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The Leave campaign is backtracking on immigration promises

Boris Johnson, London's former mayor and "Leave" advocate, is facing criticism after breaking his silence and offering a picture of immigration post-Brexit that falls short of his campaign promises.
Former London Mayor Boris Johnson departs his home in London on June 24. Photoo by Andy Rain/EPA

Leave campaigners are trying to wriggle their way out of a quandary: How to honor the promises they made to their voters, without alienating the 48.1 percent of the country who voted against Brexit.

Particularly when it comes to immigration.

Boris Johnson – former mayor of London, chief Leave campaigner, and one of the most likely candidates to replace David Cameron as Prime Minister – broke his silence on Monday for the first time since last Thursday's Brexit vote to write his weekly column in the Telegraph.

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In the column, headlined "I cannot stress too much that Britain is part of Europe – and always will be", Johnson seems to backtrack on a fundamental promise of the Leave campaign: that Brexit would mean leaving the system of "free movement" within Europe, and gaining more control over immigration.

"EU citizens living in this country will have their rights fully protected, and the same goes for British citizens living in the EU," Johnson wrote. "British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down."

But what he's describing isn't really different from what already exists. Former government lawyer Carl Gardner said on Twitter that the column was "unclear, confused, unreal, complacent, and not easy to square with Johnson's campaign promises."

Before the referendum, the Telegraph ran a story with the headline: "Three million EU citizens in the UK could be deported if Britons vote for a Brexit." To be clear, the Leave campaign never threatened mass deportations – but did promise tighter control, using rhetoric which pandered to emotional triggers on immigration.

But Johnson's version of exiting the EU yet with nothing changing for Britons is a fantasy. As a non-member of the EU, Brits' rights would be protected when it comes to buying property or getting employment contracts abroad, but not in terms of living and working wherever they want, according to experts consulted by Channel 4's "Fact-checker."

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The version Johnson offered also falls short of what Leave campaigners offered voters.

In some parts of the UK – particularly rural, economically depressed areas – immigrant workers became easy scapegoats for unemployment. Much of the eurozone struggled to recover in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and as a result, many came to the UK, which does not share the euro and enjoyed a quicker recovery, to find work.

A poll released in late June by Ipsos/MORI showed that 65 percent of voters planning to back Brexit believed that immigration had hurt Britain's economy (contrary to what numerous studies have shown).

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage's pro-Leave poster, showing thousands of refugees lining up at the Slovenian border next to the words "Breaking point: The EU has failed us all," was condemned by Remain politicians as "vile" 1930s-era propaganda.

Yet, the New York Times cited an analysis of the referendum data, which showed that the Leave campaign was most successful in areas that had few immigrants and low wages.

Johnson, in his column, did not acknowledge that immigration has played a significant part in the referendum.

"It is said that those who voted Leave were mainly driven by anxieties about immigration," Johnson wrote. "I do not believe that is so. After meeting thousands of people in the course of the campaign, I can tell you that the number one issue was control – a sense that British democracy was being undermined by the EU system."

Polls have indicated otherwise. According to this year's Pew research survey, 70 percent of UK participants disapproved of the EU's handling of the refugee crisis – compared to 55 percent who were dissatisfied with the way the EU had handled economic issues.

Even if Johnson denies that voters were not motivated by immigration concerns, an uptick in reported racist incidents over the weekend suggests some voters have been emboldened since the Brexit victory.

The Muslim Council of Britain compiled more than 100 reported racist and Islamophobic incidents since the results of the referendum were announced last Friday. Their collection includes photographs found near a school saying "No more Polish vermin!"and of people holding a banner saying ""Stop immigration, Start repatriation."

Incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday addressed the reported rise in xenophobia, condemning "some of the incidents we have seen across the country over the weekend of intimidating migrants and telling them that they need to go home."