Immigration to Britain hits five-year low ahead of Brexit

Some 612,000 people moved to the United Kingdom during the 12 months leading up to March, while 385,000 emigrated.

    Rising immigration was a major public concern when Britain voted to leave the European Union, though it has since dropped down on people's list of worries [Hannah McKay/Reuters]
    Rising immigration was a major public concern when Britain voted to leave the European Union, though it has since dropped down on people's list of worries [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

    Net immigration to Britain sank to its lowest level since 2013 during the period from March 2018 through March 2019, driven by a sustained fall in the number of immigrants from the European Union since 2016's Brexit referendum, official figures showed on Thursday.

    Rising immigration was a major public concern when Britain voted to leave the EU, though it has since dropped down on people's list of worries. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government plans to introduce restrictions on EU migration after Britain leaves the bloc, a move it is scheduled to make before a deadline of October 31.

    Some 612,000 people moved to the United Kingdom during the 12 months leading up to March 2019, while 385,000 people emigrated, reducing net immigration to 226,000 - its lowest level since the 12 months leading up to the end of December 2013, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

    The data is based on a new experimental series that aims to reduce previous flaws that led to an undercount of EU long-term immigrants and to an overestimation of how many non-EU students remained in Britain after their studies.

    Even after these adjustments, net inflows of non-EU migrants remain close to the record high of 236,000 set in the 12 months leading up to September 2018, totalling 219,000 in the March 2018 to March 2019 period.

    However, the net number of EU immigrants appears to have fallen sharply, to 59,000 in the March 2018 - March 2019 period from a peak of 218,000 in 2015.

    This is one of the lowest figures in the past 10 years, though comparisons are approximate, as the ONS has so far only applied its latest, more accurate estimation techniques to EU migration data that date before June 2016.

    Debt crisis

    Immigration to Britain from the rest of the EU surged after the eurozone debt crisis in 2012, as southern Europeans sought better job opportunities in Britain, in addition to east Europeans seeking higher wages.

    Madeleine Sumption, director of the University of Oxford's Migration Observatory, said the data pointed to a return to the pre-financial crisis trend in net EU migration, and widespread departures of current EU residents in Britain looked unlikely.

    "EU emigration [is] still significant but now stable - and not the 'mass post-Brexit exodus' some talked about," she said. "Perhaps not surprising, most EU citizens [are] now resident here for a while, so are quite settled." 

    Immigration from outside the EU, over which Britain's government has much more legal control, has steadily risen after a dip in the middle of the decade, despite a British government goal to cut total net immigration to under 100,000 people a year.

    Prime Minister Johnson has said that after Brexit, future immigrants from the EU will be subject to a "skills-based" test similar to that applied by Australia, as well as criminal record checks.

    Migration Watch, a group that wants less immigration, said after Thursday's figures that inflows of immigrants were still "far too high" and that Brexit was a "golden opportunity" to impose greater controls.

    A June 2019 poll by market research firm ICM showed that 53 percent of Britons wanted to reduce immigration, while only 13 percent wanted to increase it. However, only 21 percent of respondents had a strongly negative view of immigration, slightly fewer than were strongly positive. Most were fairly indifferent.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency