Five Ways the UK’s Immigration System is Hurting Scotland

It is clear that the UK Government’s approach to immigration is not working. It is unsuccessful in curbing immigration and has only resulted in treating anyone who tries to come to the UK as subhuman, with the Illegal Migration Bill being criticised for breaking international law.

Scotland, however, has its own unique needs and challenges and also has the chance to do something better. A poll by Ipsos MORI showed that 58% of Scottish people said that they wanted immigration to either increase or stay the same, compared to 45% across the UK. Furthermore, 59% said they favoured a system that treats people fairly rather than one that deters, compared to 43% of UK respondents. 

Here are five challenges facing Scotland due to the UK Government’s immigration system.

1) Scotland’s population crisis is being aggravated further

Business for Scotland has previously written about the future population crisis that will occur if Scotland remains a part of the UK. Scotland’s population is projected to decrease by almost half a million by 2073 and it is also going to get older. The number of people over 65 is projected to increase by a third by the middle of 2045. Policies to increase birth rates are not enough. Scotland needs a higher level of net immigration to boost its population in the long term. 

In remote rural areas, a lack of job opportunities, affordable housing and infrastructure links drive young people away. The Highlands and Islands will be hit the hardest by population decreases, with Na h-Eileanan Siar expecting a decline of 13.9% between 2014 and 2039. Scottish immigration policy must therefore not just aim to increase the overall population but also ensure that no region is left behind in the process.

2) Tight immigration laws lower Scotland’s skilled workforce

A large proportion of Scotland’s immigrant population work in higher skilled jobs and are highly qualified themselves. Over a quarter of Scotland’s non-UK born workforce are in professional occupations compared to around 20% of UK-borns. A study by the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland found that foreign born entrepreneurs tended to have post-graduate qualifications as well as more experience and ambition. EU citizens contribute around £10,000 to government revenue and £34,000 to GDP per person every year in Scotland. The contribution of immigrants to the Scottish economy should not be underestimated.

The UK’s harsh immigration policy, especially in the aftermath of Brexit, has also provoked shortages in some key specialist occupations. For example, post EU referendum in 2016, there has been a reduced registration of doctors from Europe in specialist areas such as psychiatry. This is concerning for Scotland, which already faces staffing and retention problems in emergency psychiatric departments. Nursing and dentistry are experiencing similar shortages. Whilst non-EU recruitment has increased, it has not been enough to plug the gap at a time when health services across the UK are stretched to their limits

3) Scotland relies on seasonal and lower skilled workers

Post-Brexit, the UK Government has been trialling the introduction of a ‘points based’ migration system, where firms are restricted from hiring lower skilled workers from overseas. Ironically, a minimum salary requirement of £25,000 could potentially cover lower skilled occupations in London, where salaries tend to be higher, while disadvantageing other areas of the UK, including Scotland. 

New restrictions have the potential to devastate Scotland’s tourism sector. In the years following the Brexit referendum, around 10% of the total tourism workforce in Scotland came from EU countries and one in three tourism-dependent organisations worried that immigration reforms could lead to their closure. Scottish hospitality bosses have argued that the British immigration system is ‘not fit for purpose’. Even if the UK Government was justified in wanting to reduce immigration, a one-size-fits-all approach does not suit Scotland.

The debacle over seasonal workers in food production is a stark example of how UK immigration policy damages the Scottish economy. Scottish farms rely on seasonal workers, especially in Tayside, which produces most of Scotland’s soft fruit. In 2022, the seasonal agricultural workers visa was capped at 30,000 despite at least 70,000 being needed. This inevitably led to production losses and fruit rotting in fields. Seasonal workers have themselves said they are less likely to work in the UK as a result. Suella Braverman called for a scheme to train British fruit pickers and lorry drivers but failed to take into account that a similar initiative in 2021 flopped due to a lack of applicants. The fumbling of post-Brexit immigration policy has contributed to food price inflation becoming the new ‘face’ of the cost of living crisis. 

4) Immigration rules discourage international students from staying

The UK Government has recently announced that it will prevent families of foreign postgraduate students studying in the UK from coming to the country – the latest in a long line of UK policies which restrict international students from coming to Scotland. Under the ‘hostile environment’, the number of students coming to the UK from Commonwealth countries such as India and Pakistan dropped. In the aftermath of Brexit, European students and academics became Westminster’s next ‘target’. In 2021, the percentage of EU students at universities in Scotland dropped by 56%. Over 2,500 academics from the EU left Scotland in the three years following the 2016 referendum and this will only have dropped further. 

The most frustrating part is that Scotland previously had much more control over international student retention. In 2003, the Scottish Government introduced the Fresh Talent Scheme to reverse Scotland’s population decline. This included for example graduate visa extensions for overseas students. Unfortunately, in 2008, the system was incorporated into the UK Government’s immigration system. Four years later restrictions were tightened further and post-study visas were removed. Despite calls for a ‘Scottish Visa’, it is unlikely that the UK Government will relinquish any control over this policy to Scotland today. 

5) The cruelty of UK immigration does not reflect the values of Scottish people

Finally, any discussion of UK immigration policy must stress that the ‘hostile environment’ system introduced in the early 2010s is an ethical travesty. It has fostered racism, dehumanised anyone perceived as being a ‘migrant’ and in some cases has led to people being wrongfully deported. Just last month, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan took his own life after being denied refugee status. Under the current policy, even if asylum seekers are not sent to Rwanda, they cannot work for a year after applying for asylum. This policy violates international standards on the right to work and campaigners seeking to lift the ban argue that this would actually contribute to the UK economy through National Insurance and taxation. 

Scotland needs more control over immigration policy to change the system for good. This division between Scotland and the rest of the UK has gone on much longer than the Brexit vote – there has been a long-standing contradiction between what Westminster (under both Labour and the Conservatives) wants and what Scotland needs.If you’re still in doubt, look at what has been happening in Scottish cities. Recent anti-deportation protests in Glasgow and Edinburgh, where ordinary people blocked Home Office vans conducting immigration raids, show that Scotland can and will do better.