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Immigration data show summer bounceback, but numbers still subdued

26 Nov 2020

New immigration data issued by the Home Office this morning show that after very low levels earlier in the year, numbers of people getting visas to work, study or join family in the UK started to bounce back over the summer.

Even though figures for 2020 are still set to be well below previous years, numbers for July to September show the beginnings of a recovery.

The Home Office granted just over 25,000 skilled work visas in Q3, up from just 1,157 in April to June, when many visa application centres were closed and lockdowns around the world created mobility restrictions and economic uncertainty. This is still down from a peak of almost 32,000 skilled work visa grants in July–September 2019, which followed several years of increasing international recruitment of skilled non-EU workers.

The largest number of visa grants were for study (Tier 4), where visa grants also bounced back from 581 in April–June to over 118,000 in July–September. This third-quarter figure was still 40% below the figure for the same period in 2019, when almost 198,000 study visas were issued.

The 11,585 family visas issued in July–September represented a fall of 18% from the same quarter a year earlier, but also significantly up from the 1,258 visas issued in April-June.

The number of people claiming asylum in the UK also returned to pre-COVID levels in Q3 2020, with 10,227 people seeking asylum, down 14% on Q3 2019.

Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “While these data do show some recovery in the numbers, it is not clear how much of the bounceback is a ‘return to normality’ rather than the result of pent-up demand from people who still wanted to move but could not make applications during the first lockdown.

“The impacts of the second lockdown remain to be seen – but the fact that much more of the UK’s economy and administrative bureaucracy have continued to function in the last few weeks suggest the impacts are unlikely to be as dramatic as they were in the first lockdown.

“And of course if the UK enters a prolonged economic downturn, we would expect this to reduce demand for work visas – if not necessarily other categories like family – for  some time.”

Today’s data are unusual as they do not also include Office for National Statistics data on inflows, outflows and net flows of long-term international migrants, which have been the most high-profile part of UK migration data for the last two decades. This ONS data release was cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak’s impact on ONS data collection at airports and other ports of entry to the UK (the International Passenger Survey), and an ongoing process to improve the UK’s migration data, by moving away from sample surveys and using administrative data (such as HMRC and DWP records) instead.

Sumption added: “Covid has seriously disrupted several of the data sources that are used to analyse UK migration, which is inevitable in such an unusual time. This will make it quite difficult to fully understand the impacts of Covid on migration in 2020 and probably beyond. That includes when the post-Brexit immigration system kicks in next year. In the long run, though, there is some hope that we will come out the other side with better data than we’ve had in the past, as ONS are working on a new approach to migration statistics.”

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