- Latest data up to March show annual migration at 327,000
- Poland overtakes India as the most common country of birth
Net migration to the U.K. remained close to record levels in the 12 months through March, underlining the continuing pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to curb freedom of movement for workers in a post-Brexit deal with the European Union.
The number of people arriving in Britain to live or study for at least a year minus those leaving totaled 327,000, the Office for National Statistics in London said on Thursday. That compared with 336,000 in the 12 months through March last year -- the joint highest ever -- and 334,000 in 2015. Net migration of EU citizens totaled 180,000, also close to a record.
Freedom of movement is set to be a major sticking point in talks with the EU on a deal on trade once May has triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism that starts the two-year process of British withdrawal from the bloc. The prime minister has said she’ll need to respect the desire of British voters to curb immigration from the EU as demonstrated in the Brexit vote while seeking to maintain the maximum access to the bloc’s single market. EU leaders say she can’t have full access without full freedom of movement.
May has reiterated the pledge by her predecessor, David Cameron, to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands.” But numbers rose over the course of Cameron’s premiership -- a period when May, as home secretary, was in charge of immigration.
“The referendum result demonstrated public concern about the scale of immigration; it simply cannot be allowed to continue,” Andrew Green, chairman of the Migration Watch lobby group, said in a statement. “The Brexit negotiations must achieve a significant reduction of EU migration and very firm action is needed against overstaying students from outside the EU.”
Separate ONS figures showed 8.6 million people, or more than 13 percent of the U.K. population, were born abroad in 2015 after a “statistically significant” increase of 300,000 from 2014. For the first time, Poland overtook India as the most common non-U.K. country of birth.
Forty-four percent of the British public does not believe the U.K. will meet its net migration target in the next five years, despite the Brexit vote, according to research published Thursday by British Future, a London-based think tank.
“Public trust in governments’ competence to manage immigration -- including meeting its own targets -- is at rock bottom,” Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, said in an e-mailed statement. “Until we know what Brexit looks like, no one can sensibly predict what immigration levels would be best for Britain. But the Brexit shakeup could be an opportunity to get immigration policy right --- to restore trust in a system that works, and public consent for the immigration that we have.”
Business leaders urged the government to safeguard skilled migration to the U.K.
“There must be no knee-jerk crackdown that leaves businesses unable to get specific skills from around the globe, or measures that hobble our education sector, which is one of the U.K.’s export successes,” Adam Marshall, acting director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said in a statement.
Anti-EU campaigner Daniel Hannan was pressed on what Brexit means for immigration policy in light of the latest figures. “We promised during the referendum that we would take back control, and that, in my book, can only have one possible meaning, which is that no foreign court will get to determine who can enter the U.K., or who can remain in the U.K.,” the Conservative Party member of the European Parliament told the BBC.