What is immigration?

Immigration relates to the movement of peoples from one country into another, for residential rather than visiting purposes, which may be for a number of reasons, including economic, familial, social or personal.

Migration to escape persecution, political or otherwise, is termed 'asylum' and should be distinguished from the wider concept of 'immigration'. However, the two terms are widely conflated in the UK at present.

Immigration and asylum are the responsibility of the UK Border Agency, which is part of the Home Office.


Modern-day immigration traces its roots back to the British Empire, which to varying degrees inculcated a sense of Britishness in local populations – a sense amplified by large-scale imperial participation in the Second World War, for the defence of the UK.

The first wave of immigrants came from the Caribbean: a landmark moment was the 1958 arrival of the Empire Windrush from Jamaica, bearing hundreds of immigrants who were able to travel to the UK at low cost for the first time. Also arriving during the 1950s were immigrants from Asia, principally India and Pakistan.

Immigrants fulfilled an economic role in taking on low-paid, low-skilled work, despite many immigrants having good qualifications and eminent careers in their home countries, but there was considerable hostility towards them. They were frequently confined to the worst housing, overlooked for promotion and ostracised from the company of whites.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, there has been an increase in immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War and the regimes of the communist and right-wing dictators it allowed to survive, led to many outbreaks of regional strife that were previously kept below the surface.

The loosening of international obstacles to migration has coincided with dramatic reductions in the price of travel.

There have always been 'asylum seekers' and refugees fleeing persecution in their native lands, including the Emperor Haille Selassie (Ethiopia), Sigmund Freud (Austria), Karl Marx (Germany) and Wole Soyinka (Nigeria). But it is only since the collapse of communism and the splintering of the global order in the 1990s that asylum has emerged as a large-scale issue.

In recent years, there have been people claiming asylum in the UK from amongst others, the Balkans, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq – all areas that have seen war and instability.


Immigration is a hugely controversial and politically sensitive subject. The debate has switched in recent years from 'Commonwealth immigration' – largely a euphemism for Caribbean black and Asian people taking up their rights to settle in the UK – to asylum seekers coming to the UK from conflict zones or other areas where they are persecuted. But the issues at stake remain the same in the UK and elsewhere.

Those receiving the brunt of criticism are the 'economic migrant' and the 'benefit tourist' – people seen as coming to the UK, not to escape persecution, but to find employment and enrich themselves or try to take advantage of the UK's benefit system. The extent to which these immigrants actually exist remains unclear, but they are frequently cited by some of the British media.

There are also concerns about illegal immigration: the open internal borders of much of the EU, and its long borders with poorer countries in the east, have led to 'people trafficking' by organised criminal gangs.

Indeed, illegal immigrants are particularly vulnerable to involvement in criminal activity or exploitation in the black economy because of their poverty and lack of legal status to work or claim benefits. Any involvement of immigrants in crime is frequently highlighted by the media, worsening their image further.

Since the late 1990s, the Government has been tightening the law on immigration and asylum, responding to social alarm about illegal migrants entering the UK. Attempts were also made to speed up the asylum application and removal process, which was a major cause of public concern.

The Immigration Act 1971 is the foundation for the current legal framework, but several additional Acts have been passed since that time to further strengthen the law on immigration. These include the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc.) Act 2004, the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 and the UK Borders Act 2007.

From February 2008, a '5 Tier points-based system' began to be phased in which was designed to simplify the whole immigration process by replacing all of the work permit and entry schemes with a single system. The five tiers were:
Tier One: Highly skilled
Tier two: Skilled with job offer
Tier three: Low skilled
Tier four: Students
Tier five: Temporary workers, Youth mobility

Labour claimed the scheme would ensure only migrant workers with the skills most needed to help the British economy would be allowed into the country. But both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats argued that the change would not address skill shortages and the Conservatives continued to call for a cap on immigration.

Another controversial proposal was the principle of "earned citizenship" established in the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009. This scheme, which attracted criticism from several human rights organisations, was intended to ensure that people who wished to build a new life in Britain "have earned the right to do so" by such things as learning English, paying taxes and obeying the law.

The Labour government had planned to implement the "earned citizenship" provisions of the Act in July 2011, but the Coalition government elected in May 2010 decided not to go ahead with the scheme.

The new Government also stated that it intended to introduce a cap on immigration and reduce the number of non-EU immigrants. The Home Secretary outlined plans to reform all routes of entry into the UK in order to bring immigration levels back down to the tens of thousands.

These included changes to the student visa system following a Home Office review which found "widespread abuse" of the Tier 4 points-based system, and changes to Tiers 1 and 2 of the points-based system designed to limit non-EU economic migration into the UK. Plans were also announced for reforms to family and settlement routes.

Subsequently a number of changes to the Immigration Rules were introduced with effect from 6 April 2012; this included changes for migrants coming into the UK under Tiers 1, 2, 4 and 5 of the points-based system.


Changes to the Immigration Rules – April 2012

Tier 1 – high-value migrants
Closing the Tier 1 (Post-study work) route.
Introducing the new Tier 1 (Graduate entrepreneur) route.
Introducing new provisions for switching from Tier 1 (Graduate entrepreneur) or Tier 1 (Post-study work) into Tier 1 (Entrepreneur).
Renewing the 1000 place limit for Tier 1 (Exceptional talent) for each of the next 2 years.

Tier 2 – skilled workers
Limiting the total amount of temporary leave that may be granted to a Tier 2 migrant to 6 years (which applies to those who entered after 6 April 2011).
Introducing a new minimum pay requirement of £35,000 or the appropriate rate for the job, for Tier 2 general and sportsperson migrants who wish to settle here from April 2016 (with exemptions for those in PhD level and shortage occupation categories).
Introducing a 'cooling-off period' across all the Tier 2 routes. Tier 2 migrants will need to wait for 12 months from the expiry of their previous visa before they may apply for a further Tier 2 visa.
Introducing new post-study arrangements for graduates switching into Tier 2.

Tier 4 – students
Implementing the final set of changes to the student visa system that were announced in March 2011, including:
Extending the interim limit for sponsors that have applied for educational oversight and Highly Trusted Sponsor status and have not yet been assessed.
Introducing limits on the time that can be spent studying at degree level.
Tightening work placement restrictions.

Tier 5 – temporary workers
Limiting the length of time temporary workers can stay in the UK, under certain Government Authorised Exchange schemes, to a maximum of 12 months. The schemes affected are intern, work experience and youth exchange type programmes.
Allowing sportspersons who enter under the Tier 5 creative and sporting sub-category to undertake some guest sports broadcasting work where they are not filling a permanent position.

Changes in all Tiers of the points-based system
Making curtailment mandatory where a migrant under Tiers 2, 4, or 5 of the points-based system has failed to start, or has ceased, their work or study with their sponsor. This includes cases where a sponsor notifies us, via the sponsor management system (SMS), that a migrant is no longer pursuing the purpose of their visa. The Rules will also set out the limited exceptions to mandatory curtailment.
Reducing the curtailment threshold (the level of leave you have left which means that we will not normally pursue curtailment) from 6 months to 60 days.
Increasing the funds applicants will need to provide evidence of, in order to meet the maintenance requirements for all routes in the points-based system. For Tier 4 and Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme the changes will come into effect on 6 April 2012. For Tier 1, Tier 2 and temporary workers under Tier 5 the changes will come into effect on 14 June 2012.

The new visitor route will allow a small group of professionals, artists, entertainers and sportspersons who are invited to come to the UK to undertake short-term permitted fee paid engagements for up to 1 month.

Overseas domestic workers
Restricting all overseas domestic workers (ODW) to only work for the employer with whom they entered the UK, or whom they came to join.
Removing the right for all migrants under the ODW category to apply for settlement.
Strengthening the requirement for the employer of an ODW to provide evidence of an existing employer relationship, and introducing a requirement for agreed, written terms and conditions of employment to be produced, as part of the application for entry clearance.
Permitting all ODWs who have applied for leave to enter or remain on or before 5 April 2012, to continue to be treated under Immigration Rules in place on that date.
Restricting ODWs in private households to work for an employer who is a visitor to the UK. Permission to stay in the UK will be limited to a maximum of 6 months or the period of the employer's stay whichever is shorter. Removing the current provision for ODWs to be accompanied by dependants.
Permitting ODWs in diplomatic households to apply to extend their stay for 12 months at a time up to a maximum of 5 years, or the length of the diplomat's posting, whichever is shorter.

Introducing a Premium Customer Service for those A-rated sponsors in Tiers 2 and 5 who wish to apply and pay for a range of benefits. We will publish the full range of service benefits in due course. The service will launch in the 2012-13 financial year.

In addition to these changes, the government is also making amendments to the extension of leave to remain.

Source: UK Border Agency – 2012


'"The government has been clear that the UK is open for business and our limit has been designed with the industry's needs in mind.
"We believe there is no incompatibility between economic growth and controlling migration – our reformed, more selective immigration system can achieve both.'"

Immigration minister, Damian Green – April 2012