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Starting from scratch? New net migration data represent an end of ‘normal’, and UK migration flows will restart in a different world.

21 May 2020

Net migration statistics released today for 2019 paint a picture of the UK’s last days of “normality” – with net migration at 270,000, the highest calendar year level since 2015, supplying a thriving labour market and international education market and allowing family reunification and humanitarian protection. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to create unprecedented disruption to almost every aspect of migration and the immigration system, not to mention the collection of migration data, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said today.

The new data show that an estimated 600,000 non-UK citizens moved to the UK for at least a year in 2019, with total net migration running at 270,000. The data suggest that levels of non-EU net migration were at their highest level – 282,000 – on record, while EU net migration remains low – 49,000. Long-term immigration included 236,000 international students and 219,000 people coming to the UK to work. Net migration numbers of approximately this magnitude have been ‘business as usual’ for several years, but are now expected to have ground to a halt as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

The closure of borders around the world to stem the spread of the disease and the severe damage that the crisis is expected to cause to the UK’s labour market and economy will have far-reaching consequences for migration. Other data released today show that in April 2020 applications for the EU Settlement Scheme dropped sharply to just 67,000 from a high of 590,000 in October 2019.

Rob McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “It’s too early to quantify how the pandemic will affect migration to the UK, although so far it’s clear that the consequences already reach right across the immigration system—from workers’ inability to travel to take up work and employers’ difficulty bringing seasonal workers to British fields, to sharp reductions in the number of people detained and deported.

“Even once we emerge from the immediate health crisis, economic and social disruption in the migration system is likely to continue. Will UK employers still want to recruit workers from overseas? Will international students still be applying for and taking up places at British universities a time of unprecedented disruption and uncertainty? Migration flows to and from the UK may effectively have to start from scratch once the crisis is over.”

One consequence of the COVID-19 crisis is the disruption of migration data collection. The International Passenger Survey, on which today’s ONS figures are based, has been suspended and will no longer be available for migration statistics by the end of the year. ONS aims to accelerate existing plans to move away from this data source—which has been criticized for a lack of accuracy—towards administrative data such as tax and benefits records.

Rob McNeil added: “In normal circumstances the political importance of these data—the last migration data from the UK’s official period of EU membership, showing historically high levels of non-EU migration—might have been expected to be significant. But net migration data from before the COVID 19 crisis now feel like a historical document. The role of migration in providing for the UK’s complex needs in the post COVID 19 world – from supporting economic growth, to providing funding for the UK’s large higher education sector through fees – could be dramatically disrupted, and with it the politics of migration too.”

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