UK net migration hits two-year low in Brexit boost

London - Net migration to the UK fell to its lowest in more than two years, providing a boost for Prime Minister Theresa May as she seeks to reduce the number of foreigners coming to Britain.

Those arriving to live or study for a minimum of one year outnumbered those leaving by 273 000 in the year through September, the Office for National Statistics in London said on Thursday. That’s down from a near-record 335 000 in the year prior to the June vote to leave the European Union (EU).

Net migration from other European Union nations fell to 165 000. For countries outside the EU, it declined to 164,000 after a sharp drop in the number of foreign students.

"For the first we see more people coming in from Europe than from outside Europe and that shows that where we can control numbers - which we can from outside the EU - we are doing so," Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill told Sky News.

The data are "very encouraging" because Britain will be able to use similar restrictions on Europeans after Brexit when it no longer has to meet EU requirements for free movement of labour, he said.

May has promised tighter controls on immigration as she prepares to trigger the start of Brexit negotiations in the next five weeks.

Her Conservative Party has repeatedly pledged to reduce net migration to below 100 000, a target critics say will be difficult to achieve given that industries such as agriculture and hospitality rely heavily on foreign workers.

"Signs that EU nationals are starting to leave because of the climate of uncertainty are worrying for employers and businesses," said Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills at the Institute of Directors.

"Free movement across the EU was clearly a major factor behind the Brexit vote, and businesses are well aware that changes to the immigration system are coming."

The latest period saw a "statistically significant" decrease in net migration from eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 - the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

But immigration from Bulgaria and Romania, which joined in 2007, continued to increase. The numbers are being closely watched as they are the first to cover an extended period of time since the referendum last year.

Nicola White, head of international migration statistics at the ONS, said it is "too early to say" what effect the referendum result has had on long-term trends in immigration.

Britain will quit the Europe’s single market for goods and services as part of Brexit so it doesn’t have to allow EU citizens to work in Britain, May has said. Instead, Britain is seeking a new free-trade deal with the EU.

"It’s going to be a long haul," to meet the target of "tens of thousands," Goodwill said. "Not least because many of the policies we’ll need to achieve that will only be possible after we leave the EU."

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