Brexit: How immigration is approached likely to be fraught

Immigration dominated much of the referendum campaign and now attention turns to the question of how a post-Brexit system will work.

With net migration — the difference between the numbers of people arriving and leaving — running at record levels of around 330,000 a year, intense scrutiny has fallen on EU freedom of movement rules.

Tensions over the issue flared repeatedly, with statistics providing some of the major flashpoints in the weeks before the poll.

In May, figures showed net migration had risen to the second highest level on record, with arrivals from the EU adding 184,000 annually to Britain’s population — the joint highest figure on record. The Remain camp argued that if Britain withdrew from the EU but stayed in the single market, it would still have to accept free movement of labour.

Home secretary Theresa May argued that exiting the bloc is not a “silver bullet” that “suddenly solves all our immigration issues”.

But Leave campaigners argued that being in the union means that Britain has hardly any control over who enters the country and who can be removed.

The question of how the country approaches immigration from the EU is likely to be one of the most fraught of the exit process and is shrouded in uncertainty.

Currently, EU-passport holders generally have the right to move freely and live, work or study in another member state. Britain is not signed up to the Schengen agreement, so passports are checked at borders.

Options discussed for a post-Brexit system include adopting an “Australian-style” points-based approach or extending restrictions that currently govern non-EU immigration to those arriving from the bloc.

The campaign has seen the spotlight fall on whether leaving the EU would help the government’s controversial aim of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands.

In analysis published before the vote, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said net migration would not have been below 100,000 even if net EU migration was zero, adding: “There is therefore no reason to believe that the ‘Australian-style’ system or any other set of policies introduced to regulate EU migration could guarantee such reductions.”

If free movement came to an end, fundamental questions such as whether and how to satisfy demand for migrant labour in low and middle-skilled jobs would need to be resolved, the analysis said.

The Leave camp has stressed there would be no change for EU citizens who are already living in the UK.

The spotlight may also fall on the “juxtaposed” controls which allow British border force officers to carry out checks on French soil. These operate under bilateral agreements separate from EU membership and there is no prospect of any immediate change, but there have been suggestions the relationship could be affected.

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