Fresh migration data fuels Brexit debate

Migrants walk out of the 'Jungle' to travel from Calais, France to Great Britain, May 20, 2016.
Philippe Huguen | AFP | Getty Images
Migrants walk out of the 'Jungle' to travel from Calais, France to Great Britain, May 20, 2016.

With weeks to go before British voters decide whether to leave the European Union, the government reported that people continue to flock to the U.K. from the Continent.

New figures released Thursday by the government show that net migration into Britain surged last year.

The report added political fuel to the fire of a contentious "Brexit" debate that has pitted Britons who want to regain independence from Europe against those who warn that leaving the EU would deal a blow to the British economy.

A separate report Thursday showed that the island nation's economy is already slowing, likely because of uncertainty over the outcome of the national referendum scheduled for June 23.

U.K. gross domestic product slowed to just four-tenths of a percent in the first quarter of this year, down from six-tenths percent in the fourth quarter of last year, to the slowest rate since the fourth quarter of 2012.

If voters next month decide to leave Europe's political and economic bloc, most analysts are forecasting an even sharper slowdown. IHS Global Insight's chief European economist, Howard Archer, said in a recent note to clients that the firm's GDP forecast would be cut from 1.8 percent to 1.4 percent for all of 2016, and next year's growth forecast "could well be taken down from 2.4 percent to 0.8 percent."

"There is a very real risk that the economy may not bounce back that well in the second half of 2016 — even if there is a vote to stay in the EU," he said.

Opinion polls show that British voters have been fairly evenly split on whether to cut ties to Europe that were originally forged in 1973, with the creation of the European Economic Community, known then as the "Common Market," the precursor to the modern European Union.

Younger voters favor remaining by a fairly wide margin, while older voters back leaving the EU. Wealthier voters favor remaining, while lower income voters support leaving.

Thursday's immigration data were cited by those who back the "Brexit."

"We would be able to decide our immigration policy on the needs of the British economy," former London Mayor Boris Johnson, a Brexit advocate, told Sky News television.

Last year, some 630,000 people moved into the U.K., while 297,000 left the country, for a net migration of 333,000. Of those, 184,000 came from the EU, which poses no restrictions on moving from one member country to another.

In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron promised to reduce the annual level of net migration to below 100,000, but the influx of people has continued, thanks, in part, to relatively high wages. In the last four years, the number of migrants who cited work-related reasons for entering the country has nearly doubled, while those coming to further their education or to join family members has fallen.

In a bid to allay public concerns about the impact of immigration, Cameron in February negotiated reductions in some welfare payments to new EU migrants.

Opponents of the Brexit contend that cutting ties with Europe won't stop the influx of new arrivals attracted by higher wages, among other factors.

A vote in favor of leaving, they note, could even provoke a surge of new migrants rushing to enter the country before any new immigration restrictions can be put in place.

But with four weeks to go before Britons head to the polls, the number of migrants arriving on France's north coast in Calais has grown in recent months according to official figures released Thursday, with many seeking to reach Britain. France has said it might end border controls and let thousands cross the English Channel if voters approve the Brexit referendum.