Briefing: Immigration and the EU Referendum

16 June 2016

Impact on public finances

See our economy briefing for sources and background.

Most studies agree immigration makes a relatively small difference to the UK’s public finances overall, costing or contributing less than 1% of UK GDP.

Beyond that national picture, people’s own experiences of immigration will vary. If you’ve lost your job, it might not matter to you whether the economy as a whole has gained jobs.

Different groups of immigrants have different economic impacts:

  • EU immigrants are generally better for the public finances than non-EU immigrants.
  • Recently-arrived immigrants are generally better for the public finances for the UK than those who’ve been in the UK for longer.

No single study can say definitively what difference immigration makes. Precise numbers should be handled with care. Each study depends a lot on the assumptions made by researchers about costs of education and effects on general economic growth.

Impact on jobs and employment

See our jobs briefing for sources and background

The evidence on the impact of immigration on jobs depends whether you are looking at wages or unemployment.

Research suggests that immigration has a small impact on the average wages of workers, but there are more significant effects for certain groups: low-wage workers lose, while medium and high-paid workers gain. We also know that immigrants’ own wages are more likely to be affected by further immigration than UK workers.

Research doesn’t generally find immigration has any significant impact on unemployment. Although immigration from outside the EU could have a negative impact during an economic downturn.)  A lot depends on the skills of immigrants compared to the skills of UK workers. If a UK worker’s skills are similar to those coming into the country, they’re more likely to be affected.

Impact on public services

See our public services and immigration and NHS staff briefings for sources and background

It is not possible to say with certainty what the impact of immigration is on public services.  It also varies by area and depending on the type of public service.

  • If we compare similar foreign-born and UK-born people, foreign-born people are more likely to use education and less likely to use health and social care services.
  • EU immigrants make up about 5% of English NHS staff and about 5% of the English population, according to the best available data. Across the UK, EU immigrants make up 10% of registered doctors and 4% of registered nurses. Immigrants from outside the EU make up larger proportions.

Numbers coming here

In 2015 an estimated 630,000 people immigrated to the UK and about 300,000 emigrated abroad. So net migration was about 330,000. EU and non-EU net migration are now at roughly the same level. Non-EU net migration has historically been higher.

So can we trust the data?

  • The Office for National Statistics says that “The International Passenger Survey continues to be the best source of information for measuring long-term international migration” following recent controversy over whether the figures are accurate.
  • The controversy arose because figures for National Insurance numbers issued to EU nationals by far outstrip estimates of EU immigration to the UK. Part of this difference is to be expected, but the gap has grown to unusually large levels recently.
  • The ONS analysed the difference and found most of it can be explained by the fact that ‘short term’ immigrants—people who come to the UK for less than a year—are not counted in the headline immigration estimates but would be included in the NI numbers.
  • But some experts aren’t convinced this is the whole story, and the ONS plans to produce more analysis later this year.

Why they come

Work is the main reason EU immigrants say they come to the UK, while study is the main reason for about half of non-EU immigrants. There are more limits on non-EU immigration, particularly on coming here to work.

  • 40% of EU immigrants say they are coming for a definite job while another 30% are looking for work.
  • About 50% of non-EU immigrants come to study. About 30% come for a definite job or to find work.

The actual numbers who come to work may be greater, as those who come to study may also work while they’re in the UK.


About 31.5 million people are employed in the UK. 26 million were born here and 5 million abroad. 28 million are UK nationals and 3 million are foreign nationals. Over 2 million nationals of other EU countries are in work, which is about 7% of the working population.

  • UK nationals accounted for 45% of the increase in employment since last year compared to non-UK nationals.
  • UK-born people accounted for 23% of the increase compared to those born abroad.
  • Neither is a perfect measure of immigration. UK citizens can be born abroad, and people who were originally immigrants can become UK citizens. That’s why we give both.
  • EU nationals of working age are more likely to be in work than UK nationals and non-EU citizens. About 78% of working age EU citizens in the UK are in work, compared to around 74% of UK nationals and 62% of people from outside the EU.


The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 3 million people living in the UK in 2014 were citizens of another EU country. That’s about 5% of the UK population.

Brits abroad

The free movement of people within the EU also means of course that people from the UK can live and work abroad.

  • 1.2 million people born in the UK live in other EU countries, according to 2015 data from the United Nations.
  • Spain hosts the largest group of Brits at an estimated 310,000. Ireland is second with an estimated 250,000, and France third with 190,000.
  • A now out-of-date estimate said that up to 2.2 million people from the UK lived in other EU countries for at least part of the year. The researchers no longer use this figure and say the figure is now 1.2 million.

If the UK leaves the EU, arrangements for British-born people living in other EU countries will have to be negotiated.  


See Migration Observatory and House of Commons Library briefings for sources

There is no direct evidence that welfare is a prime pull factor for a significant number of EU immigrants coming to the UK. A combination of economic and social factors does seem to have made the UK an attractive destination.

  • Research shows that EU immigrants are less likely to claim out-of-work benefits, such as Jobseeker’s Allowance and incapacity benefit, compared to people from the UK.  They are more likely to be claiming in-work benefits like tax credits.
  • In February 2015, people who were EU nationals when they registered for a National Insurance Number made up 2.2% of the total DWP working-age benefits caseload, but were about 6% of the working-age population.
  • In 2015, 12% of EU-born adults reported receiving tax credits, the main in-work benefit in the UK, compared to 10% of the UK born.

Border control

EU citizens generally have the right to live and work in any other EU country. That means we can’t control the scale of immigration from other EU countries. But unlike EU countries which have signed up to the Schengen agreement, we do still have border controls.

  • EU citizens can be refused entry for reasons like public policy, public security and public health, and the UK retains passport checks to allow this to happen.
  • EU law says that "Previous criminal convictions shall not in themselves constitute grounds" for keeping someone out. The person’s behaviour must be a “genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat affecting one of the fundamental interests of society”.
  • About 1,800 EU nationals were refused entry to the UK on arrival and left the country in 2015.

Migration crisis

  • Last year, one million people came across the Mediterranean to Europe.
  • So far this year, 210,000 have come, according to UN figures
  • Almost 40,000 people applied for asylum here in 2015, the ninth highest in the EU.
  • There were also 2,000 people resettled here, mostly from Syria.        

Data you might need


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