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Millions of British and European citizens who have migrated from their home countries are living in uncertainty about the impact of a British exit from the EU, according to a coalition of business groups and migration campaigners who are calling on the government to be more specific about their fate.
The outcome of the UK’s June referendum on whether to stay in or leave the EU will affect 3m EU migrants living in Britain and 1.2m British people living in other EU countries. If Britain votes to leave, it is not clear whether they would be entitled to stay in their host countries.
In an open letter, the Institute of Directors, think-tanks Migration Watch, British Future, Open Europe and Policy Exchange, and the campaign organisations New Europeans, Migrant Voice and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants have called on the government and both the Leave and Remain campaigns to clarify the consequences of Brexit.
They want all sides to agree that people who have already migrated either to or from the EU would not be affected by changes to the freedom of migration rules.
“Voters are in the dark as to what is at stake when they cast their votes on June 23,” Sunder Katwala, British Future director, said. “There are principled, practical and legal reasons why all sides in the referendum can agree to a commonsense consensus that any future changes should not apply retrospectively to people already here.”
Roger Casale, director of the campaign group New Europeans, urged that there should be “no mass deportations” and that EU citizens should not have to rely on “begging letters” from local MPs to win the right to stay in Britain.
A government paper published this year outlined how it would go about withdrawing from the EU. It warned UK citizens who are resident abroad that they “would not be able to assume that these rights [to remain] will be guaranteed”.
“At the very least, any terms which the UK seeks for its own citizens would have to be offered to EU citizens wishing to come to or stay in this country,” it said.
David Lidington, the Europe minister, said last month that a British exit would call into question all aspects of the European single market, including “the right of British citizens to go and live in Spain or France”.
The uncertainty has triggered an upsurge in EU migrants trying to gain British citizenship, with immigration lawyers warning that a departure from the EU could mean they need visas to stay.
A publisher of UK citizenship test textbooks told the Independent newspaper last month that its sales had quadrupled since the referendum date was announced.
Simon Walker, director-general of the Institute of Directors, said “a significant number” of British businesses would be “severely disadvantaged” by the revocation of their migrant workforce’s right to remain in the UK.
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He called on the government and both sides of the campaign to set out what the new immigration rules would be, to “help reduce the exposure of firms to any uncertainty arising from a potential Brexit”.
Alp Mehmet, vice-chair of Migration Watch, called on the campaigns to support the rules set out in the 1969 Vienna Convention, which he said preserve pre-existing migration rights for those who have already benefited from them.
“It is right to separate the debate about future policy from the position of existing migrants,” he said.
UK nationals living abroad who have been on the British electoral register in the past 15 years will be able to vote in the referendum but citizens of EU countries living in the UK will not get a vote, except Irish ones.
From FT Letters
Debate must be about future immigration policy
Sir, Immigration is one of the key issues being debated during the referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Many people are not sure about what the referendum result would mean for the 3m EU migrants currently in Britain, or for the 1.2m British citizens living elsewhere in the EU. A significant number of British businesses would be disadvantaged by retrospective changes to their existing workforce.
In our view, the public debate about immigration and free movement should be about future immigration policy — so that future changes should not apply retrospectively to those currently exercising their free movement rights. Both current EU migrants in Britain and British migrants living in other EU member states should be able to continue to live and work in those countries. We believe there are principled, practical and legal reasons why this would be the most sensible approach in the event of a Leave vote — and one that would be agreed upon by advocates of a broad range of positions on both immigration and the EU. Indeed, our understanding is that the Vienna Convention on Treaties protects the acquired rights of individuals in situations of treaty change.
It would be good for the public debate about immigration if that consensus on this point was made clear before the referendum campaign. We are therefore calling on the official campaigns and leading voices for both the Remain and the Leave sides, and the major political parties, to clarify their position on this matter. The government should make clear that its policy would be to protect the rights of EU citizens living and working in the UK and to seek reciprocal arrangements for UK citizens in other EU countries.
Establishing that broad consensus ahead of the campaign would give us a better informed public debate about immigration in this referendum. It would not just reassure those who are directly affected but would also give the voters who will decide the outcome a clearer understanding about what is and what is not at stake on the referendum ballot paper.
Director, British Future
Director General, Institute of Directors
Chief Executive, JCWI
Director, Migrant Voice
Vice-Chair, Migration Watch
Founder and CEO, New Europeans
Co-Director, Open Europe
Head of Demography Unit, Policy Exchange