Net migration to Britain reached record levels last year, official figures showed Thursday, putting pressure on the UK government that has made the issue a political touchstone.
Britain saw net migration of 606,000 people in 2022, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said, with 1.2 million people arriving in the country and about half that number leaving.
That comes despite pledges from successive Conservative governments to drastically reduce the numbers of people moving to the UK, particularly in the wake of Brexit – a rupture that was touted by its proponents as a necessary step for Britain to “take control” of its borders.
Thursday’s figures were affected by the lifting of Covid-19 travel restrictions and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which resulted in two new schemes by which Ukrainian refugees could resettle in the UK. “These (figures) are down to world events, but they’re also down to how the UK government has chosen to respond to world events,” Rob McNeil, the deputy director of the Oxford Migration Observatory, told CNN.
The vast majority of people arriving – 925,000 – were non-EU nationals, and around one in 12 of those were asylum seekers, included for the first time in the ONS’ annual release.
“The main drivers of the increase were people coming to the UK from non-EU countries for work, study and for humanitarian purposes,” Jay Lindop, Director of the Centre for International Migration at the ONS, said Thursday.
Some observers had predicted Thursday’s figures would be higher; the ONS said a slowing in immigration meant “levels of net migration have levelled off in recent quarters.”
But the headline figure will force difficult questions for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and his embattled Home Secretary Suella Braverman, both of whom have joined their predecessors in promising to reduce arrivals despite the strain on Britain’s public services, where key sectors like health care are marred by chronic staffing shortages.
The pair have sought to focus attention on refugees and asylum-seekers crossing the English Channel on small boats, rather than on overall migration, despite that route representing a tiny proportion of arrivals to the UK.
Ministers have been criticized by rights organizations and politicians across the political divide for their use of hardline rhetoric against those people, with Braverman controversially rallying against an “invasion” of migrants across the Channel.
Sunak under pressure
Critics of the government have long contended that Britain needs a steady influx of migrants in order to boost its workforce and support its ailing public services.
But before, during and since the bitter Brexit referendum campaign, in which lowering migration became a central debate, several Tory prime ministers have sought to appease the right wing of their party by making the reduction of migration a focal point of their premierships.
David Cameron infamously insisted he would reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” during his premiership, which ran from 2010 to 2016 – a vow that never came close to fruition, but which set the course for more than a decade of Tory fixation on the issue.
Sunak has stuck to this line. He told the BBC at last week’s G7 summit that legal migration to the UK was “too high,” though he did not offer a specific plan to reduce it.
“What I would say is we’re considering a range of options to help tackle numbers of legal migration and to bring those numbers down – and we’ll talk more about that in the future,” Sunak said.
The most recent Conservative election manifesto, in 2019, included the pledge that under their leadership “there will be fewer lower-skilled migrants and overall numbers will come down.” But net migration has more than doubled since then.
“It’s bizarre that the prime minister and the home secretary are sort of trashing the one thing that they’ve actually managed to do reasonably well for the last five years,” Jonathan Portes, an economist at King’s College London, told CNN. “We have successfully introduced a new post-Brexit (immigration) system that is actually working pretty well.
“The idea that the UK would be better off if we were not getting doctors and nurses from abroad, I think is not very credible,” Portes said.
The opposition Labour Party was quick to criticize Sunak’s government over Thursday’s numbers. “Today’s extraordinary figures, including doubling the number of work visas since the pandemic, show the Conservatives have no plan & no grip when it comes to immigration,” shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper wrote on Twitter.
“Ministers have completely failed to tackle skills shortages or help people back into work after Covid,” she said.
Privately, many Conservatives wonder why the government decided to make immigration such a key issue when this year’s figures were inevitably going to be high.
The UK welcomed 169,000 Ukrainian refugees in the 13 months following Russia’s invasion, separate figures showed, and a push by the British government to encourage foreign students to study in the UK also played a significant factor in Thursday’s numbers.
People from Hong Kong have also been encouraged to arrive through a special visa program.
And in the eyes of the public, immigration has become less of an issue since the Brexit referendum, as voters either understand immigration is good for the economy or feel that Brexit allowed a certain degree of control.
Sunak would prefer to shift attention to his long-touted promise to “Stop the Boats;” arrivals of asylum-seekers on small, illegal vessels run by criminal trafficking gangs have soared in recent years and attracted widespread media coverage.
But he is under pressure to show results in that regard too. The government’s own policy post-Brexit has removed the UK from the Dublin Regulation, an agreement among EU member states that asylum-seekers would be returned to the first safe country within the EU that they initially arrived.