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16 Jan 2018


In late 2017, there was some mention of migration control practices made during the Brexit negotiations.

But the hot topics of the day – moving goods across the Irish land border, the colour of travel documents, and the staffing of control points at smaller ports – have tended to obscure a bigger issue: British migration control practices are likely to undergo substantial changes after Brexit.

Controls at ports of entry will become less relevant than the registration of residents, and this makes the (re-)introduction of a national documentation of identity and addresses more likely.

Given that the absence of ID-cards and state registration requirements for residents was an example of British liberties (in contrast to continental intrusiveness) from the nineteenth century onwards, and that wartime registration systems were highly controversial and quickly abandoned in peacetime, this is somewhat ironic.

British and continental systems of migration control began to diverge significantly in the nineteenth century. During the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, all continental European countries had established systems of migration control that relied on the surveillance of all long-distance travellers and required them to carry passports, as well as to make themselves known to the authorities at their places of (temporary) residence – a system supposed to prevent foreign spies, revolutionaries or counter-revolutionaries, and paupers from moving about without the authorities’ knowledge.

The return of peace in 1815 did not cause the system to be dismantled. Ever since, ‘freedom of movement’ on the Continent meant, at best, freedom from routine immigration controls at frontiers combined with an (almost) comprehensive documentation of residence. This was true from the 1860s to 1914 and it remains true of the Schengen area today.

In Britain, registration only extended to aliens, and when frontier controls were abandoned entirely in the 1820s, no one had to make their place of residence known to the authorities; aliens were fully integrated into the poor law’s (very rudimentary) social welfare system.

British subjects could be removed to their place of legal settlement in the United Kingdom, but there was no legal provision for the deportation of aliens.

When Britain re-established immigration controls with the 1905 Aliens Act, these focused on the moment of arrival at ports of entry (and a relatively brief period afterward): Individuals were examined at ports of entry (and later at consulates); tracking what became of those admitted inside the country was not a government priority.

This remained true during the interwar period, the aftermath of the Second World War, even the Thatcher years.

The interval during which the government could detain and deport individuals who had entered the country without permission or overstayed their visas was relatively brief (in the order of weeks or months rather than years); bans on accepting employment were enforced only haphazardly; and social services tended to be available to non-citizens.

There were several reasons for this generosity. Politically, there was a reluctance to expand the reach of ‘the state’ and considerable concern about the relationship between the cost of surveillance and its potential benefits.

Geographically, the UK (and the common travel area with Ireland) could be reached easily only via ports or airports, i.e. points of entry that were relatively easy to police, certainly in comparison to continental land borders.

Moreover, the focus of migration restrictions to the common travel area after the Second World War was on individuals in a peculiar position.

British subjects or citizens of Commonwealth countries, the majority of immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s, faced restrictions on entry, but possessed political rights (and thus at least some potential political influence) immediately after admission to the country.

Prior to Brexit, citizens of EU countries, while not eligible for political rights, possessed full employment and almost complete social welfare rights.

Hence, the surveillance of non-citizen residents inside the country in order to identify and remove a relatively small number of irregular entrants who might make illegitimate demands on the public purse remained an irrational proposition.

Brexit – in combination with previous governments’ attempts to reduce irregular migration – has changed this. As the immigration regulations for the Republic of Ireland and the UK will diverge significantly in future, immigration controls at ports and airports are unlikely to suffice: EU citizens will continue to enjoy freedom of residence in Eire, but not in the UK.

Preventing the irregular immigration of EU nationals to the UK will thus either require recording the transit of people across the land border between Eire and Northern Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the UK (if migration from the EU to Northern Ireland were to remain unrestricted).

Attempts to identify EU citizens in the UK eligible for permanent residence have already highlighted the problems that follow once the government abandons the assumption that the vast majority of individuals resident in the UK are present legally.

The ID-register for immigrants the government proposes almost assumes a similar database for citizens, either because they will have to acquire passports, or use other documents to prove their status to potential employers, landlords, schools or doctors.

They will thus need a document that ‘enables individuals to provide legal proof that they are who they pretend to be in a more convenient way than through other, less secure documents’ – a quote from an 1844 commentary on Prussian passport legislation.

As recently as 2016, plans for UK ID cards were rejected – once again – with a view to their high cost and limited benefit. Their introduction – and the shift in the relationship between individuals and ‘the state’ that this entails – may well turn out to be another hidden cost of Brexit.

By Andreas Fahrmeir, Professor of Modern History, Goethe University Frankfurt.


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