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We Asked an Expert What Would Happen if Every Immigrant Left the UK

The government would likely have to order people to have more kids.

by Michael Allen
Apr 28 2014, 4:40pm

Illustration by Sam Taylor

If you’re an employed member of British society, you’ll probably have spent the past week starting a union or periodically complimenting your boss on their appearance. Because unbeknownst to anyone but the right-wing, UK Independence Party (UKIP), there are apparently 26 million European people currently fastening their pencil skirts and Windsor-knotting their ties, ready to Eurostar their way to your office, give you paper cuts with their resumes, and whip your job out from beneath your feet.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, says the figures on UKIP’s European election billboards are bullshit; UKIP boss Nigel Farage says they’re a “hard-hitting reflection of reality." Either way, they’re a pretty good indication of the anti-immigration sentiment being stirred up by right-wing British media and politicians. The exact same sentiment, in fact, that prompted “John” (not his real name) to set up a Facebook page calling for all first, second and third generation immigrants to ditch work on Saint George’s Day last Wednesday just to demonstrate how crucial migrant labor is to Britain’s economy.

Around 800 people clicked “attending” on John’s event. Considering there are roughly 7 million foreign-born British residents, it didn't attract the attention he might have hoped for. However, the idea did make me wonder what might happen to the UK if all of its foreign friends jumped ship for places that don't introduce vans designed to make you feel unwelcome, or send border agents onto public transportation to racially profile passengers.

To find out, I spoke to Tim Finch, associate director of migration at London’s Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR).

One of the UKIP's anti-immigration posters. Photo via Twitter user @isntdave

VICE: So, what do you think would happen if every immigrant currently in the UK upped and left tomorrow?
Tim Finch: Well, the country would fall apart, quite frankly. There has been quite high migration to the UK, particularly in recent years. So if we were to say all migrants were to leave Britain tomorrow and stop working, there’d be large gaps in the workforce, particularly in certain industries. At the moment, the UK economy needs migrant workers in all sorts of sectors, so for them to leave overnight would be frankly disastrous. It’s a hypothetical situation. Thank goodness it will never happen.

What would happen to those industries that rely on migrant labor?
There are large numbers of Eastern Europeans who come over and are working in food processing, construction, hospitality, and things like that. A lot of them are actually highly qualified people and they’re working below their skill level. If we did have this apocalyptic situation, you would find that certain industries—one, in certain areas, would be food processing, and another would be support industries for agriculture—just wouldn’t function at all, really. You’d have to find some way of dragooning unemployed people, or finding volunteers, to do the work instead. 

Which other industries would it have an immediate effect on? 
Construction would suffer very badly. The hospitality industry—within places like London, in particular—is also heavily dependent on migrant labor. Anybody who knows London at all knows that the city has masses and masses of coffee shops, and you could count on one hand the number of times you’re served a coffee in London by somebody who doesn’t appear to be a migrant. So the Costas and Caffè Neros and all those sorts of places would go bust overnight.

What about big business and the financial sector?
Well, large numbers of people within the City of London are long-term migrants to the UK, attracted to the City of London because it’s the center for that type of business—or they’re people who have been transferred by their firms. So that would have very negative consequences for one of our biggest industries.

Could the City of London still survive without immigrants?
A key part of an international financial system is that money and trade is moving around the world at increasingly high speeds. You couldn’t be part of that system and cut yourself off from the fact that people will move around and be in different places as well. I mean, apart from the instant effect it would have on institutions—losing the people they need in order to carry on doing what they—you’d simply find yourself in a scenario where pretty much every financial institution would just relocate. They wouldn’t stay. London as a financial center would essentially just cease to exist.

And what about the National Health Service? Would we all end up having to consult Yahoo Answers every time we had a cold or a head wound?
It's called the British National Health Service, but it's a global employer. Something like 8 percent of the entire workforce of the NHS are migrant workers, and nearer a quarter of doctors are [migrant workers], so if we were to just say, "You’ve got to up and leave"—or if they decided to up and leave—then our health service would be in a dire state overnight.

We'd presumably lose a lot of specialists.
Yeah—you obviously have specialists, who the NHS particularly wants, from overseas. One of the most important reasons why migration is good for economies is not just that it matches skills to the demand in the economy, but that it also brings in innovation, creativity, and additional productivity. The best heart surgeon might be an American, and no British person could measure up to them.

What if all the immigrants being kicked out was the result of a far-right, anti-immigration party coming to power? How would that affect our international standing?
The only countries that have tried things like mass expulsion of foreigners effectively would be countries like Idi Amin’s Uganda—he expelled the Indian and Pakistani communities en masse. But only rogue states do things like that, and only countries like North Korea just effectively don’t allow anybody in or out, so it’s simply never going to happen. If Britain were to do something like this, it would become a pariah state; it would destroy itself and it would destroy its relationships with every other country in the world straight away.

The [far-right British Nationalist Party] was a tiny rogue element that had a little moment in the sun, winning a few council seats, before imploding completely. The other populist right-wing party in the UK is UKIP, but as crazy as UKIP can be, they’re not this crazy.

On that note, what kind of effect would it have on political parties during elections if there weren't any migrants casting votes?
The only real way you can answer that question is to say that, on the whole, over historical periods, migrants tended to vote Labour in larger numbers than they voted for the other parties. So if you were to remove that section of the population, the most likely mainstream political party to be hit would be the Labour party. Otherwise, I don’t quite know what the impact would be.

I guess if UKIP said, "We’re going to remove all migrants," and they did, in the short term people would go, “Oh, well done, you’ve fulfilled your pledge.” And quite a lot of people would, in an idle sense, go, “Oh, that’s a good thing—we must prefer to be a homogenous country without all these bleeding foreigners.” But I don’t think it would last for long. The consequences of it would be so disastrous that whatever party saw it through would implode quite quickly. The whole proposition is so nonsensical that it would, and could, never happen. 

Japan, which has a pretty restrictive immigration policy, is suffering badly from an ageing population. How would all the immigrants leaving affect the UK’s demographics?
From what we know, the effect would be to increase the problem of an aging population. The migrant population is younger than the British population, so we would instantly become an older society with fewer young people in it. That would have serious consequences, because obviously the young are paying into the tax system and the old are generally taking [money] out through pensions. We’d have a worse demographic time bomb situation than we have even now. That would, over time, accelerate. The foreign-born people coming into the UK, because they’re younger—and also sometimes because of the cultural factors—are having more children.

Some flag-wavers at last year's March for England, an annual event popular with people who don't like immigrants. Photo by Henry Langston

So how would the UK recover?
I suppose you could pass a law saying that people should have more children. It would almost get to that. You would presumably have to start framing policies that would encourage people in their fertile years to have more children than they’ve been having recently, so you’d frame the tax system to make that more advantageous. You’d also presumably try [to limit] various things, like the extent of women having careers. You'd go back to the situation where the role of women would be to produce children and not much else.

That doesn't sound great. Finally, what do you think about "John's" idea of encouraging every migrant in the UK to take a day off work? 
I actually think that’s a really stupid idea. If it did one thing, though, it would raise [awareness] of how our economy relies on people. In effect, it would be like a great big general strike, and we would see the consequences of it in schools and hospitals, etc. Though, I think even some of the popular far-right parties in Europe—the Golden Dawns and the Front Nationals—have softened their policies a little on these things, because they now know that the countries of Europe and elsewhere are highly dependent on migrant labor.

I grew up long enough ago to be in a place where people were overwhelmingly white, British-born and British in their attitudes, outlooks, eating habits, and what have you. It was boring compared with now. I wouldn’t want to live in a world like that, and I very much doubt that even Nigel Farage wants to.

So you think migrant workers should stay at work.
We do not, on the whole, become more sympathetic to Tube drivers when there’s a strike on the London Underground. You can understand their point, but it annoys us very much. If all migrants were to strike, we’d all be inconvenienced, and I suspect it would be an absolute gift to UKIP. If there’s anybody out there thinking that would be a good way to increase support for migrants, I'd say please think again.

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