The Migration ‘Balloon Effect’ and its Implications for Policy

UK Government policies aimed at reducing the flow of migrants from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) to this country are likely to have a smaller effect than intended and to adversely affect the UK’s talent pool. These are among the key findings of a recent study by Dr Carlos Vargas-Silva and Dr Cinzia Rienzo from COMPAS (the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society), profiled in an ESRC Evidence Briefing.

The UK Government, in aiming to limit annual net migration to the UK to the ‘tens of thousands’, rather than the hundreds of thousands (the most recent figures, published in February 2016, indicate that 323,000 migrants entered the UK between September 2014 – September 2015) is forced to target highly skilled migrants from outside the EEA. This is because there is no way presently that the Government can restrict EEA citizens who wish to work in the UK, under the freedom of movement enshrined in European Union law. There is also no route into the UK for low-skilled migrant workers from outside the EEA, therefore migration policy must by necessity focus on curtailing highly-skilled non-EEA migrant routes.

Dr Vargas-Silva and Dr Renzo examined highly skilled migration to the UK from non-EEA and ‘old EU’ (pre-2004 accession states).They found that restricting highly skilled migrants via the routes that Government can reach may result in an increase in migrants via other routes that the Government can’t. In other words, a ‘balloon effect’ is created; with one end squeezed the other inflates.

The researchers found that between 2011 – 2013, there was a decline of 39 per cent in highly skilled migrants from outside the EEA coming to the UK, but an increase of 53 per cent in highly skilled workers from within the EEA (from pre-2004 states).

The researchers conclude that Government policy aiming to restrict the flow of highly-skilled migrant workers from outside the EEA is likely to have negative consequences for skills in the UK workforce. Government policy should be compatible with the goal of attracting the best possible talent from the around the world. Government should also do more to ensure that the most is made of the skills of migrants already contributing to the UK workforce.

Image: Jon Rawlinson, Flickr

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