What is the problem?


1. Immigration is a natural part of an open economy and society and at Migration Watch UK we welcome it. The problem is the current scale of immigration, which is simply unsustainable.

2. Opponents of tighter immigration control try to present the debate as being either ‘for’ or ‘against’ migration. This is obviously wrong. All countries have border controls and policies about who to admit and who to turn away. The relevant policy questions are around who and how many people are good for the UK. Immigration policy, just like any other policy area, should be managed in the best interests of the UK.

3. We recognise that most migrants come here for a very understandable reason, to try to better their lives, and that many make a positive contribution to our communities and to society. The issue is the scale that immigration has now reached with serious consequences for the size of our population and for the ability of our public services to cope.

The Scale of Immigration

4. High levels of net migration to the UK are a relatively recent phenomenon. The UK has always experienced periods of immigration (see here) but never on remotely the current scale.(Read a history of immigration to the UK here)

5. In 1997 net migration (the number of people coming to the UK minus the number leaving) was just 47,000. In the years that followed it rose to well over 200,000 and peaked at 320,000 in 2005. Under the last Labour government (1997-2010) an extra 3.6 million foreign migrants arrived, while one million British citizens left. (See here for Labour's record on immigration)

Figure 1.

6. The coalition government elected in 2010 pledged to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’. However, despite some reduction in migration from outside the European Union, overall net migration rose to a third of a million. This is largely because net migration from the EU doubled over the last Parliament due to the ongoing disparity in wealth between Eastern Europe and the UK together with the Eurozone crisis affecting Southern Europe. (See here) This no doubt played an important role in the decision taken by the British people to leave the European Union.

7. Under the current Conservative government net migration now stands at an estimated 230,000 for the year ending June 2017 (You can find out more about the net migration statistics here).

Why is the current level of immigration a problem?

8. High net migration has resulted in rapid population growth. The UK population currently stands at 65.6 million. The Office of National Statistics ‘high’ migration scenario projects that the UK population will now increase by almost 400,000 a year for the next 25 years - the population of Bristol currently stands at 430,000. This is unsustainable and in the long term would lead to growth of almost 10 million over the next 25 years. The ONS state that around 82% of this increase will be down to future migrants and their children. The remaining population growth will come from the UK’s existing population, including births to immigrants already here. (Read more about the impact of immigration on population here)

Figure 2.

9. The UK (and especially England) is already densely populated by international standards and has a chronic shortage of housing. England is twice as crowded as Germany and nearly four times as crowded as France. (You can read more about the impact of immigration on housing here)

10. To cope with this population increase huge amounts will have to be spent on the expansion of school places, roads, rail, health and other infrastructure. (Read more about the impact of immigration on public services and infrastructure here) This is at a time when the government is running a budget deficit and aims to reduce public spending over the long term.

Little economic benefit for the existing population and harmful for the worse off

11. Increased migration will not generate the extra tax revenue needed to pay for such infrastructure expansion. The only major inquiry ever conducted in the UK into the economic impact of immigration was carried out by the Select Committee on Economic Affairs of the House of Lords in 2007/08. In April 2008 they reported that “The overall fiscal impact of immigration is likely to be small, though this masks significant variations across different immigrant groups." (see here) These findings have been endorsed by the OECD which found in its annual report that "estimates of the fiscal impact of immigration vary, although in most countries it tends to be small in terms of GDP and is around zero on average across OECD countries."" (see here).

12. The UK economy is now in a period of economic growth that was forecast by the Office of Budget Responsibility in 2015 to continue over the next few years. Mass immigration contributes to this growth, simply because more people make for a larger economy. This is why it is common to hear the argument that immigration is good for the economy because it increases GDP. However, it does not significantly increase GDP per head so does not necessarily make for a better economy. The most recent OBR report assumed that current high levels of net migration would continue and that this additional inflow would add no more than a tenth of one per cent to GDP per head of the population. The House of Lords report previously referred to stated that "We have found no evidence for the argument, made by the government, business and many others, that net immigration - immigration minus emigration - generates significant economic benefits for the existing UK population." (see here).

13. The growing economy is creating more employment opportunities and the numbers of both UK born and migrants in employment are growing but the large pool of labour from abroad has been associated with continued low growth in earnings as employers have not had to offer higher wages (see here). Mass immigration is likely to be holding back wages for those in direct competition for work, which is often those who are already low paid – both British born and previous migrants alike. A study conducted by the Bank of England recently concluded that ‘the immigrant-native ratio has a significant small impact on the average occupational wage rates of that region’ and that the biggest impacts were observed in the semi and unskilled services sector (see here).

Read our overview of the economics of immigration here.

Public Opinion

14. Public opinion is clear. A large majority - two thirds - of the public want to see immigration reduced and this includes voters of all ethnicities (Read our summary of public opinion here). This is hardly surprising as we all share the same concerns about housing, schools and the health service.


15. The greater the number of new arrivals, the harder it is for everyone to become fully integrated in British society. Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, warned back in 2005 that the UK was “sleep walking into segregation”. Reasonable levels of migration are key to achieving strengthened community relations. Our paper “What can be done” (see here) explains how net migration can be bought down to lower levels.

Updated 21st December 2017

We use cookies to help us improve the website.

I Understand About Cookies



Keep up with the debate: If you would like us to keep you informed about the immigration debate, please subscribe here to receive regular updates.