Net migration to the UK stayed at a near-record level of 327,000, more than three times the government’s “tens of thousands” target, according to figures published on Thursday.
The official migration estimate for the year to March, calculated from the difference between the number of people arriving and leaving, is the third highest on record but has dipped by 9,000 compared with the previous year.
The data also showed that Poles for the first time make up the largest part of the UK’s foreign-born population. For the past two decades, India has been the most common non-UK country of birth, but the number of Poland-born people living in Britain last year rose to 831,000, overtaking the 790,000 born in India.
This number, which has increased eightfold since Poland joined the EU in 2004, is likely to increase the pressure on Theresa May to curb freedom of movement following the UK’s vote to leave the bloc.
The prime minister has made reducing EU immigration a priority for the UK’s Brexit negotiators. Downing Street and the Home Office are also understood to be working on measures to reduce migration from other parts of the world, including family and student arrivals.
According to the Office for National Statistics, net migration of EU citizens, excluding Britons, was 180,000 in the year to March — a drop of 4,000 on the previous year — while that of non-EU citizens fell by 10,000 to 190,000.
But the ONS said that the gap between the two was narrowing. This is partly because of increases in immigration from the 15 countries that joined the EU before 2004, such as Spain and Italy, as well as from more recent entrants Romania and Bulgaria, which gained full access to the UK labour market two years ago.
Nicola White, head of migration statistics at the ONS, said that while net migration remained at “record levels”, the recent trend was “broadly flat”.
“The influx of Romanians and Bulgarians has also reached a new high, although that’s offset by falls in non-EU immigration and from other central and eastern European countries,” Ms White said. “Work remains the main reason for migration, followed by study which has seen a significant fall in the number of people coming to the UK for education.”
Overall, 303,000 people immigrated for work in the year to March, which is only slightly lower than the highest figure ever recorded. Of these, just over half had a definite job offer.
Of the 77,000 EU citizens who arrived in search of work, 31,000, or 40 per cent, were from the 15 older EU countries, a statistically significant increase from 20,000 the previous year. The ONS suggested that this reflected weaker labour markets in some of the southern European states.
According to the Department for Work and Pensions, the highest numbers of national insurance registrations in the year to June came from Romanian, Polish, Italian, Spanish and Bulgarian nationals.
However, while the number of working migrants remained high, those coming to the UK to study fell significantly to 164,000 in the year to March, down from 192,000 the previous year.
This is the lowest number since 2007, during which time market demand has increased by 60 per cent, according to the OECD.
The largest falls were seen in students from outside the EU — in particular, those from south Asia, whose numbers nearly halved. Further education colleges and English language schools were particularly badly hit by the drop, but there were also some declines in those going to universities.
Universities UK, the sector body, said that international student recruitment figures over the past few years had “not done justice” to the growth potential of higher education exports.
It added that Britain needed a new government strategy to encourage more international students and academics to come. “This is more important than ever as the UK looks to enhance its place in the world post-Brexit,” it said.
During her tenure as home secretary, Mrs May insisted that she would bring net migration down to the “tens of thousands” in line with the Conservatives’ manifesto promise, even as the quarterly figures rose. Since becoming prime minister, she has acknowledged that it “may take some time to get there”.
Commenting on Thursday’s figures, Robert Goodwill, immigration minister, said that reducing the number of immigrants would be a “priority” for the negotiations to leave the EU.
“We are also committed to reducing non-EU migration across all visa routes in order to bring net migration down to sustainable levels as soon as possible,” he said.
Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said that although high EU migration was a “major theme” in the referendum debate, predicting how it would change after Brexit is still an “impossible task”.
“We don’t yet know what policies will apply to EU citizens after Brexit,” Ms Sumption said. “The impact of the referendum outcome on the economy, and thus whether the UK will continue to be an attractive destination for migrants looking to work in the UK, also remains uncertain.”
Additional reporting by Kate Allen
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