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A new immigration system can’t be introduced the day after a no-deal Brexit

22 Aug 2019

The Government will not be able to introduce meaningful restrictions on the arrival of new EU migrants after a no-deal Brexit, because employers won’t be able to distinguish new arrivals from EU citizens already living in the UK until the Settlement Scheme is concluded at the end of 2020, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said today.

New net migration estimates published today by the Office of National Statistics suggest that 200,000 EU citizens migrated to the UK in the year ending March 2019. However, there will be no way of telling these people – or other EU citizens that have not registered for settled status – apart from those that arrive after November 1st.

Approximately 141,000 EU citizens emigrated, meaning that net migration of 59,000 continued to add to the population of EU nationals living here. All EU citizens except those from Ireland will need to apply to the Settlement Scheme if they want to stay permanently, and the government has said that in the event of a no-deal Brexit they will have until December 2020 to do so.

Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “Even if the government knew exactly what it wanted the post-Brexit immigration system to look like, it wouldn’t be possible to implement it immediately after a no deal Brexit. That’s because any new restrictions on EU migration can’t be enforced unless UK employers know which EU citizens have been here for years and which ones arrived post-Brexit and have to comply with the new immigration regime. Realistically, the only way to do this is to implement the EU Settlement Scheme so that EU citizens have had enough time to apply for status before restrictions are imposed.”

By the end of July, around 30% of EU citizens living in the UK had applied to the Settlement Scheme, which means that over 2 million EU citizens are yet to apply. The ONS estimates that there were 3.35m non-Irish EU citizens living in the UK in 2018.

Today’s migration figures, which were yesterday reclassified as ‘Experimental Statistics’ because of concerns about their accuracy, show that EU migration fell sharply from early 2016 to 2017 but stabilised in 2018. Today’s data showing EU net migration of 59,000 in the year to March 2019 was down 69% from an estimate of 189,000 in the year ending June 2016. These most recent figures are provisional, however, and have not yet been revised following a methods change announced yesterday (see editor’s notes below).

Non-EU net migration, which had been increasing gradually over the past 5 years, appears to have levelled off, remaining broadly stable at 219,000 (adjusted estimate) in the year ending March 2019. This compares to 192,000 (adjusted estimate) for March 2017. These adjusted estimates have been revised down, following ONS analysis showing that previous figures had overestimated non-EU net migration.

The official estimate of net migration from EU8 countries (citizens of Poland and the other EU members that joined the bloc in 2004) has seen the largest decline since 2016 and has now been negative for two years, with 7,000 more leaving the UK than arriving in the year ending March 2019. Net migration of EU15 nationals (the old EU member states) remained positive at 32,000 while migration of EU2 nationals (Romania and Bulgaria) remained relatively stable, also at 32,000.

Sumption added: “The UK continues to be a less attractive destination for EU citizens than it was before the referendum vote. The drop in the value of sterling has made working in the UK less lucrative than it once was, and continued uncertainty about the Brexit may also have played a role. The picture is different for non-EU nationals, though: non-EU students and skilled workers have continued to migrate to the UK more or less as before.”

“ONS has improved its methods for estimating migration patterns, which is why some of the figures have been revised. This means the statistics are now likely to be more robust than they were in the last few years. But it’s still very much a work in progress. The new figures will probably be revised again, which is one reason they have been reclassified as ‘Experimental Statistics’ rather than the highest quality “National Statistics”.

ONS revisions to the migration statistics do not affect their estimates of the population of EU citizens living in the UK, which comes from a different data source and remains at 3,640,000 for 2018.


Notes for editors on the technical revisions and what they mean for today’s statistics:

  • An ONS report released yesterday introduced a new methodology that starts to address concerns that official statistics have systematically understated EU net migration and overstated non-EU net migration over the past decade.
  • For EU citizens, these revisions have only been possible up to the year ending March 2016, and the most recent figures for the year ending March 2019 are still based on the old methodology due to data availability.
  • It is too early to say whether this means that the most recent figures for YE March 2019 are too low, however. EU migration patterns changed sharply post-referendum, so we can’t simply assume exactly the same statistical problems exist before vs. after 2016.
  • At this stage there is also no reason to doubt the overall trend, i.e. increasing EU net migration until 2016 and decreases post-referendum, even though the magnitude of some of the estimates has changed. Decreasing EU migration post-referendum is consistent with other data sources, such as National Insurance Number registrations.

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