Immigration Falls as EU Citizens Quit U.K. After Brexit Vote

  • Net migration hit three-year low of 246,000 in year to March
  • Decline driven by EU nationals including Poles, Hungarians

U.K. Said to Plan Visa-Free Travel Post Brexit

Net migration to the U.K. fell to a three-year low after an exodus of European workers following the June 2016 Brexit referendum.

Arrivals outnumbered departures by 246,000 in the 12 months through March 2017. That was down a “statistically significant” 81,000 from a year earlier and was also the lowest figure since March 2014, the Office for National Statistics in London said Thursday.

EU nationals quitting Britain accounted for much of the change. The outflow was most pronounced among citizens of the eight central and eastern European nations that joined the bloc in 2004, including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The number of people coming to Britain declined.

“The EU referendum result may be influencing people’s decision to migrate into and out of the U.K., particularly EU and EU-8 citizens,” said Nicola White, head of international migration statistics at the ONS. “It is too early to tell if this is an indication of a long-term trend.”

The data will be welcomed by Prime Minister Theresa May, who has promised to cut annual net migration to the “tens of thousands,” but business leaders say the loss of foreign workers risks harming the economy.

Sectors such as hospitality and construction, which rely heavily on EU workers, are already warning of growing skills shortages. Universities have also expressed fears over losing key staff.

“No one should celebrate these numbers,” said Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills policy at the Institute of Directors, adding that record-low unemployment meant Britain would face a labor shortage without EU residents. “Signs that it is becoming a less attractive place to live and work are a concern.”

The rights of EU citizens in the U.K. post-Brexit, and those of Britons living in other EU countries, have yet to be resolved more than a year after the vote to leave the bloc. The slump in the value of the pound since the referendum may also have made the U.K. less attractive for migrant workers.

The number of EU citizens leaving Britain soared by 37 percent in the year through March to 122,000, the highest figure since 2008. Emigration among so-called EU-8 citizens jumped to 46,000, while 16,000 Bulgarians and Romanians departed -- double the number a year earlier.

At the same time, fewer people came to Britain, with immigration from both EU and non-EU countries declining by about 8 percent. The fall was partly due to a sharp drop in the number of people arriving for study, down 16 percent on the year. That’s a worrying development for universities and colleges that rely on the fees paid by international students to boost their income. 

Home Secretary Amber Rudd asked the government’s Migration Advisory Committee Thursday to review the economic and social impact of foreign students. May’s Conservative Party is divided over whether students should be included in migration data, with some arguing they should be exempt from curbs because of the economic benefits they bring.

Of the 588,000 long-term migrants who came to the U.K. in the year through March, 139,000 were students. The number leaving Britain rose 4 percent.

Read more: U.K. Reviews Immigrant Numbers as Students Leave

May took the Brexit result as a vote to regain control over immigration. In response, she stuck by the pledge first made by her predecessor David Cameron in 2010 to limit net migration to less than 100,000.

The uphill task she faces was underscored by the latest figures, which showed that net migration from countries outside the EU still accounts for more than 70 percent of the total, even though Britain has control over their numbers.

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