Net migration to the UK from countries outside the European Union has risen to its highest level for 45 years, the Office for National Statistics says.

Figures show an estimated 282,000 more non-EU citizens came to the UK than left in 2019, the highest since the information was first gathered in 1975.

The ONS says a rise in students from China and India has driven this.

In contrast, the number of people arriving from EU countries for work has “steadily fallen”.

In 2019, an estimated 49,000 more EU citizens came to the UK than left – down from the “peak levels” of more than 200,000 in 2015 and early 2016, the ONS says.

In total, an estimated 270,000 more people moved to the UK with an intention to stay for 12 months or more than left the UK in 2019.

The ONS says more than 677,000 people moved to the UK and about 407,000 people left.

Jay Lindop, director of the Centre for International Migration at the ONS, said: “Overall migration levels have remained broadly stable in recent years, but new patterns have emerged for EU and non-EU migrants since 2016.

“For the year ending December 2019, non-EU migration was at the highest level we have seen, driven by a rise in students from China and India, while the number of people arriving from EU countries for work has steadily fallen.

“We know the coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on travel since December and new analysis today shows how international travel to and from the UK has decreased in recent months.”

The ONS says overall migration levels “have remained broadly stable” since the end of 2016, but patterns for EU and non-EU citizens “have followed different trends”.

“This in part reflects the different trends in immigration for employment and study, with EU migrants predominantly arriving for work-related reasons and non-EU migrants arriving for study,” its report says.

Pandemic impact

Rob McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said it was “too early to quantify how the pandemic will affect migration to the UK”.

But he said it was clear that the consequences of coronavirus “already reach right across the immigration system – from workers’ inability to travel to take up work and employers’ difficulty bringing seasonal workers to British fields, to sharp reductions in the number of people detained and deported”.

He said the crisis raised questions on whether employers in the UK will still want to recruit from overseas or if international students will still apply and take up places at British universities.

Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director of the Confederation of British Industry, said businesses were “currently prioritising safety and protecting jobs during this period of unprecedented stress”, saying: “For now, some businesses are less likely to hire from overseas than before the crisis.

“But many others will need to access the new immigration system to help grow the UK economy and have little capacity to prepare for it.

“Time is running out if government and business are to implement this well.”

He called for the publication of more information on how the UK’s new points-based immigration system would work to enable a “pragmatic conversation about the time it will take to implement”.