In January, it was estimated that 1.3 million EU citizens had left the UK since the coronavirus outbreak, 700,000 of them leaving London. Some may come back, but the immigration rules regarding the length of permissible stay outside the country may make a return difficult. And the longer people are away, the easier it is to stay away.
The Brexit brain drain from the UK started well before coronavirus and before the end of the transition period. In August 2020, research published by Oxford and Berlin Universities found that there had been a 30 percent increase in migration from the UK since the Brexit vote.
The report found that the numbers leaving were of “a magnitude that you would expect when a country is hit by a major economic of political crisis”.
As the realities of Brexit have unfolded, several UK companies have moved part or all of their operations to the EU, often taking staff with them. Lucrative financial services have been hit particularly hard, with nearly half of all City firms saying operations have or will be moved to the EU, along with the over 7,000 jobs and £1.3 trillion worth of trades.
Benefits of immigration for the UK
The benefits of immigration for the host country and the immigrant are well evidenced. Immigration is a driving force behind innovation and entrepreneurship (only six of the Sunday Times ‘rich list’ were born in the UK). It drives up wages, increases productivity, investment and trade, and provides economic and practical or health support for ageing populations.
Immigrants in the UK tend to be in work, are young, flexible, well educated, and contribute more in UK taxes than they receive in benefits or public services.
According to government figures, 29 percent of NHS doctors and 18 percent of NHS nurses in UK hospitals, and 20 percent of GPs, are non-British nationals. Had it not been for immigrants or children of immigrants, greater numbers would have been seriously ill or died during the pandemic.
Inevitably however, immigrants also grow old, cease to work, and require more from public services. But mostly, the benefits of immigration outweigh the disbenefits.
A developed capitalist Western economy is highly reliant on a significant number of immigrants for growth and wealth. The loss of 1.3 million EU citizens is therefore a considerable blow. If the UK is one of the first out of the lockdown starting blocks through vaccination, it will need even more immigrants to stimulate and drive the economy.
Increasing immigration solely for economic reasons
Although anti-immigrant rhetoric continues, the government understands the economic imperative of more immigration and has brought in new measures to increase it:
- From January 2021, Hong Kong residents with British National (Overseas) status have a right to live and work in the UK.
- From July 2021, people who have graduated from a UK university will be able to remain in the UK for two years (three for those studying for a PhD) to work or to look for work.
- New occupations have been added to the occupation shortage list, including health professionals and managers, modern foreign language teachers, and laboratory technicians, who will be able to apply for a skilled-worker visa.
- The government is seeking ways to encourage immigration for new ‘start-ups’ and fast growing sectors of the economy.
- Those with international awards such as the Nobel Prize will automatically be granted visas and obtaining visas will be made easier for those working in “start-ups and fast-growing firms”.
In the press release accompanying notice of the changes, the government stated that it hopes to “attract talent and ensure that businesses can recruit the most highly qualified from across the globe to drive the economy forwards”.
Once applicants have “received a gold standard qualification from one of our world leading education institutions they can easily secure the status they need to continue living, working and fulfilling their dreams in the UK”, the press release stated.
Immigrants receive little in return for their talents
The proposed immigration model is exploitative, structured to ensure that only the most economically valuable can enter the country.
It will import skills and brains without having had to pay for their achievement. And it offers no reciprocal arrangements (although any trade deal with India is likely to include some freedom of movement), so there will not be an automatic ‘brain drain’ from the UK in return.
The Oxford/ Berlin study found that economic factors played a part in decision making amongst those who had left the UK before the end of the transition period. But most of those who left took a longer-term view about their prospects and future life in their chosen country.
This view included an assessment of the likely levels of investment and government support in their sector. Additionally, those who were at the peak of their capabilities and careers were also likely to have families and partners whose careers and wellbeing formed part of the decision mix.
Last year I wrote about the mass exodus of UK citizens to EU countries. I noted that the UK’s hostile environment towards migrants was as much a factor in people leaving as the attractions across the channel.
Impact of broadening the immigration pool
As the UK becomes increasingly unattractive to European migrants, the government may try and recruit more widely. It has already attempted to broaden the immigration pool to include New Zealand and Australia, but both of these governments were reluctant to engage in what they saw as an attempt to take their talent and export our low-skilled workers.
Less-well-developed countries may find it more difficult to stem the exodus of their skilled citizens. Government research has found that a modicum of wealth and education can drive emigration from low or middle-income countries to wealthier countries, as those with more education and better jobs are attracted to the career prospects high-income countries provide.
UN research shows that the migration of educated skilled workers from low-income countries is a major contributory factor to those countries’ difficulties. Money sent home may reduce the poverty of individual families, but this further contributes to the country’s structural economic problems.
Exploitative immigration policy
The UK presents its new points based immigration policy as one offering great opportunities and prospects for immigrants in the new ‘global’ Britain but the offer is an exploitative one.
With the exception of Hong Kong citizens, the new openings confer no permanent residential rights. Immigrants are still subject to arbitrary expulsion should their status change, their income drop or they lose work or their home, and they have no automatic right to live with their family in the UK.
As soon as the migrant poses any risk of becoming dependent on UK public services, they may be deported – as is already happening with EU citizens who have a right to remain in the UK.
The colonial mind-set in which the UK treats citizens of the rest of the world as labour to be exploited, rather than pay for the training of its own citizens, remains evident in these new arrangements.
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