Europeans Have Stopped Immigrating to Britain. But Nobody Else Has

Opponents of Brexit demonstrate opposite the Houses of Parliament in London.
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Europeans Have Stopped Immigrating to Britain. But Nobody Else Has

By Helen Warrell


Immigration from outside of Europe is still increasing, even as impending Brexit depresses migration from the EU.

By Helen Warrell

Since Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union, the net migration of EU citizens to the U.K. has fallen 70 percent. But that isn’t the only major change to migration patterns in the country.

Figures recently released by Britain’s Office for National Statistics show the net migration of EU nationals fell to 57,000 in the year to September 2018, the lowest level in a decade. This compares with a net inflow of 189,000 EU nationals in the year to June 2016, when the Brexit referendum was held.

The change is even more stark for those people who come from the eight central and eastern European member states that joined the EU in 2004 — countries such as Poland. The number of people from such countries who are leaving Britain now outstrips those arriving. Overall, National Insurance number allocations to EU nationals fell by a third to 419,000 between 2016 and 2018. But from outside the EU, people are still coming. In fact:

From January to September 2018, long-term immigration to Britain from outside the EU increased by more than a quarter year-on-year — a 15-year high.

Labor economists cautioned that the figure of 261,000 arrivals from outside the EU was likely to be unreliable because of the long-standing problems with the accuracy of student migration data. 

The overall net migration figure rose slightly over the year to 283,000, almost three times the government’s target of reducing the number of immigrants to the “tens of thousands.” This pledge, set almost a decade ago, was a central aim of now Prime Minister Theresa May’s tenure as home secretary but has never been met.

Caroline Nokes, immigration minister, said the U.K. was “continuing to attract and retain highly skilled workers,” including more doctors and nurses. The Home Office has proposed a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration regime post-Brexit, including significant new restrictions on future EU migrants.


Under the plans, subject to a yearlong consultation with business, most EU citizens will be eligible for short-term work visas of only one to two years. Those wanting to settle in Britain will be subject to a minimum salary threshold of $39,750, although employers are lobbying for this to be lowered. 

However, as May struggles to win House of Commons’ approval for a Brexit deal, employers have warned that uncertainty about the fate of EU nationals in the event of a no-deal exit has made it harder to attract and retain staff.

Tom Hadley, director of policy at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, says the fall in the number of EU citizens coming to the U.K. is “concerning.”

“U.K. firms are already struggling to find candidates to fill vacancies in sectors as varied as technology, health and hospitality,” he says, noting that clarity on what EU workers’ rights will be is “a huge priority” when it comes to retaining personnel. 

“Britain is not as attractive to EU migrants as it was a couple of years ago,” says Madeleine Sumption, director of the Oxford-based Migration Observatory, a research institution. “That may be because of Brexit-related political uncertainty, the falling value of the pound making U.K. wages less attractive or simply the fact that job opportunities have improved in other EU countries.”

Sumption cautioned that because EU net migration was unusually high in the run-up to the referendum, some of the decline would probably have occurred even without Brexit. Britain’s departure from the bloc is scheduled to take place on March 29.


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