Net migration of EU nationals to UK turned negative in 2020

Net migration of EU nationals to the UK turned negative in 2020 after the number of Europeans leaving the country overtook that of those arriving, reversing the trend of previous years.

About 94,000 more EU nationals left the UK than arrived there last year, marking a turnround in migration patterns since 2019, when 32,000 more people immigrated from the continent into Britain than emigrated.

“This reduction in immigration is most likely to be because of a combination of the impact of both the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit,” stated the Office for National Statistics.

About 147,000 European nationals left the UK in 2020, nearly three times the number who arrived the previous year, according to experimental data by ONS published on Thursday.

The ONS data is “very much a back of the envelope estimate”, but “broadly plausible”, said Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at Oxford university.

Sumption explained that the ONS figures did not include the large population of short-term migrants in the UK, who may have also left in large numbers.

Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College in London, said net emigration of EU nationals was likely to be “considerably more than estimated by ONS”. He had previously calculated a larger exodus of EU nationals.

Figures released separately on Thursday by the Home Office showed employers were more likely to hire workers from countries outside the EU, as cross-border recruitment picked up again in 2021.

The department said 205,528 work-related visas were granted in the year to September, with the majority given to skilled workers from India, the Philippines, the US and Nigeria. It added that more than 40 per cent of successful visa applicants were from health and social care workers, double the share allocated to that sector in the year before the pandemic.

Gerwyn Davies, adviser to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a body representing HR professionals, said: “The abrupt halt in the supply of EU workers continues to cause shockwaves for employers across all sectors” and would add to hiring and wage pressures.

The ONS provisional estimates show about 34,000 more people moved to the UK than left the UK in 2020, down from 271,000 in the previous year — by far the lowest figure since 2011 when comparable data was made available.

Column chart of '000 people showing UK net migration fell considerably in 2020

Historically, the International Passenger Survey was the main source for estimating international migration to and from the UK, but that was suspended at the onset of the pandemic.

Since then, the ONS has developed measures of international migration using administrative data and statistical modelling on which the latest statistics are based.

“There is a high degree of uncertainty around them [the experimental data],” said the ONS.

The ONS said the range of uncertainty for net migration for EU nationals was from minus 180,000 to minus 8,000.

ONS population data, also released on Thursday showed that the EU-born population of the UK peaked at 3.6m in the year ending in June 2017 and has been falling following the Brexit referendum.

Sumption recognised that figures confirmed the “general view” that there was a net outflow of EU nationals in 2020, while cautioning “there is a huge amount of uncertainty about exactly how big that outflow was”.

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