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Emigration decline could force more drastic measures on immigration

A 25 per cent drop in emigration will make it harder for the government to hit its net migration tar

Figures published today by the ONS confirm that net migration continued to rise in the year ending September 2010, up 7 per cent to 242,000 compared to the year ending June 2010.

ONS Figures

It is time the government admitted that setting a target for net migration makes little sense, and can't be achieved without damaging Britain's economy. When they set the target in opposition, the Conservatives clearly hadn't planned for emigration falling. Today's figures show emigration of British nationals down by more than 25 per cent since 2008.

An IPPR report last year explored some of the possible factors behind this neglected aspect of migration trends – including the global recession making popular destinations such as Spain, France, the US and Dubai less attractive. The tightening of immigration policy may also be having a perverse effect on emigration of non-EU nationals, who may fear that if they go home, they will never be able to come back.

The decline in emigration means the government will have to take even more drastic measures to try to hit its net migration target. It can't control immigration from the EU: today's figures show net migration from eastern Europe is rising again, up more than 50,000 on last year. It has already resorted to massaging the figures, reclassifying tens of thousands of skilled workers on intra-company transfers as no longer counting as "immigration", and introducing a new 11-month student visa for the same purpose.

The coalition has signalled its intention to clamp down on family immigration, but is likely to find this controversial, and slow to take effect. It is likely to have no other choice but to tighten up even further on students or skilled workers coming from outside the EU – the most valuable kinds of immigration.

A recent IPPR report argued that the proposed reforms to student visas are likely to cause substantial harm to our education sector and economy – and an article in this week's Times Higher Education argues that they are also unfairly discriminatory against private-sector education providers.

The cap on skilled foreign workers came into force last month. Even as it starts to bite, there is a risk that a combination of the politically driven target on net migration, together with (essentially irrelevant) trends in the emigration of British nationals, will require it to be tightened further. This will be bad news for companies wanting to hire skilled foreign workers, and have a potentially further dampening effect on economic growth.

Finally, the government will be keeping a nervous eye on the separate issue of asylum: Home Office figures published today show that, after many years of decline, asylum claims rose by 11 per cent in the first quarter of 2011 compared to the same period the previous year. They may come under further pressure in the year ahead as the effects of the Arab spring begin to be felt.

At the same time, removals of failed asylum-seekers fell by 9 per cent, despite frequent claims by the Conservatives in opposition that they would do better.

Matt Cavanagh is associate director of IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @matt_cav_.