23 February 2017

Today’s release of long-term migration estimates for the year ending (YE) September 2016 have been long awaited – they are the first to offer greater insight into the period following Britain’s vote to leave the EU in June 2016.

On the surface, the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) figures show that net migration has fallen to a two-year low of 273,000. This is due to a fall in immigration (compared to YE September 2015) of 23,000 to 596,000, and an increase in emigration of 26,000 to 323,000. However, it is not clear at this stage that the Brexit vote has produced a decline in immigration, not least because none of these trends are noted as statistically significant.

Additionally, a closer look at EU migration shows a substantially varied picture. First, the net migration of EU nationals to the UK has now overtaken that of non-EU nationals, at 165,000 and 164,000 respectively. While the numerical difference may not seem significant, this stands in contrast to the general tradition in the UK of greater migration from non-EU countries.

Furthermore, figures show no coherent picture of EU migration. The ONS notes a statistically significant increase in immigration to the UK from Bulgaria and Romania, which now stands at 74,000 (up 19,000 from YE September 2015), the highest estimate recorded for this group. However, this comes up against a decrease in immigration from the Central and Eastern European EU8 countries, and stagnant immigration levels from the largest bloc, the EU15. ONS figures also recorded a statistically significant increase in emigration for EU8 citizens.

The lack of a uniform impact on EU nationals suggests that little can be drawn from these figures as yet about the impact of Britain’s vote to leave. Of course any fluctuation would relate largely to perceived changes by EU citizens, given that UK immigration policy has not changed and the UK remains member of the EU for now. And certainly, material changes following the vote may have had an impact on migrants’ decisions: for instance, the weaker currency post-vote may make it less attractive for migrant workers in the UK to send money back home to their country of origin and may therefore incentivise emigration. Yet the data shows no clear evidence of an exodus of EU citizens from the UK, particularly amidst increased reports of hate crime following the June vote. Nor is there confirmation of an influx of EU citizens post-referendum to secure legal status in the UK. Although perhaps evidence of an increased desire for certainty is implicit, given a higher number of EU immigrants arriving for work in 2016 came with a definite job (113,000, up from 18,000 from YE September 2015). However, we should remember that these are the estimates for the twelve month period until September 2016, so while they offer some insight into the post-referendum period, they are not a snapshot of the impact of the vote.

Perhaps one trend that should be examined closely, however, is the fall in long-term immigration to the UK to study. Although students are little thought of as immigrants – and the argument has been made for removing them from migration figures – the ONS report of a statistically significant decrease in student immigration of 41,000 (compared to YE September 2015), to stand at 134,000, is important to consider. The decline was particularly due to fewer non-EU nationals arriving for education in the UK. While records also show a slight increase in the number of student visas issued in this period, this is a trend for the UK to take note of, particularly given its ambition to establish itself as a magnet for global talent post-Brexit.