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A “Balloon Effect”? – Fall in Highly Skilled Recent Migrant Workers in the UK, but Numbers from Europe have Increased

03 Jul 2014

There has been a decline of 28% in the number of highly-skilled recent migrant workers in the UK since 2007. However, the decline is driven by reductions in workers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA), while the number of highly-skilled recent migrant workers from “old” EU countries has increased since 2011, a major new Migration Observatory report shows today.

The report, Highly Skilled Migration to the UK, 2007-13, suggests that the increase in recent migrant workers from within the EEA may be evidence of a “balloon effect” – where a policy squeeze to reduce one form of migration (in this case efforts to reduce non-EEA skilled migrant workers) leads to increased migration of another group (skilled migrant workers from within the EEA).

However the report’s authors point out that it is impossible to determine from current data whether UK employers actively “pulled” European migrants to replace those from outside the EEA or whether other factors – in particular the Eurozone crisis – may have “pushed” EEA migrants toward the UK, regardless of policy changes affecting non-EEA nationals.

The report is based on research undertaken for the Financial Times and looks specifically at highly skilled recent migrant workers – a group that fits most definitions of “the brightest and the best” migrants.

These are workers who:

  • Are not born in the UK, are not British citizens and were resident in the UK for three years or less in the year surveyed
  • Remained in formal education until age 21 or more
  • Are in the most senior occupational categories

Data for the report came from detailed analysis by the Migration Observatory of the Labour Force Survey 2007-2013, and deal with a period when two major suites of immigration policy changes were introduced by successive governments: the introduction of the Points Based System (PBS) by the Labour Government in 2008, and the introduction of polices designed to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” by the coalition Government in 2011.

Particularly evident is the sharp decline (-39%) in highly skilled recent migrant workers of non-EEA nationalities relative to 2007. But this decline has been partially offset by a rise in the number of highly skilled recent migrant workers from within the EEA – who are not subject to immigration controls.

The number of highly skilled recent migrant workers with “old EU” nationalities declined between 2007-10 from 61,000 to 33,000 (-46%), but has increased sharply since then to 78,000. The number is now 28% higher than in 2007 and 53% higher than 2011. (“Old EU” refers to states that were EU members before EU expansion in 2004.)

Dr Carlos Vargas-Silva, co-author of the report said: “There has been a significant decline in the number of recent migrant workers in the UK who have the highest levels of education and who are in top occupations since 2007, but this decline is driven by a decrease in non-EEA migration.

“Since 2011 the number of these recent migrant workers who are from EEA countries has increased. Policy makers need to look at whether this has been caused by a “balloon effect” where policies designed to squeeze one sort of migration lead to another sort increasing in size.”


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