Non-Europeans made up the majority of migrants moving to the UK for work for the first time since 2006, new analysis of official data has found.
A report by the Migration Observatory found that of the 170,000 non-British citizens who moved to the UK in 2019 for at least a year to work, around 95,000 (56 per cent) were non-EU citizens. This compared to just 75,000 EU citizens.
The report, which analysed data from the Home Office and the Office for National Statistics, said between 2007 and 2019, EU citizens made up two-thirds of long-term migrants moving to the UK for work, however this has been in decline since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016.
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It said the data from 2019 marked a “return to the experiences of the late 1990s through to the mid 2000s, when work migrants were more likely to be from non-EU countries.”
The report found that EU citizens were still far more likely to be traveling to the UK for work that those from elsewhere, but non-EU citizens working in the UK were more likely to be in higher skilled roles – in part because freedom of movement has allowed EU workers to work in any occupation, while those coming from elsewhere are required to meet skills and salary thresholds.
Chetal Patel, partner at Bates Wells, said this is set to change when freedom of movement comes to an end in the UK at the end of the year. “This will all change when our new immigration system is launched in January next year when EU nationals will require a work visa to undertake a skilled role,” she said.
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Patel noted that employers were already changing the way they were using the visa system – where possible bringing talent in under a general Tier 2 visa rather than as intra-company transfers, because the general visa allows a path to settlement. “I’ve seen a number of employers look to switch the status of workers on [intra-company transfer] visas into general visas, where possible, if they are high earners,” she said.
In 2019, the two main sectors using Tier 2 visas were IT and health and social care, with the latter – a sector that has been on the frontline of the battle against coronavirus – increasing 35 per cent from 3,889 to 5,247 between the second and third quarters of the year. However, Patel warned that some of the “lower-skilled roles that have been critical during the coronavirus pandemic will not meet the skills threshold” set out by the proposed new immigration system.
“As we get closer to the end of the transition period and the launch of our new immigration system, one can expect the figures to look different this time next year when EU nationals will require a work visa,” she said.
Jonathan Beech, managing director of Migrate UK, added the split between the availability of EU and non-EU workers would be “less relevant” for those businesses looking to fill medium to high-skilled vacancies – as both groups are expected to be treated equally under the new points-based system. “It is more of a concern with low skill – not to be confused with low value – jobs as with lower numbers of EU workers to fill these jobs now and quotas put in place from January, those industries that rely on them could suffer,” he said.
However, Beech said the changing number of EU and non-EU migrants seen in 2019 could be down to a number of factors, including the low unemployment rate the UK saw before the start of the outbreak. This could have reduced the number of lower and medium skilled level vacancies that are more likely to be filled by EU workers.
Nonetheless, there was still a “lack of draw” to the UK, said Beech, caused by "the continued uncertainty regarding long-term jobs and immigration status, and a higher desire to cement a more permanent move in their home country.”