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New data show continued high net migration but provide little guidance on implications of Brexit

26 May 2016

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The last official migration statistics released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) before the EU referendum show that net migration to the UK stood at 333,000 in 2015. The small rise from 313,000 in 2014 is not statistically significant.

The last official migration statistics released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) before the EU referendum show that net migration to the UK stood at 333,000 in 2015. The small rise from 313,000 in 2014 is not statistically significant.

EU citizens accounted for 184,000 of that figure, while non-EU citizens made up 188,000, EU net migration has been relatively stable for the last two years, at around 170,000 to 190,000. Headline net migration figures have been central to the UK’s migration debate, but in themselves they provide little information about how EU migration affects the UK and its residents. Understanding the impacts of migration requires complex social and economic analysis and a much broader range of metrics.

Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said: “Immigration affects the UK in many different ways and its impacts cannot be reduced to a single statistic. Overall, the evidence shows that the main economic impacts of EU migration – such as effects on the UK labour market, public finances or public services – are relatively small. But different groups of people will be affected in different ways and, of course, economics is not the only factor that voters care about.”

The strength of the UK labour market relative to other EU countries is thought to have been a key driver of EU migration over the past few years, as most EU citizens report coming to the UK for work. This trend continued in the most recent figures: 73% of EU citizens moving to the UK in 2015 reported work as their main motivation.

A recent Migration Observatory study found that the manufacturing, retail and hospitality sectors were particularly dependent on EU workers. Migration Observatory analysis has also showed that work, rather than welfare is the key driver of EU migration. Some southern “old” EU member states, such as Italy, Spain and Portugal – suffering from high unemployment – have become increasingly significant source countries of migrants coming to the UK, as well as lower income recent EU members states from central and eastern Europe, such as Poland and Romania.

Sumption added: “It is unclear what impact a vote to Leave would have on migration. EU exit could mean significant new restrictions on EU migration, but it’s also possible that the impact would be very small if the UK remains part of the European single market. At the same time, staying in the EU does not mean that migration will remain at current levels forever. Migration can change dramatically even without a change in policy, as it has done over the past few years. EU migration could be either higher or lower in the future if the UK votes to remain.”

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