Poles catch the first coach out of a Britain mired in slump

Steep fall predicted in numbers of immigrants from eastern Europe
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The Polish plumber is packing his socket set and heading home. Official statistics released yesterday show that a combination of the recession and the plummeting pound – which reduces the value of remittances home – has led to a record emigration of Poles and other workers from the new EU member states in Eastern Europe.

The number of migrants returning to the so-called Accession or "A8" nations more than doubled in the year to September 2008, the latest figures available, with an exodus of 56,000 recorded by the Office for National Statistics. That compares to only 25,000 who left the previous year. But because 100,000 arrived, there was still an overall increase of 44,000. Even so, the most up-to-date data suggests a steep fall in the numbers arriving; figures from the Home Office indicated that in the first three months of this year some 23,000 A8 workers applied to join the Workers Registration Scheme, less than half the level of the same period last year.

The A8 nations are Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia, which joined the EU in 2004 – the great majority Poles, many of whom have taken work far below that warranted by their educational qualifications. Germany and Austria have placed limits on the rights of Poles and others to work.

More generally the number of non-British citizens emigrating rose by 30 per cent in the same period. Some 165,000 UK citizens also left the country to work or retire aboard, favoured destinations being Australia, Spain, France, the US and New Zealand.

Between September 2007 and 2008, 529,000 people emigrated to the UK. A grand total of 382,000 left the country – a net increase of 147,000. About 165,000 British citizens emigrated abroad, while 74,000 returned home – a net outflow of 91,000.

Despite the fall in immigration and the rise in migration from the UK, some claimed that the numbers were still excessive. Andrew Green, chairman of Migrationwatch, said: "This small reduction in immigration brings it close to the official projection so the population of the UK is still on course to hit 70million by 2028. We need action, not talking, to get our population under control." The minister for immigration, Phil Woolas replied: "Today's figures show that immigration levels are balancing as more Eastern Europeans are now leaving the UK to return home. This suggests that increasing prosperity in post-Soviet Eastern Europe in the long term can only be beneficial for the UK."

Economists agree that an emigration of workers from the UK should ease the rise in unemployment. However, analysts at Citi European Economics point out that the fall in UK employment "continues to be far more severe for the UK-born population than for foreign-born workers... For whatever reason (quality of education, willingness to work hard, and fill positions?), the job losses from recession seem to be falling more on the domestic population so far, hence ensuring that the declines in GDP are (and probably will continue to) showing up in large increases in unemployment."

The number of people claiming asylum in the UK increased by more than a quarter in the first three months of this year to 8,380, the highest since 2004. Mr Woolas said the rise was driven by applications from Zimbabwe.