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COVID-19 has reduced UK immigration across all main routes in 2020

25 Feb 2021

The UK saw a significant fall in asylum applications and lower grants of workfamily and study visas in 2020, new data from the Home Office has revealed. 

While the suspension of the International Passenger Survey means that data on flows across the UK border – including the migration of EU citizens – has not been recorded, data on visas issued show declines across the board. Work visas issued fell by 35% from 2019 to 2020, family-related visas fell by 28%, and study visas by 37% (including short-term study). Applications for asylum were down 21% compared to 2019, including both main applicants and dependents. 

The data refer to visas issued, but this does not necessarily mean that people have actually moved to the UK. Visas issued may overstate actual migration flows, because some people may be working or studying online from abroad, or not take up the opportunity to move, due to the pandemic. One of the largest declines in visas issued was for intra-company transfers (62%), most of whom are in the IT sector where jobs can often be done remotely.  

Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “It is clear that the COVID19 pandemic caused a sharp fall in non-EU migration to the UK. While there is no data available on migration of EU citizens in the same period, it’s reasonable to assume that EU immigration will also have declined. 

The fall in numbers happened mainly during the second quarter of the yearduring which the country was in lockdown. Most categories of visas issued then increased in the third quarter.  

Sumption added: “It’s no surprise that employers have hired fewer workers from abroad during the pandemic, given that domestic unemployment is rising and many businesses are struggling. Even in the current context there could still be some industries that face recruitment challenges, though, such as medicine and nursing. 

The decline in student visas could create financial challenges for the UK education sector, which receives substantial revenues from international student fees.  

The fall in asylum applications highlights that the highprofile issue of small boat arrivals in 2020 was not, in fact, associated with increasing numbers of people seeking protection overall. 

Sumption said: “The visible nature of boat arrivals can sometimes distract from the fact that most asylum seekers actually arrive through other routes to the UK.” 

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