London (CNSNews.com) – As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, experts are warning that it could be leaving itself open to increased illegal immigration.
E.U. citizens have long enjoyed the right to live and work anywhere in the 28-nation bloc. With Britain now meant to leave in early 2020, however, the ruling Conservative Party has announced drastic changes to immigration rules.
E.U. citizens will no longer be given priority, benefits to new immigrants will be scaled back or eliminated, and the new system will favor highly skilled workers.
The government’s position paper on the subject states that most low-skilled immigrants – who currently account for a significant portion of the workforce in such sectors as agriculture and construction – will be turned away, although it says some form of short-term visa could be introduced.
“What we will do is make sure that the government and parliament has got control over immigration," Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC at the weekend.
On Thursday, the opposition Labour Party announced its immigration policy as part of the run-up to the general election on December 12.
If Britain does leave the E.U., a Labour-led government would negotiate a deal that would recognize “the social and economic benefits that free movement has brought,” the policy states, without elaborating.
According to a recent analysis by The Migration Observatory think-tank, 14 percent of the population of the United Kingdom is foreign born, with 39 percent of immigrants having come from the E.U.
The government has not published an estimate of the number of illegal immigrants since 2005, although this month the Pew Research Center estimated that in 2017 there were between 800,000 and 1.2 million “unauthorized” immigrants in the country.
A report earlier this month from the House of Commons foreign affairs committee warned that the government should not be complacent about irregular migration as Britain leaves the E.U.
“The U.K. has been relatively isolated from the different migrant crises in recent years,” said committee head Tom Tugendhat. “But it’s wrong to assume that we are protected from their impact.”
The report urged Britain to return to holding high-level meetings with the E.U. on coordinating responses to irregular migration. (Last August the government announced its officials would stop attending “most” E.U. working meetings so they can focus on the “future relationship with the E.U. and other partners around the world.”)
It also warned that a policy focused solely on closing borders could push immigrants into the arms of organized crime, with gangs seeking to smuggle them into the country using more dangerous routes and methods.
Last May the non-partisan Social Market Foundation think-tank said in a report that ending freedom of movement into Britain “represents the start of a significant new challenge.”
With the flow of visitors from E.U. into Britain as tourists and students undoubtedly continuing, it said, irregular migrants may not be effectively controlled at the border.
The think-tank said that, based on experiences in other countries, low-skilled workers on short-term visas may be tempted to overstay, in order to recoup the costs of moving to the U.K.
Since the U.K. has instituted a system of checking the visa status of people who leave the country, the report said that may encourage irregular migrants to “hunker down” and stay rather than get caught on departure.
To avoid the experience the United States has had with irregular migration, the report said Britain will have to consider and debate measures such as identity cards and population-wide registration, even though they might be unpopular.
Britain “will now need to grasp the nettle of in-country immigration controls, and come clean about the challenges that presents,” it said.
Jonathan Thomas, the author of the Social Market Foundation report, said this week that Britain, as an island on the edge of Europe, does not consider itself to be under threat from irregular migration.
Although the government is aware of future issues arising, he said, it has not started to talk about them publicly.
“It’s not that the government doesn’t recognize it as a problem,” Thomas said. “It’s just that there’s no obvious quick solution that wouldn’t be unpopular.”