Key questions on UK immigration

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Once we leave the EU can we ‘take back control’ of immigration?

It is important to first point out that the UK already has full control over immigration from outside the European Economic Area (EU member states plus Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein). What is discussed in relation to Brexit is how to gain control of migration from within the European Economic Area (EEA), and that depends on our future relationship with the EU. Until now, the UK’s EU membership has dictated its acceptance of the Single Market’s ‘Four Freedoms’, including the free movement of EEA citizens.

However the UK now enters Brexit negotiations with a firm position, it intends to leave the single market and gain greater freedom to impose restrictions on EEA immigration.

What are the options for controlling immigration from the EU?

These options range from permissions which are possible within existing regulations, to more restrictive permits which treat EEA citizens the same as migrants from any other country. These are outlined in the table below: 

Options for immigration

What about asylum seekers and refugees?

The UK’s obligations to refugees and asylum seekers are governed by international treaties (for example, United Nations Refugee Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the UN Convention against Torture) which will not be affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. 

What about our arrangement with Ireland?

Both the UK and EU have emphasised their intention to maintain the Common Travel Area, which pre-dates EU membership, and so immigration from the Republic of Ireland by Irish nationals is unlikely to be affected by Brexit.

But won't the land border between Ireland and the UK cause difficulties in enforcing immigration controls post-Brexit? 

During the referendum campaign, Theresa May stated that in the event of a Brexit, ‘Northern Ireland outside the EU could not prevent free movement and continue with an open North-South Border’. However the Prime Minister has since insisted on her Government's ability to maintain an open border after the UK's withdrawal. She recently reiterated that it is her "priority to work closely with the Irish government to ensure a frictionless and seamless a border as possible."  

But former Immigration Minister Mark Harper has said that concerns about the NI-ROI border may be unwarranted. An effective immigration system will prevent EU migrants from securing work, housing or social assistance in the UK and enforcement would take place in-country rather than at the border.

What about the rights of EEA nationals already living in the UK?

The final Article 50 Bill that passed through Parliament rejected the Lords’ attempts to guarantee the rights of EEA nationals living in the UK. The Prime Minister has signalled that any protection of the rights of EEA nationals already living in the UK will be closely linked to the EU guaranteeing the rights of UK citizens in return.

For now, both sides have signalled their commitment to making progress on this issue early on. Real certainty will only be achieved when there are firm legal text agreements translated into law.

Could different parts of the UK have different immigration policies?

During the referendum campaign, Michael Gove proposed that post-Brexit, regions could be granted a greater degree of control over regional immigration policy to meet local needs. However, Harper also said that this would be difficult to enforce without establishing internal checks to ensure that immigrants remained in the region which granted their visa.

Canada operates an immigration system with elements of regional autonomy but the retention rates of immigrants in the regions which granted their visas are mixed

This Brexit Explained was updated on 22 June 2017.