UK government’s decisions, but also on potentially lengthy negotiations with the EU.”

Even if Brexit ushered in new policies that significantly reduced EU migration to the UK, the economic impacts of this reduction would remain uncertain. The new commentary notes that previous analysis of the impacts of EU migration suggest that the economic impacts have been small on average, but unevenly spread across industries.

Reliance on EU migrant workers has grown in certain parts of the UK economy – notably in the accommodation and food service industry and in occupations like cleaning and food processing. How employers in these fields might respond to tighter immigration policies would depend on their circumstances, such as the ease with which they could mechanise the work or pass on higher costs to consumers.

Vargas-Silva added: “While the overall economic impacts of potential reductions in EU migration are likely to be relatively small, ending free movement would be more disruptive in some industries than in others. Some businesses now rely heavily on EU migrant workers, and it’s difficult to predict how they would adjust to a scenario of lower EU migration.”


This commentary was undertaken with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) The UK in a Changing Europe Initiative. www.UKandEU.ac.uk

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