How a Migration Wave Drove Brexit and Why It Is Now Receding, in 8 Charts

By Wiktor Szary and Colleen McEnaneyFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

More than a year before Britain is scheduled to depart from the European Union, signs are emerging that the largest and most sustained influx of migrants in the country's modern history is coming to end.

For many backers of Brexit, this is welcome proof that the decision to leave the bloc was right. Over the last 20 years, Britain experienced an unprecedented rise in immigration, particularly from new, poorer members of the EU. That influx, blamed for putting pressure on local health services, housing and education, was a key factor in some voters' decision to leave the bloc.

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Many proponents of tighter immigration rules say even the recently reduced inflow of foreign workers is excessive. They say the Conservative government should fulfill its longstanding promise to cut the net annual inflow to "tens of thousands" a year, from 200,000 to 300,000 over the past few years.

Others, however, worry that a significant reduction in the number of immigrants could spell trouble for an economy that has relied on workers from Central and Eastern Europe for more than a decade and where the unemployment rate is at a multidecade low.

Below is a look, in text and graphics, at the immigration trends that drove the Brexit vote and the factors driving some EU citizens back to their home countries.

A Vote For Brexit

In England and Wales, voting areas that experienced faster growth in foreign-born population tended to coincide with those expressing stronger support for Brexit, figures analyzed by The Wall Street Journal show.

Immigration was the key issue driving the referendum outcome, according to Harold D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley, who drew on data about more than 150,000 voters to discover what led Britons to back Brexit.

"Strong public concern over the large number of migrants entering the country was front and center to Leave securing victory," they wrote in their 2017 book, Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union.

Ahead of the 2016 referendum, Wall Street Journal reporters visited Boston, a market town in the east of England, and found that unease about the pace of immigration and concerns about the town's changing character had fueled strong anti-EU sentiment.

Boston's foreign population grew to roughly 20,000 in 2016 from around 1,000 in 2001, by far the steepest surge of any region in England and Wales. On the day of the Brexit vote, more than three-quarters of Boston's voters opted for Brexit, making it the most anti-EU town in Britain.

London's Euroskeptic Islands

The pattern holds also for the capital, which voted staunchly pro-EU overall. Figures analyzed by the Journal show that in London's 32 districts, or boroughs, growth in foreign-born population closely correlated with voters' support for leaving the bloc.

Out of six boroughs where migrant populations grew by more than 150% between 2001 and 2016, five voted to leave the EU, most of them overwhelmingly so. They stand out as euroskeptic islands in the sea of London's pro-European sentiment.

Colin Braun, a retired bank note designer from east London, had one simple reason for voting in favor of Brexit: immigration.

"It really was the key thing for me, you know? Getting it under control, " Mr. Braun said as he strolled through the market in the borough of Barking, which was strongly pro-Brexit and has seen a large influx of migrants from Eastern Europe in the last decade. "There's just been so many of them."

The Big Wave

In the last two decades, Britain experienced a historically unprecedented wave of immigration, which intensified after 2004, the year Britain opened its labor market to workers from new, poorer members of the EU, such as Poland. The number of Britain's foreign-born residents went from 5.3 million in 2004 to 9.2 million in 2016.

Coinciding with an economic slowdown in the wake of the financial crisis, the influx of foreign workers fueled concerns among the public about their impact on wage growth and productivity, as well as Britain's already-strained public services.

Within a decade of Britain opening its labor market to workers from Eastern Europe, immigration was named in a long-running survey as the most important issue facing Britain. It maintained that position until late 2016, when it was overtaken by Brexit.

The Great Reversal?

Signs are emerging that the Brexit vote may have already significantly slowed the influx of foreign workers.

Net migration to the U.K. -- the number of immigrants settling in the country minus the number of people moving out -- posted its largest drop on record in the year after the Brexit vote.

The decline reflects both fewer EU citizens arriving in the country and more leaving, officials figures showed. Immigration from the EU fell by 54,000, to 230,000, while the number of EU citizens leaving the U.K. increased by 28,000, to 123,000, in the year ending June 2017.

Anecdotal evidence confirms the trend. For Piotr Komorowski, co-owner of Zdrovis, an international moving company based in southern Poland, this Brexit-induced exodus turned out to be an unexpected boon.

"The phones started ringing the day after the vote," he said.

Before Britain voted to leave, he organized one or two relocations from the U.K. to Poland every six months. "Now we're on two or three a week," Mr. Komorowski said, adding his order calendar gets filled two months ahead.

The number of moving companies advertising their services on websites for Poles in the U.K. has also grown rapidly over the past 12 months, he said: "It's booming. And it literally happened overnight."

It isn't entirely clear to what degree the decline in net migration is due to Brexit or would have happened anyway, said Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. "But the referendum has certainly created a set of circumstances...that could make the U.K. less attractive," she said.

Surveys by Eastern Europe's largest staffing company, Poland-based Work Service, show that Germany, Poland's neighbor and close economic partner, is now regularly named as the most popular destination by Polish workers considering working abroad.

Indeed, roughly a fifth of Zdrovis' customers leaving the U.K. in the wake of the Brexit vote relocate to Germany, Mr. Komorowski said.

A Pound's Worth

John Vincent, co-founder and chief executive of Leon, an upmarket fast-food chain, said that since the Brexit vote it has become much more difficult to retain workers from the EU, who constitute some 45% of his 1,200-strong workforce.

"We're definitely feeling more people are wanting to go back to their own country," Mr. Vincent said. In exit interviews, they say the Brexit vote and the tone of the campaign made them feel less welcome in the U.K., he said.

But they also cite the pound's post-Brexit-vote fall, which has caused their U.K. wages to translate into significantly less when sent or taken back to their home countries.

Go East

Eastern European workers who leave the U.K. often return to a home country changed by the inflow of billions of euros in EU structural funds, which have helped drive the modernization of EU members such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

They also find their home-country economies significantly more dynamic than when they left, particularly when compared with the U.K. economy, which has slowed significantly in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Where Are The Workers?

The exodus of migrant workers, while welcome for some, further squeezes the U.K.'s already-tight labor market, a development that could spell trouble for the British economy. Britain's unemployment rate recently hit a four-decade low of 4.3%, with the number of unfilled vacancies rising to a record high.

Mr. Vincent, chief executive of Leon, said he has had real difficulties recruiting workers since the Brexit vote. Applications from non-British EU nationals dropped by over a third, and many positions within the company now go unfilled. "We used to have four vacancies at any given time, now we have 18," he said. Farmers and food producers are also struggling to recruit, Mr. Vincent said.

Mr. Vincent said he never came out in favor of either side during the Brexit referendum. "I genuinely see arguments for 'Leave' and arguments for 'Remain,'" he said.

"So this isn't a sob story," he said. "I'm not moaning, I'm not kicking up a fuss, it's just the reality I'm facing right now."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 08, 2018 07:44 ET (12:44 GMT)