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Net migration drops to 246,000 as more EU citizens leave UK amid 'brain drain' fears

4 min read

New figures have confirmed a big increase in people choosing to leave the UK since the vote for Brexit last June. 

Net migration was 246,000 in the 12 months to March, down 81,000 on the corresponding figure for March 2016 and the lowest level for three years.

The fall was driven by a 31,000 increase in people emigrating and 50,000 fewer people entering the UK.

Overall, immigration stood at 588,000 and emigration 342,000.

Meanwhile, the Government has published a Home Office study which calls into question one of Theresa May’s central justifications for cracking down on the number of foreign students coming to the UK.

The paper, which used exit check data, suggested that 97.4% of those in the UK to study left the country at the time their visa expired – a higher proportion than people who came to Britain to visit or work.

Today’s Office for National Statistics data showed the Government is still nowhere near meeting its long-held and recently reaffirmed target to cut net migration to below 100,000 per year.

The number of people arriving from the European Union was significantly down, however, falling 51,000 on the previous year while 33,000 more EU citizens left the UK than in the year to March 2016.

The ONS also identified a statistically significant drop in the number of overseas students coming to the UK in the wake of a concerted effort from the Home Office.

Immigration to study was down 27,000 to 139,000 – despite a 5% increase in non-EU students coming to Britain.

Nicola White, the head of international migration statistics at the ONS, said: “We have seen a fall in net migration driven by an increase in emigration, mainly for EU citizens and in particular EU8 citizens, and a decrease in immigration across all groups...

“These results are similar to 2016 estimates and indicate that the EU referendum result may be influencing people’s decision to migrate into and out of the UK, particularly EU and EU8 citizens. It is too early to tell if this is an indication of a long-term trend.”

Seamus Nevin of the Institute of Directors, said the migration figures were bad news for the economy.

He said: "No one should celebrate these numbers. Given unemployment is currently at its lowest level ever, without the three million EU citizens living here the UK would have an acute labour shortage. Signs that it is becoming a less attractive place to live and work are a concern.

"The IoD has been warning for some time that the ongoing uncertainty over the status and rights of EU citizens already living here is leading to a brain drain of EU staff. We hope that an agreement can be reached as soon as possible to provide reassurance to EU workers and enable the Brexit negotiations to progress to the next stage."


The Government today commissioned its Migration Advisory Committee to investigate the impact of international students on the UK’s economy, education system and society.

The Home Office has also this morning published a set of statistics on exit checks, which suggest that students are less likely than tourists or workers to stay in the UK after their visas expire.

In 2016/17 97.4% of the non-EU foreign students who required visas to come to the UK left the country in accordance with the terms of their entry document.

That compares to 96.7% of visitors and 95.4% of workers who entered the UK.

Mrs May – who has backed including foreign students in the net migration statistics despite long-running criticism from many Cabinet ministers – has frequently argued that students overstay their visas to justify her stance.

In 2015, the then-Home Secretary told the Conservative conference “too many of them [students] are not returning home as soon as their visa runs out”.

She added: “I don’t care what the university lobbyists say: the rules must be enforced. Students, yes; over-stayers, no.”

Amber Rudd, Mrs May’s successor at the Home Office, said last year that the Government’s intention was to “bring down the numbers” of foreign students coming to Britain. 

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