Net migration falls as EU citizens leave UK

Alessandra Rizzo, Political Reporter

Net migration to the UK has fallen to the lowest level for three years as thousands of EU citizens have left the country after the Brexit referendum.

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics showed net migration stood at 246,000 in the year ending in March 2017 - down 81,000 compared to the previous 12 months.

More than half the drop was due to an increase in the number of EU citizens leaving Britain and fewer arriving.

Net migration of EU citizens fell by 51,000 to 127,000 - its lowest lever since December 2013.

The number of EU citizens leaving the country increased by 33,000 year-on-year to 122,000 - the highest outflow for nearly a decade.

Departures saw a particularly sharp rise - 17,000 - in citizens from the so-called EU8, a group of countries that joined the bloc in 2004: Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The net migration figure for non-EU citizens was also down, by 14,000, to 179,000.

The figures were the first to be released since the General Election in June.

The Government wants to cut net migration to the "tens of thousands" but so far it has failed to meet the target. It said it was "encouraged" by the figures, but "not complacent".

"There is still more work to do to bring net migration down further to sustainable levels," said Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis. "People who come to our country to work bring significant benefits to the UK, but there is no consent for uncontrolled immigration."

The Government has also ordered an investigation into the impact of foreign students on the country. But figures showed that some 96.3% of overseas students with a visa departed before the visa expired - contradicting fears that many were overstaying beyond their studies.

Nicola White, head of international migration statistics at the ONS, said the net migration figures suggest "the EU referendum result may be influencing people's decision to migrate into and out of the UK, particularly EU and EU8 citizens."

But she added: "It is too early to tell if this is an indication of a long-term trend.

"International migration for work remains the most common reason for migration with people becoming increasingly likely to move to the UK or overseas only with a definite job than to move looking for work."

Uncertainty over the future status of EU citizens in the aftermath of Brexit may have weighed on the figures, some experts say. Other citizens are opting to leave partly due to the fall in the pound reducing the value of their wages back home.

Britain has said it aims to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in Britain - one of the key issues in divorce negotiations between the UK and Brussels. But so far a deal has been elusive.

The Institute of Directors warned that "no one should celebrate these numbers", saying that "signs that (the UK) is becoming a less attractive place to live and work are a concern".

Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills policy at the institute, said: "The ongoing uncertainty over the status and rights of EU citizens already living here is leading to a brain drain of EU staff."

Labour's shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: "Tory migration policy is a shambles. Against all advice, Theresa May continues to insist in maintaining an arbitrary net migration target of under 100,000, which has never once been met."