A new visa trial could encourage migrants to live and work in rural areas of the UK, advisers have told the government.
Migrants continue to be drawn to London over other regions, said the Migration Advisory Committee, which briefs ministers on immigration policy.
The committee recommended piloting a “rural visa” to see if this would help “counteract depopulation” in countryside areas.
No specific regions have been suggested but the body’s chairman, Brian Bell, told reporters many of the areas could be in Scotland and Wales.
Stressing the importance of a pilot programme, he said the number of areas in question should be “limited” and suggested the plan could involve creating immigration rules allowing lower-skilled migrant workers to be employed in rural communities.
This could potentially help fill vacancies in the agricultural, fishing and hospitality sectors.
Migrants at immigration processing centre in Manston — in pictures
“International evidence” suggests the policy could have some effect, he said, as the committee's report, published on Tuesday, highlighted examples of “regional dimensions” in Australia, Canada and New Zealand’s immigration systems.
The findings added: “Evidence for the efficacy of rural visas in countries of the UK’s geographic scale is limited.
“We do not currently have sufficient evidence on migrant retention in rural areas and a fully evaluated pilot would help to build this evidence base.
“Such an approach would be in keeping with the government’s levelling up agenda, utilising the immigration system to address some of the negative impacts of rural depopulation, including the inability to sustain local public services and key industries that play important regional and national roles in our economy.”
Migrant children rescued in French waters — in pictures
Deciding how many visas to offer would be a key question in developing the policy and census data that could give indications on where the pilot might work, Dr Bell said.
“You don’t want it to be too big that it becomes a massive part of the immigration system and then you get lots of concerns. But you want it to be big enough that you can actually begin to see the effect and actually see whether it works as intended,” he added.
But he also warned there could be “a higher risk of exploitation” in offering such a visa, as workers are tied to a particular area which may have “quite a thin labour market” because there are not many employers competing for workers.
There would need to be “good enforcement of labour market standards and protection of migrant workers” as a result, Dr Bell said.