On 1 January 2021, the UK adopted a new immigration system. The new system removes the right to free movement for nationals of European single market countries, including those from the EU. It also introduces a ‘points based’ system of eligibility criteria for work visas.

This Insight explains what we know and don’t know about the effect of these changes on immigration to the UK, with a focus on migration from the EU.

How has the new system affected immigration?

How have the recent changes affected the number of people migrating to the UK? Put simply, there isn’t enough data available yet to confidently say.

One reason is that the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic means we haven’t had much time in which to observe the new system working ‘normally’. The other is that we don’t have a continuous source of data on migration before and after the new system was introduced.

We do know that the number of residence visas issued was higher in the year ending June 2022 than in any year since records began. This might seem intuitive given that EU nationals now require a visa but, in fact, most of the increase came from a two-thirds rise in the number of visas issued to non-EU nationals.

Around 1.2 million residence visas were issued in the year ending June 2022. The chart below shows how these break down by type and by nationality grouping.

This year’s figures are compared with those from 2019, to exclude the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A chart shows Visas issued, by catergory and nationality grouping year ending June: excludes visitors

The largest visa category was for study (491,900 visas issued), followed by work (331,200). After that came the broad category of humanitarian visas which includes the British Nationals (Overseas) (BN(O)) visa and Ukraine visa schemes which were introduced since the start of 2021.

Over 200,000 visas were issued under the BN(O) and Ukraine schemes in the year to June 2022, while typically the humanitarian category would only account for around 15,000 grants of leave through asylum and resettlement.

Who is taking up work visas?

The large majority of work visas went to non-EU nationals, with the scale of non-EU work migration rising by nearly 80% under the new system.

This rise in non-EU migration is partly the result of the criteria for a skilled worker visa having been ‘liberalised’ under the new system. It also may be the result of non-EU workers finding jobs that would previously have gone to EU workers, who now have a reduced incentive to migrate to the UK.

One third of the increase in work visas between 2019 and 2022 (years ending June) consisted of Indian nationals (111,000 work visas issued compared with 63,000 previously).

There was also a substantial increase in work visas issued to nationals of the Philippines (22,000 compared with around 12,000 per year under the old system) and Nigeria (17,000 compared with around 2,000 previously).

The EU countries with the highest uptake of work visas under the new system were France (5,400 visas issued), Germany (4,300) and Italy (3,000).

The impact of the new system on EU migration

To get a sense of how the volume of migration from the EU might have changed, we have to rely on a different data source for estimates of migration under the old system.

These estimates stop in 2019 (see ‘A gap in the data’, below). They suggest that on average 140,000 EU nationals migrated to the UK for work in each year between 2014 and 2019. Of these, 91,000 typically stated that they were migrating with a “definite job” secured.

By contrast, visa data tells us that in the year to June 2022, just under 31,000 work visas were issued to EU nationals.

It is important to note that the visa figures don’t tell us the full extent of EU migration. Under the EU Settlement Scheme, 5.4 million people registered as being resident in the UK. Any number of these could have subsequently migrated back and forth without the need for a visa.

The chart below gives a rough indication of immigration for work, by nationality grouping, since 2015.

Work Visas issued per year ending June, by nationality grouping compared with estimates of EU migration for work in previous years

A gap in the data

We don’t have a continuous series of estimates of immigration spanning the old and new systems. This is because the former method was discontinued in 2020 and an alternative is not yet in place.

Since 1964, the UK’s official estimates of international migration have been primarily based on the International Passenger Survey (IPS), which is a survey of people arriving and departing at UK airports and ports.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS), which runs the survey, has been intending for many years to develop a new method of estimating migration based on administrative data. In 2019, it was in the early stages of a migration statistics transformation programme when the Covid-19 pandemic began and the IPS was suspended. The programme was not restarted until late in 2021.

The ONS decided to permanently cease using the IPS as the base for its migration estimates. However, it will be some time before the new method (described in section 2.3 of the Library’s briefing paper on migration statistics) will be fully operational.

Further reading

About the author: About the author: Georgina Sturge is a statistician at the House of Commons Library, specialising in migration.

Photo by ConvertKit on Unsplash

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