UK Immigration Numbers Fall to Lowest Level Since 2004- ONS

LONDON--The number of immigrants moving to the U.K. fell to the lowest level since 2004 in the year to March as the amount of visas for foreign students tumbled by more than a quarter, official data showed Thursday, heightening concerns that the government's drive to reduce net migration is damaging the country's lucrative foreign student market.
The Office for National Statistics said number of immigrants coming to live long-term in the U.K. fell to 536,000 in the year to March, 30,000 fewer than the previous 12 month period and the lowest since the year ending June 2004 when 528,000 people immigrated to Britain.
Net migration--the balance between the number of people coming to live in the U.K. and the number who are leaving--was 183,000 in the year ending March 2012, 59,000 fewer than the previous year and the lowest since the year ending June 2009 when it stood at 166,000.
After a decade of high levels of new arrivals, immigration has become a contentious topic in the U.K., leading the Conservative Party, the larger party in the coalition government, to make a pre-election pledge to cut net migration to the "tens of thousands" by 2015.
The government, which since coming into office in 2010, has announced a number of proposals and changes to the immigration system, such limiting immigrants from non-European Union countries by proposing an annual cap, Thursday welcomed the data as evidence that its strategy is working.
"Our tough policies are taking effect and this marks a significant step towards bringing net migration down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands by the end of this parliament," Immigration Minister Mark Harper said.
While the pledge to drastically reduce net migration may have placated some voters alarmed by the increase in immigrants, it has been criticized by business groups, such as the Confederation of British Industry, and firms who say the restrictions on immigration from outside the EU put the U.K. at a competitive disadvantage as it limits the talent pool employers can choose from.
The government's recent crack-down on student visas, which has seen rules introduced to limit a student's right to work in the U.K. during and after their studies, has also been criticized as an impediment to the country's economic growth.
Thursday's figures show that the overall decrease in immigrants was mainly driven by a fall in the number people coming to study in the U.K., with the number of foreign student slipping by 19,000 to 213,000. The ONS also released more up-to-date figures for the number of visas allowing people to study in the U.K., which showed 210,921 student visas were issued in the year to September 2012--a 26% drop on a year earlier.
"The current approach to migration risked deterring international students, damaging our higher education sector and giving the impression that Britain is not open to talent from across the world," Simon Walker, Director General of the Institute of Directors, said Thursday. "We support the government's desire to crack down on the minority of bogus students, but legitimate students are also being put off."
Earlier this week, London Mayor Boris Johnson also warned that the government's newly introduced restrictions on student visas were having a damaging impact on the economy.
"International students not only bring bright ideas that cement the reputations of our leading universities, they have huge spending power that boosts the U.K. economy," he said during a trade visit to India.
Mr. Johnson also wrote to Home Secretary Theresa May and Business Secretary Vince Cable this week to urge them to remove students from the government's net migration target.
Thursday's data also show the number of immigrants from outside the EU fell 18,000 to 296,000, while the number of people immigrating from within the EU to the U.K. fell 8,000 to 166,000.

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