“Brexit brain drain” fears grow as net migration falls

lumokajlinioj / Shutterstock
lumokajlinioj / Shutterstock

Net migration to the UK in 2016 fell by 25% to 248,000, but immigration experts warn of a Brexit brain drain as political rhetoric continues to make foreign nationals feel less secure in the UK.

The Office for National Statistics said the reduction in net migration was caused by an increase of 40,000 people, mostly EU citizens, leaving the country.

There were 250,000 EU citizens arriving in the UK, compared to 117,000 leaving. From the rest of the world, 264,000 people arrived, while 88,000 people left.

Finally, 74,000 British citizens returned to the UK, while 134,000 left the country. Combined, this meant 588,000 came to the UK, but 339,000 left.

Jonathan Beech, managing director of law firm Migrate UK, said the figures were unsurprising: “Until the Government ends uncertainty among EU citizens by guaranteeing rights to remain in the UK after Brexit we are likely to see a continuation of these trends, and potentially the start of a Brexit ‘brain drain’ from the UK.

“We already have evidence of some initial emigration with the latest CIPD reports showing that sectors like retail, manufacturing, health and food services, are suffering skills and labour shortages, with more than a quarter of employers predicting that their EU workers could leave their jobs and the UK this year.

“A Brexit brain drain is particularly likely in the IT, finance and engineering sectors, but this could be swiftly averted if the new elected government guarantees their approach for EU nationals and their right to work during and after the Brexit process, while providing a workable solution for employers who rely heavily on skills from outside the UK.”

Immigration from the A8 states, the eight countries that joined the EU in 2004, was at its lowest-ever levels. The number of citizens coming from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia fell 34% to 48,000, while those leaving the UK grew 37% to 43,000 in 2016 – an estimated net migration of just 5,000.

Stephen Clarke, economic analyst at the Resolution Foundation, said: “The sharp fall in migration since the referendum shows that British businesses need to start preparing now for a big shift in the labour market, even before we leave the EU.

“Rising emigration among EU nationals, particularly from Eastern Europe, means that many firms would be wise to rethink their investment, recruitment and training policies.

“What businesses also need during this election campaign is far more clarity from political parties about what their post-Brexit migration policy will be. The choices we make about post-Brexit Britain’s approach to migration will mean a fundamental shift in the way many run their business – the time to start preparing for that is now.”

The Home Office has processed record numbers of residence applications from EU nationals since the start of the EU referendum, with analysis suggesting a 184% year-on-year increase since the referendum campaign began (from approximately 88,000 to 250,000) and a 218% increase in applications granted (62,000 to 198,000) and a 103% increase in  those refused (26,000 to 52,000).

Comparing the first quarters of 2017 and 2016, there has been a 235% increase in processed applications (29,000 to 97,000); a 281% increase in applications granted (21,000 to 79,000) and a 119% increase in refused applications (8,200 to 18,000).

Sophie Barrett-Brown, head of the UK practice at Laura Devine Solicitors, said: “The surge in processed applications may still only be the tip of the iceberg, if certainty over future rights to remain and work in the UK is not delivered soon. More worrying for private-sector employers and public-sector managers alike would be a tailing off of applications if EU citizens decide to quit the UK.”

Theresa May last week repeated the Tories’ seven-year target to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”.

Barrett-Brown said: “Tough general election rhetoric on cutting migration is only likely to encourage more of the EU workers British businesses and public services rely upon to choose to cross the Channel in search of a more secure future for themselves and their families.”

Data released today for tier 1 (entrepreneur) entry clearance applications also reveals that high levels of refusal are continuing, with 49% of applications being refused.

Barrett-Brown added: “If we are to convince the world the UK is ‘open for business’, we must stop slamming the door in the faces of precisely the kind of global, entrepreneurial spirits we need for the UK to thrive in a post-Brexit world.”

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