Since the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1922 there has been substantial immigration from other parts of the world. In particular, migrants have arrived from Ireland and the former colonies of the British Empire - such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Caribbean, South Africa, Kenya and Hong Kong - under British nationality law. Others have come as asylum seekers, seeking protection as refugees under the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, or from European Union (EU) member states, exercising one of the EU's Four Freedoms.
About half the population increase between the 1991 and 2001 censuses was due to foreign-born immigration. 4.9 million people (8.3 percent of the population at the time) were born abroad, although the census gives no indication of their immigration status or intended length of stay.
In 2006, there were 149,035 applications for British citizenship, 32 percent fewer than in 2005. The number of people granted citizenship during 2006 was 154,095, 5 per cent fewer than in 2005. The largest groups of people granted British citizenship were from India, Pakistan, Somalia and the Philippines. In 2006, 134,430 people were granted settlement in the UK, a drop of 25 per cent on 2005. Meanwhile, migration from Central and Eastern Europe has increased since 2004 with the accession to the European Union of eight Central and Eastern European states, since there is free movement of labour within the EU. The UK government is currently phasing in a new points-based immigration system for people from outside of the European Economic Area.
In 1962, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed by the British government, restricting the freedom of passage into the UK from other parts of the Commonwealth. By 1972, only holders of work permits, or people with parents or grandparents born in the UK could gain entry - effectively stemming primary immigration from Commonwealth countries.
The Ireland Act 1949 has the unusual status of recognising the Republic of Ireland, but affirming that its citizens are not citizens of a foreign country. This was at a time when a republic was not allowed to be a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
In the lead up to the World War II, many Germans, particularly those belonging to minorities which were persecuted under Nazi rule, such as Jews, sought to emigrate to the United Kingdom, and it is estimated that as many as 50,000 may have been successful. There were immigration caps on the number who could enter and, subsequently, some applicants were turned away. When the UK was forced to declare war on Germany, however, migration between the countries ceased.
Indians began arriving in the UK in large numbers shortly after their country gained independence in 1947. More than 60,000 arrived before 1955, many of whom drove buses, or worked in foundries or textile factories. Later arrivals opened corner shops or ran post offices. The flow of Indian immigrants peaked between 1965 and 1972, boosted in particular by Idi Amin's sudden decision to expel all 50,000 Gujarati Indians from Uganda. Around 30,000 Ugandan Asians migrated to the UK.
Following the end of World War II, substantial groups of people from Soviet-controlled territories settled in Britain, particularly Poles and Ukrainians. The UK recruited displaced people as so-called European Volunteer Workers in order to provide labour to industries that were required in order to aim economic recovery after the war. In the 1951 census, the Polish-born population of the UK numbered some 162,339, up from 44,642 in 1931.
Immigration officers have to be satisfied about a person's nationality and identity and entry could be refused if they were not satisfied.
Since the expansion of the EU on 1 May 2004, the UK has accepted immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, Malta and Cyprus, although the substantial Maltese and Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot communities were established earlier through their Commonwealth connection. There are restrictions on the benefits that members of eight of these accession countries can claim, which are covered by the Worker Registration Scheme. Most of the other European Union member states have exercised their right for temporary immigration control (which must end by 2011) over entrants from these accession states, although some are now removing these restrictions.
The Home Office publishes quarterly statistics on the number of applications to the Worker Registration Scheme. Figures published in August 2007 indicate that 682,940 people applied to the scheme between 1 May 2004 and 30 June 2007, of whom 656,395 were accepted. Self-employed workers and people who are not working (including students) are not required to register under the scheme so this figure represents a lower limit on immigration inflow. These figures do not indicate the number of immigrants who have since returned home, but 56 per cent of applicants in the 12 months ending 30 June 2007 reported planning to stay for a maximum of three months. Figures for total immigration show that there was a net inflow of 64,000 people from the eight Central and Eastern European accession states in 2005. An investigation by more4 found that Poles (who make up the majority of those registered with the WRS) currently represent a substantial proportion of the population of some UK cities. Research suggests that a total of around 1 million people had moved from the new EU member states to the UK by April 2008, but that half this number have since returned home or moved on to a third country.
The Government announced that the same rules would not apply to nationals of Romania and Bulgaria when those countries acceded to the EU in 2007. Instead, restrictions were put in place to limit migration to students, the self-employed, highly skilled migrants and food and agricultural workers. Statistics released by the Home Office indicate that in the first three months of Romania and Bulgaria's EU membership, 7,120 people (including family members) from the two countries successfully registered on the various schemes. Between April and June 2007, a further 9,335 Bulgarian and Romanian nationals had their applications granted. This includes those registering as self-employed and self-sufficient. An additional 3,980 were issued cards for the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS).
Employer Sponsored Work Permits allow employers to sponsor an employee's entrance into the UK by demonstrating that they possess skills that cannot be found elsewhere. Immigrants who have education or experience in occupations which are listed on the Skills Shortage List may apply for a work permit. This includes engineers, doctors, nurses, actuaries and teachers. Employers can also obtain work permits for occupations not on the Skills Shortage List by advertising the position and demonstrating that no suitable UK resident or EU worker can be found. Approvals for a work permit are usually based upon the suitability of the applicant to the role, by education and/or experience.
In addition there is a points-based system called the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP) which allows a highly skilled migrant to enter the UK with the right to work without first having to find an offer of employment and without an employer needing to sponsor the visa. Points are awarded for education, work experience, past earnings, achievements in the field and achievements of the applicant's partner. There are also points for being aged under 28 and for doctors currently working in the UK.
Some people work in the UK under a Working holiday visa which allows 12 months of work within a 24 month period for those aged 17 to 30. UK Ancestry Entry Clearance allows a person to work in the UK for five years if they have a grandparent who was born in the United Kingdom, Channel Islands and Isle of Man at any time; or a grandparent born in what is now the Republic of Ireland on or before March 31, 1922. After that they may apply for Indefinite leave to remain.
In April 2006 changes to the current Managed Migration system were proposed that would primarily create one points-based immigration system for the UK. The replacement for HSMP (Tier 1 in the new system) gives points for age and none for work experience. This points based system is being phased in over the course of 2008.
For family relatives of European Economic Area nationals living in the UK, there is the EEA family permit which enables those family members to join their relatives already living and working in the UK.
The UK is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which means that it has a responsibility under international law not to return (or refoule) refugees to the place where they would face persecution.
Nonetheless the issue of immigration has been a controversial political issue since the late 1990s. Both the ruling Labour Party and the opposition Conservatives have suggested policies perceived as being "tough on asylum (although the Conservatives have dropped a previous pledge to limit the number of people who could claim asylum in the UK, which would likely have breached the UN Refugee Convention) and the tabloid media frequently print headlines about an "immigration crisis".
This is denounced by those seeking to ensure that the UK upholds its international obligations as disproportionate. Critics suggest that much of the opposition to high levels of immigration by refugees is based on racism. Concern is also raised about the treatment of those held in detention and the practice of dawn raiding families, and holding young children in immigration detention centres for long periods of time.
However, critics of the UK's asylum policy often point out the "safe third country rule" - the international agreement that asylum seekers must apply in the first free nation they reach, not go "asylum shopping" for the nation they prefer. EU courts have upheld this policy.
In February 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair promised on television to reduce the number of asylum seekers by half within 7 months, apparently catching unawares the members of his own government with responsibility for immigration policy. David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, called the promise an objective rather than a target. It was met according to official figures, despite increase world instability caused by the Iraq War. There is also a Public Performance Target to remove more asylum seekers who have been judged not to be refugees under the internation definition than new anticipated unfounded applications. This target was met early in 2006.
Official figures for numbers of people claiming asylum in the UK were at a 13 year low by March 2006. Opponents of the government's policies on asylum seekers and refugees, such as Migration Watch UK and some newspapers are critical of the way official figures are calculated.
Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have argued that the government's new policies, particularly those concerning detention centres, have detrimental effects on asylum applicants and those facilities have seen a number of hunger strikes and suicides. Others have argued that recent government policies aimed at reducing 'bogus' asylum claims have had detrimental impacts on those genuinely in need of protection.
Although it is difficult to know how many people reside in the UK illegally, a Home Office study released in March 2005 estimated a population of between 310,000 and 570,000. Migration Watch UK has criticised the Home Office figures for not including the UK-born dependent children of unauthorised migrants. They suggest the Home Office has underestimated the numbers of unauthorised migrants by between 15,000 and 85,000. In the past the UK government has stated that the figures Migration Watch produces should be treated with considerable caution.
A recent study into irregular immigration states that "most irregular migrants have committed administrative offences rather than a serious crime".
Jack Dromey, Deputy General of the Transport and General Workers Union and Labour Party treasurer, suggested in May 2006 that there could be around 500,000 illegal workers. He called for a public debate on whether an amnesty should be considered. David Blunkett has suggested that this might be done once the identity card scheme is rolled out. London Citizens, a coalition of community organisations, is running a regularisation campaign called Strangers into Citizens, backed by figures including the leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales, the Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor..
In February 2008, the government introduced new £10,000 fines for employers found to be employing illegal immigrants where there is negligence on the part of the employer, with unlimited fines or jail sentences for employers acting knowingly
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