Two years after exiting, Britain is already beginning to re-think its relationship with the Europe Union. As we approach the second anniversary of the UK’s exit from the European bloc, a growing chorus of criticism is being aimed at the particularly damaging version of Brexit chosen by Theresa May and Boris Johnson, and negotiated by Lord Frost. We need to learn from the last two years. To this end, Yorkshire Bylines has decided to offer our help by publishing a series of linked articles: the lessons of Brexit.
As part of this series Anthony Robinson wrote about the impact of Brexit on immigration and the economy. This piece continues that exploration with a focus on refugee and asylum policy, trafficking and exploitation and what the future might hold.
Refugees and asylum seekers
The direct impact of Brexit on refugees and asylum seekers has been marginal. Those who seek asylum in the UK generally come to join family or kin or because they speak English. Some, such as those fleeing Afghanistan, have crossed the Channel because the UK promised them sanctuary but provided no safe routes for them. Neither of these reasons are Brexit driven.
On leaving the EU the UK was no longer able to send back to EU countries, refugees who have reached Britain’s shores but had passed through a ‘safe’ country; but the Dublin III regulations under which the UK had been able to do this had not been widely used prior to Brexit. The numbers reaching the UK continue to be impacted by EU approaches to managing refugee flows by building walls and fences, pushbacks at sea and paying Libya to capture and detain refugees in its territorial waters – but this is irrespective of our membership.
The biggest impact Brexit has had on refugees lies in the expansion of the market for exploited and illegal labour. As job vacancies have remained unfilled, the combination of refusing asylum seekers the right to work coupled with delays in initial decision making have left them open to grooming and exploitation.
Brexit and a shrinking labour market
The unfilled demand for low paid and exploited labour is a direct result of Brexit. The Brexit vote and the triggering of Article 50 (launching the process of leaving the EU) were pursued with little or no analysis of migration flows or their relationship to the UK economy. The government did not know how many EU citizens were living in the UK and entitled to settled status, or how many illegal or undocumented immigrants were living here. There was no sectoral analysis on immigration dependency, or the circularity of global migration flows in business and academia.
While different sectors did discuss this during the Brexit negotiations (agriculture, health and academia were particularly vocal), it had very little impact on government thinking, other than to influence which jobs would be considered ‘shortage occupations’ and to inform the income thresholds for immigrants. The government made no plans to train UK citizens for essential jobs or to support greater mechanisation in sectors such as food processing and agriculture.
Prior to Brexit, EU citizens provided a steady supply of workers and there was a rhythm to labour flows (including that of British citizens) to meet needs in the UK and across Europe. All were protected by EU employment law and their secure status. It did not require a person to ‘emigrate’ or invest heavily in their future location. Movement did not require life changing decisions or a deep commitment to the new country.
Most EU citizens who came to work in the UK returned home or moved onto another country within five years. Now coming to the UK is a deterrent – especially as they remain able to build careers or follow work opportunities in 29 other countries without the cost, additional paperwork or demands that they ‘go home’.
The hostile environment and Brexit
Anti-immigration sentiment was a strong driver for Brexit, but Brexit had little impact on the government’s anti-immigration philosophy or direction other than to extend the hostility to EU citizens. Brexit may be a consequence or outcome of xenophobia or even a means of giving it policy effect, but it did not cause it.
The ‘hostile environment’ long predates Brexit. It was in 2010 that David Cameron announced that the government would reduce net immigration to ‘tens of thousands’ and keep the UK population below 70 million and it was in 2013 that Theresa May drew up legislative plans to create a ‘hostile environment’ for ‘illegal’ immigrants, a plan that was to see the Windrush scandal a few years later, as many immigrants who had a right to be in the UK were criminalised and expelled, when they lacked the paper work to prove that right.
Recent UK government attempts to recruit from abroad have failed, as retaining a strong anti-immigrant focus through increasingly punitive measures is incompatible with ‘welcoming’ those the government would like to attract. The UK is no longer an attractive place for the best educated and those who have the choice, while refugees and those being trafficked remain unaware of the hostility that awaits them.
Businesses resorting to illegal labour
As a result of Brexit, labour flows have narrowed or stopped but the need has not. It is almost impossible to employ immigrant labour in low paid work, legally and there are insufficient British workers to fill the posts. Inevitably then employers turn to illegal labour – or subcontract elements of their business to those who will take the risk. The market for illegal and exploited labour existed in the UK before Brexit, but Brexit has expanded the market and made illegal entry and trafficking a more profitable business. Moreover, it has criminalised those who enter the UK legally on a work permit but whose employers then deny them work, and driven many into the hands of exploiters and traffickers, in order to survive.
This post-Brexit grey economy has become vitally important across the UK. Consumers unwilling to go without or pay more for services; irregular or undocumented immigrants who have little choice if they are to survive; and businesses who cannot obtain labour through any other means all rely on illegal or undocumented labour.
We regularly hear about car washes and cannabis factories, but exploited and illegal labour is much more widespread. It includes hospitality, agriculture, food processing, garment manufacturing, and child or elderly care. The cases that come to our attention at Yorkshire Bylines are of ‘respectable’ small businesses employing labour illegally to get them over a staffing crisis – but the crisis does not subside, and they then become dependent. Although the employers are acting illegally, they know they will not be reported and often exploit workers knowing they cannot assert their rights.
Cross Channel human trafficking and smuggling
This year the numbers crossing the Channel have risen quite significantly and there are indications that as well as refugees there are many people who are being trafficked and some smuggled, but free labour, who would not be admitted to the country on a visa. It is not yet clear how many of those crossing are refugees and how many are crossing for some other reason. Quarterly Home Office statistics indicate that exploited Albanian labour is increasing numerically and as a proportion of those crossing the Channel.
The statistics show that the number of women crossing remains stable and the number of under 18-year-old males has dropped substantially. The increase was almost entirely in the male 18 to 30-year-old age group. The drop in the number of women and boys arriving in the UK coincided with a rise in the percentage of these two groups being given refugee protection. By being given protection, these two groups were rendered less profitable for traffickers.
The article goes onto explain why this might be the case and the way in which, post Brexit, the UK differs from EU countries. Albanians no longer have 90-day visa free access to the UK (as they do in the EU as part of their ‘pending’ EU status) and can only arrive here illegally. Previously they might have worked voluntarily – albeit illegally, and then returned home but were not trafficked or smuggled here to do so.
The labour market is tight across Europe but some countries still have high unemployment rates. According to October’s figures from the World Economic Outlook, Germany is 5.6%, France is 7.4%, Italy 7.9% and Spain 12.7% compared to the UK’s 3.5%. The UK is unable to fill many vacancies or undertake building work. A shortage of construction workers is the most pressing challenge for the building industry (even more so than a shortage of building supplies) and builders will employ illegal immigrant labour to stay in business, or subcontract to smaller builders or teams who will. A number of those crossing the Channel are from Albania and it is thought that they are destined for the construction industry.
Brexit: what have we learned?
Brexit has had little or no impact on the number of people seeking asylum in the UK or the government’s response. It did not use the Dublin III facility when it could, and policy responses are no more or less constrained by Brexit.
The Conservative government’s punitive measures and overt hostility towards immigrants predates Brexit but as the flow of workers from the EU dried up when this hostility was extended to them following Brexit, there has been a shortage of workers willing to come to the UK. This has led to a stronger market for illegal labour and the UK becoming a magnet for traffickers and exploiters.
Re-joining the EU would improve labour availability and render exploitation less profitable. However, without a change in attitude towards all migrants, the UK would remain unattractive to those who have the economic or educational capital to go elsewhere.
The next article in this series will be published soon.