Net migration to Britain fell by 49,000 to 273,000 in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, partly fuelled by 12,000 more Poles and other east Europeans going home, reports The Guardian.
The latest quarterly migration figures from the Office for National Statistics show that immigration to Britain fell by 23,000 to 596,000 in the 12 months to last September while emigration from Britain rose by 26,000 to 323,000.
The fall in annual net migration to the UK below 300,000 is the first substantial drop in the politically sensitive figure for more than four years and will come as a relief to Theresa May, who has recently renewed her target to get it down below 100,000.
Home Office figures show that the number of EU nationals in Britain who had their applications processed for UK residence documents to secure their individual status post-Brexit doubled from 92,289 in 2015 to 201,287 in 2016. More than 140,000 were successful.
The detailed figures show that more than 40,000 applications for British residence documents from EU nationals and their family members were refused in 2016. EU citizens need five years continuous residence to qualify.
A further 19,000 were told that their applications were invalid. Home Office officials have said that they are overhauling the application process, including moving it online, saying applying for residence has turned from “a niche to a mainstream activity” since the Brexit vote.
Work continues to prove the main driver for near record levels of immigration, particularly from within the EU, whose citizens accounted for 180,000 of the 294,000 who came to Britain to work in the year to September.
Some 190,000 of people moving to the UK – the highest ever proportion at 65% – had a definite job to go to, including 113,000 from Europe. A total of 104,000 people, including 51,000 from the EU, came looking for a job.
EU immigration included a 19,000 rise in the number of Romanians and Bulgarians coming to live in Britain to 74,000 – the highest number in a single year but this was partially offset by the 12,000 increase in the number of Poles and other east Europeans “going home to live” in the three months immediately after the Brexit vote.
The rise in emigration could be linked to the highly publicised spike in hate crime during and immediately after the referendum campaign. The number of people from eastern Europe leaving the UK rose by nearly a third to 39,000.
The latest quarterly figures also show a statistically significant drop of 41,000 in the number of international students estimated to be coming to study in Britain – down to 134,000. The majority of them were from outside Europe – 87,000, down 31,000. However, the ONS said that the number of visas issued to non-EU students over the same period had actually risen by 2% to 141,000.
The detailed figures also show the first annual fall in asylum applications being made in Britain since 2010 with 38,517 claims lodged, a fall of 1,451 over the previous year. A further 4,369 refugees were brought to Britain under the Syrian resettlement scheme.
The immigration minister, Robert Goodwill gave a cautious welcome to the drop in net migration, although the ONS said the fall was not statistically significant.
Goodwill said: “The fall in net migration is encouraging. But this is just one set of statistics and we must not get carried away. We will continue to make progress to bring down net migration to the tens of thousands.
“We will continue reforming routes to the UK from outside Europe and will use the opportunity to take control of immigration from within the EU as we begin Brexit negotiations in the coming weeks. The UK will always welcome those who contribute and benefit our country, but there is no consent for uncontrolled immigration.”
Nicola White, the ONS’s head of international migration statistics, said: “Although we have seen a fall in net migration of EU8 citizens there have been continued increases in immigration from Romania and Bulgaria, so it is too early to say what effect the referendum result has had on long-term international migration.
“There has been a statistically significant decrease in non-EU long-term students immigrating to the UK while a small increase was seen in the number of study visas issued. It is too early to tell if this is an indication of a long-term trend,” she said.