25 May 2017

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), net migration in 2016 fell to 248,000 – the lowest level seen in over two years, and significantly lower than the 2015 figure of 332,000. Yet it is worth noting that this is still far above the Conservatives’ target of net migration in the tens of thousands per year.

This fall is perhaps not wholly unexpected, given the last ONS release for the year ending (YE) September 2016 already began to reveal a notable decline. However, these latest figures tell a story that is far more focused on EU migration. Given that these estimates now cover the six month period following the EU referendum, we are starting to gain a clearer understanding of the impact of the Brexit vote.

It is particularly interesting to see how the picture has changed compared to data released three months ago on the YE September 2016 – which only covered three months post-vote. Those figures saw the net migration of EU citizens (165,000) overtake that of non-EU nationals (164,000) for the very first time. Although the numbers showed only a marginal difference, it was a significant finding that broke with the long-standing UK tradition of greater immigration from non-EU countries. By contrast, today’s release shows EU net migration is now 42,000 lower than the corresponding non-EU figure. This is a sharp change, and a reversal away from the relatively recent of trend of both categories moving towards parity.

EU net migration in 2016 is estimated at 133,000, a fall of 51,000 from the previous year (compared to a year-on-year drop in non-EU immigration of only 14,000). This is in part due to decreased levels of immigration (down 19,000 to 250,000). But the substantial increase in the number of EU nationals leaving the UK is a more powerful explanation – 31,000 more EU citizens emigrated in 2016 than the previous year. This may have its roots in greater “push” effects associated with the Brexit vote: for instance, the uncertainty surrounding the status of EU citizens in the UK, and increased fears that EU nationals may not be able to stay post-Brexit, could have incentivised some to leave. Such concerns may have been strengthened by anecdotal evidence of residency applications being rejected, even for EU nationals who settled in the UK decades ago.

But the effect has not been uniform across all categories of EU migration. Where net migration of citizens from Bulgaria, Romania, and the Western European EU15 countries remained largely stable compared to 2015, the level of net migration from Eastern and Central European EU8 countries has collapsed. It stood at only 5000 in 2016, an almost 90% fall on the 2015 figure of 46,000. The ONS notes that this is the lowest level of net migration from these countries since their accession to the EU in 2005.

The decrease is due to statistically significant changes in both immigration and emigration levels for this category.

48,000 EU8 nationals arrived in the UK in 2016, over a third fewer than in 2015. Increased reticence to move to the UK could well be an effect of the Brexit vote: citizens may be unwilling to move until they gain a clearer idea of what new immigration system will in place, how easy it will be to find a job, whether they will need to obtain a visa, or what new criteria they will have to meet to enter. Given statistics show most EU8 nationals working in the UK are concentrated in sectors such as construction and hospitality, the UK rhetoric on the need to curb low-skilled immigration may also factor as a deterrent.

But lower immigration numbers could also speak to stronger “pull” factors to remain in – or indeed return to – their country of origin. For instance, Poland has earned a reputation as the growth champion of Europe, with Polish GDP per capita in 2016 representing two-thirds the level in Western Europe. In fact, the Polish economy has been growing for almost a quarter of a century, even despite the economic crisis. Given immigration from the EU8 has been trending downwards for a number of years, amidst the Brexit vote, the increased opportunities at home may simply be tipping the scales in favour of staying put.

The number of EU8 nationals leaving the UK has also increased by 16,000 and is now 43,000. This follows the trend revealed in YE September 2016 data. The reasons behind this pattern may reflect similar concerns surrounding uncertainty, and instability of employment. It may also relate to the reported rise in hate crimes following the Brexit vote, particularly against Polish communities. Equally, citizens may be responding to economic changes: the weakened British currency since the EU referendum may make it less attractive for these workers to continue earning in pounds, and therefore may incentivise emigration. Alternatively the return to growth in the Eurozone may increase the attractiveness of other destinations across the EU.

While the changes in immigration figures cannot solely be attributed to the Brexit vote, the focused impact on EU migration levels does suggest its effects are becoming more visible. The collapse of net migration from Eastern and Central European countries is perhaps the most dramatic finding in today’s figures.  Given no policy changes have yet been enacted to lower migration, any significant fall in numbers should be viewed cautiously – they may speak largely of the uncertainty many EU nationals are facing.