Up to 1.3 million people born abroad left the UK between the third quarter of 2019 and the same period in 2020, according to a blog published earlier this month by the government-funded Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence. In London alone almost 700,000 residents born overseas have probably moved out. The exodus constitutes the largest drop in population in the UK since the Second World War.
Coronavirus is largely to blame. Many migrants work in the hardest-hit sectors, such as travel and hospitality, and have sadly lost their jobs and returned to their home countries and families. It is unknown how many will return. If they do, they find themselves subject to much stricter immigration rules as, from 1 January, free movement of people ended. Many of those formerly in jobs classed as unskilled will no longer qualify for work visas.
Indeed, Brexit is also a factor in the migrant exodus. During the whole Brexit period, immigration proved to be the most hotly debated subject and, for many voters, it was the reason they voted to leave. The debate was divisive and often inflammatory. Migrants felt unwelcome. The legacy is a reduction in the UK migrant workforce at a time when the country needs them most.
I have worked in immigration law for more than 10 years, running a legal firm that has helped thousands of people come to the UK. I have never recognised the lazy stereotype of welfare-grabbing migrant bogeymen. Without exception, the people I have helped all want to contribute, work hard to better themselves and provide the best life possible for their families.
I speak from experience. I grew up in a poor part of Gujarat, India. My family lived in a one-bedroom apartment. We only had two sets of clothes, one of which was our school uniform. Standard school notebooks were one pence, but we could not afford these and used cheaper ones in which the ink leaked through the pages.
Many migrants in the UK will recognise these types of circumstances. This is normal life in many parts of the world. I saw Britain as a place of opportunity where hard work is rewarded. For as long as I can remember, I was determined to create a better life for myself and my family, no matter what. This mindset is shared by so many migrants with similar backgrounds.
In 2003, I borrowed £1,500 from a cousin to travel to the UK where I started working and became self-sustained in just two weeks. I worked seven days a week for 18 hours a day, with no holidays. In September 2008 I started my firm from a corner of my bedroom in a rented property, with an investment of £30 for two chairs and a table from Ikea.
Today I employ a small team, pay taxes and contribute positively to the UK economy. Through my work I know of many other immigrants who have had the same experience and now run successful businesses in the UK.
The pattern is the same all over the western world. In Germany, for example, according to a recent survey by KfW, a state-owned development bank, one in four of the 605,000 founders of firms in 2019 had foreign origins.
Migrants are economic lifeblood, bringing energy and ideas to falter economies. They will help rebuild after the ravages of the pandemic as they did after the world wars when people came from all corners of the globe to assist the recovery.
To stand alone at this point in history suddenly seems to bring with it very palpable risks. The country needs to throw out the welcome mat to migrants, not whip it out from under them. It is obvious. Britain needs migrants.
Yash Dubal is director of A Y & J Solicitors