Is Britain really full up? Are migrants taking our jobs? Leading academic answers the most common anti-immigration claims

Thousands of migrants have attempted to cross into the UK from France in recent days

Professor John Salt,Kashmira Gander
Friday 31 July 2015 13:44 BST
A policeman tries to stop migrants on the Eurotunnel site in Coquelles near Calais
A policeman tries to stop migrants on the Eurotunnel site in Coquelles near Calais

The migrant crisis gripping Calais shows no sign of abating, with 3,500 people attempting to illegally travel to the UK via the Channel Tunnel in just two days.

As people attempt to flee bloody conflicts, oppressive regimes and poverty by risking their lives to cross the Channel, politicians compete to talk toughest on the issue.

Prime Minister David Cameron came under fire on Thursday for describing migrants as a “swarm”, while Ukip leader Nigel Farage warned a British holidaymaker or lorry driver could soon die unless “something radical is done”.

In an effort to separate the reality from the political rhetoric, we asked Professor John Salt of UCL’s Migration Research Unit to respond to some of the most common assertions about immigration to the UK.

Is Britain full?

"The problem here is that there has never been an accepted optimum population level as there are all sorts of constraints. There are various land uses that housing must compete with. For example, you could say that if we hadn’t built all the golf courses we have in Surrey, then we’d have a lot more space to build housing and therefore be in a better position to manage an increased population.

"It’s really a matter of perception and what people are comfortable with. Many of the problems associated with immigration are regionally specific. For example, one of the big problems in the South East is water supply and it could be said that immigration in that region is adding to that pressure, but that is very different to saying Britain is full up. It is possible to divert resources to those areas experiencing most pressures associated with immigration, from those that do not.

"Logic dictates that you cannot keep increasing your population forever. However, when I first began studying this subject in the 1960s, the assumption was that the population would increase to as much as 80 million by the end of the century. All sorts of regional strategies were developed, including plans to create substantial extra capacity in towns like Milton Keynes, Swindon and Northampton. But then the pill was invented and that simply didn’t happen."

Migrants walk in a makeshift camp in Calais (Image: AP)

Are immigrants really taking our jobs?

There are some very interesting figures that relate to this, from the time around the turn of 2004 and 2005 when something like a quarter of a million Poles entered the UK. However, recorded unemployment rates went down between 2003 and 2005, and recorded vacancy rates actually went up slightly, which would seem counter-intuitive. There are of course other factors at play, and people will make of that what they will, but the data would suggest that they weren’t taking the jobs of Brits.

One of the arguments is that certain easy-entry occupations are disproportionately affected, such as catering, food processing, driving jobs and construction, where it is often claimed wages are driven down. The econometric evidence suggests immigration doesn’t generally impact on the pay or employment rates of existing citizens. People in lower paid jobs are more likely to be affected, but even then the effect, statistically speaking, is relatively small.

A policeman faces migrants trying to reach the Channel Tunnel operated by Eurotunnel in Coquelles near Calais (Image: Getty)
A policeman faces migrants trying to reach the Channel Tunnel operated by Eurotunnel in Coquelles near Calais (Image: Getty)

Are most immigrants here illegally?

I am often posed this question and my stock answer is that there are only two countries that really have any idea how many immigrants have entered illegally, and they are Australia and North Korea.

This is because Australia counts everyone in and out, while North Korea has border controls that most people would consider unacceptable.

For other countries, by definition, we don’t know how many people are there illegally. Many of the people who are in the country illegally are people who have entered legally, but stayed beyond the period they had permission for. But the number of people who actually get into Britain illegally must be pretty small, due to the stringent checks that exist at our main points of entry.

Do immigrants claim a disproportionately high amount in welfare and benefits payments?

The studies that have been done do show that immigrants are less likely to claim benefits that native Britons. However, the proportion varies by origin. People who have asylum claims, for example, are not allowed to be employed while their application is being processed, so it is inevitable that they will need more support through welfare payments. But again, that is a relatively small group. On the whole, the story is that migrants are less likely to access benefits payments.

Do immigrants put too much strain on education and health services?

I think what does put pressure on these services is the relative age structure of populations. One of the features of the Polish and other eastern European communities which developed in Britain is that they were largely comprised of younger people, who are of course more likely to have children, which will in turn put greater pressure on schools. But authorities will often have data that show this is likely to happen, so should be better placed to deal with those changes.

The other thing to mention is the number of immigrants who work in health and care sectors and recent reports have suggested as many as a one in four new nurses are recruited from abroad.

Services may be under pressure, but you simply cannot generalise. Our research indicates that it is always important to look at the routes of entry, which are labour, family, students and asylum. Each of these may have different effects the provision of services and must be taken into account by policy makers at national and local levels.

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