LONDON: Immigration to Britain hit 650,000 – its highest ever annual level – in the run-up to the EU referendum, fuelled by record numbers of European migrants coming to work in “the jobs factory of Europe”, official figures reveal. The record level of immigration at the time of the Brexit vote was driven by a historically high inflow of 284,000 EU citizens, almost matching the number of those from outside Europe (289,000) to keep net migration at its near-record high of 335,000 in the 12 months to the end of June. It is more than three times the government’s target to reduce annual net migration to below 100,000 a year. However, the figures show that Theresa May’s drive to reduce overseas student numbers is continuing to bite, with 30,000 fewer international students compared with the previous year. The latest Home Office figures show that the backlog EU citizens who have applied to secure their right to residence in the UK jumped by more than 23,000 to 113,000 in the three months immediately after the Brexit vote. The figures for applications for permanent residence cards alone jumped 83% during the six months of the referendum campaign.
New national insurance data suggests that the numbers of Poles and other eastern European migrants registering to work in Britain dropped by 17% or 35,000 in the 12 months to September. But in the same period there was an 11% rise, or 22,000 increase, in Romanians and Bulgarians registering for national insurance. Work has proved the main attraction for the record levels of immigration, particularly from within the EU, accounting for 189,000 of the 311,000 who came to Britain for a job in the last year. More than 182,000 came to work in a definite job but those looking for work jumped 23,000 to 130,000 in the latest figures. The proportion of EU citizens coming to work in Britain without a specific job offer has now risen to a record high of 43% (82,000) while 57% had a definite job. May has strongly indicated that a new post-Brexit immigration system could be based on restricting access for European jobseekers to the UK labour market. The ONS said that in 2015 Romania had for the first time become the most common country of last residence, displacing India and making up 10% of all immigrants. Immigration lawyers highlighted a refusal of 49% of entrepreneur visa requests in the last year, mostly from India, and argued that this questioned Britain’s “open for business” reputation. The figures also show a sixth successive annual increase in the number of asylum seekers claiming refugee status in Britain, to 41,280. But despite the intensification of the European refugee crisis the number of Syrians claiming asylum in the UK actually fell by 317 to 2,298. The largest numbers were Iranians and Iraqis. A further 4,162 Syrians were directly resettled under the government’s commitment to take 20,000 over the next four years.
The figures show that level of net migration from the EU is also at historically high levels and now matches net migration from outside the bloc. The record 650,000 level of immigration in the year to June 2016 was made up of 284,000 EU citizens coming to live and work in Britain, 289,000 coming from outside Europe and 77,000 Britons returning to live in the UK. The most common reason they came to Britain was to work. Nicola White, the ONS’s head of international migration statistics, said that net migration remained at record levels but was stable compared with recent years. “Immigration levels are now among the highest estimates recorded – the inflow of EU citizens is also at historically high levels and similar to the inflow of non-EU citizens. “These long-term immigration figures run up to the end of June, so it is too early to say what effect, if any, the EU referendum has had on long-term international migration.” The immigration minister, Robert Goodwill, responded to the latest figures saying the British people had sent a very clear message that they wanted more control of immigration. He renewed the government’s commitment to getting net migration down to sustainable levels in the tens of thousands. “There is no consent for uncontrolled immigration, which puts pressure on schools, hospitals and public services. That is why reducing the number of migrants coming to the UK will be a key priority of our negotiations to leave the EU,” he said. “Further to this, we continue to reform non-EU immigration routes to ensure we attract the best and brightest, who benefit and contribute to this country. But there is more to do as we build an immigration system that delivers the control we need.” But the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, said the Tories seemed determined to repeat their mistakes over the net migration target. She said of May: “We now know that at the same time she was cutting the border force, she tried to force schools into objectionable schemes that would hurt children in a failed effort to meet that target. We should welcome overseas students and the contribution they make to our universities and wider society, and yet the Tories seem determined to discourage them.”
She said it was a scandal that the number of asylum applications had gone down from Syria despite the deepening crisis and said it was time to provide certainty to EU citizens about their future in Britain. Phoebe Griffiths of the Institute of Public Policy research said the surge in grants for permanent residence – up by 40% following the referendum – showed that Brexit was clearly causing concern among EU nationals living in Britain. “When individuals already in the UK take steps to safeguard their status, barriers should not be put in their way. Brexit has created great uncertainty. If the government does not wish to guarantee the rights of all EU nationals at this point in the negotiations, it should at the very least prioritise streamlining the process for residence applications,” she said. Marc Stears, of the New Economics Foundation, said: “This isn’t bad news for the economy: to take one example, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast, a possible reduced immigration as a consequence of ending free movement – Brexit – would translate into lower GDP and lower tax receipts, resulting in an increase of public sector debt by £16bn to 2020-21. The fact immigration hasn’t gone down means more money to spend on things like the NHS, pensions and welfare.”