Net migration to UK tops 500,000 for first time

Ukraine war, Afghan refugees and new visa route for Hong Kong contributed to the rise

About 504,000 more people are estimated to have moved to the UK than left in the 12 months to June. Getty Images
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Net migration to the UK has risen to a record half a million, driven by “unprecedented world events” including the war in Ukraine and the end of coronavirus lockdown restrictions, according to the Office for National Statistics.

About 504,000 more people are estimated to have moved to the UK than left in the 12 months to June, up sharply from 173,000 in the previous year.

Other factors contributing to the jump included the resettlement of Afghan refugees and the new visa route for British nationals from Hong Kong.

The ONS described the year as “unique”, pointing to simultaneous factors coinciding to affect long-term immigration, which reached 1.1 million, including the continued recovery in travel following the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, a new immigration system following Brexit, and the ongoing support for Ukrainians and others requiring protection.

The departure of EU citizens post-Brexit continued. The number of EU nationals in the UK was down 51,000, compared with a decrease of 63,000 the year before.

Of the total of 1.1 million likely to have migrated to the UK in the year to June, the majority — 704,000 — were from outside the EU. By contrast, 560,000 people are estimated to have migrated from the UK in the same period, almost half of them — 275,000 — going back to the EU. The imbalance means that, while far more non-EU citizens are likely to have arrived in the UK than left during these 12 months, the reverse is true for EU citizens, with more leaving than arriving.

Jay Lindop, ONS's Director of the Centre for International Migration, said: “A series of world events have impacted international migration patterns in the 12 months to June 2022. Taken together these were unprecedented. These include the end of lockdown restrictions in the UK, the first full period following transition from the EU, the war in Ukraine, the resettlement of Afghans and the new visa route for Hong Kong British nationals (Overseas), which have all contributed to the record levels of long-term immigration we have seen.”

“Migration from non-EU countries, specifically students, is driving this rise. With the lifting of travel restrictions in 2021, more students arrived in the UK after studying remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. However, there has also been a large increase in the number of people migrating for a range of other reasons. This includes people arriving for humanitarian protections, such as those coming from Ukraine, as well as for family reasons.”

“These many factors independent of each other contributing to migration at this time mean it is too early to say whether this picture will be sustained.”

After the figures were released, Downing Street insisted Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants to bring overall immigration levels down but has not put a specific timeframe on that. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said “unprecedented and unique circumstances” had caused the rise.

This week, both Mr Sunak and opposition leader Keir Starmer have suggested employers should turn to British workers first in their efforts to fill lower-skilled jobs, rather than rely on foreign workers. Mr Sunak dismissed the idea that Britain would be considering a move to a Swiss-style partnership with the EU.

As the Confederation of British Industry met for its annual conference this week, director-general Tony Danker said a more liberalised approach to immigration was needed to help boost economic growth when public spending is tight.

He said: “The reason why it’s so important is we have literally over a million vacancies in this country, we have 600,000 people who are now long-term unwell, who aren’t coming back to the labour market any time soon.

“That’s why we have to get this shortage occupation list – the list of people that we’re really missing that we aren’t going to get in Britain any time soon – and we have to get them to plug the gap while we re-calibrate the labour market in the medium term.”

Sunder Katwala, director of think tank British Future, said: “Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer plans to make significant cuts to immigration because of the social and economic benefits it brings to Britain.

“So political leaders should now be setting out a vision for how we make this work well for all of us in the UK, focusing on integration, citizenship and training up the UK workforce to fill skills gaps.

Emigration from the UK was more steady, the ONS said. The provisional estimate of the number of people emigrating out of the UK long-term was approximately 560,000. Non-EU nationals accounted for 195,000 of this long-term total, EU citizens accounted for 275,000 and British citizens 90,000.

The ONS said it was too early to say whether these trends will continue, as future levels of emigration may increase over the coming years following the relatively high inflow of non-EU students. Nearly two thirds of non-EU students had left at the end of their study visa in the academic year ending in 2019.

A total of 1.1 million people are likely to have migrated to the UK in the year to June, the majority — 704,000 — from outside the EU. By contrast, 560,000 people are estimated to have migrated from the UK in the same period, almost half of them — 275,000 — going back to the EU. The imbalance means that, while far more non-EU citizens are likely to have arrived in the UK than left during these 12 months, the reverse is true for EU citizens, with more leaving than arriving.

Migration remains a hot topic in the UK, driven by the rise in illegal arrivals.

The ONS figures showed that the number of asylum applications pending a decision has continued to increase, standing at 117,400, more than twice as many as two years ago. There are now about 80,000 cases awaiting initial decision for more than six months.

Marley Morris, associate director for migration, trade and communities at the IPPR think tank, said: “The new migration statistics today tell two stories about immigration to the UK. On the one hand, higher net migration is driven in large part by rising student numbers and the new Ukraine humanitarian routes — reflecting the generosity of the British public in opening their homes in exceptional numbers to welcome Ukrainians escaping the Russian invasion.

“On the other hand, the figures also show an asylum system in serious peril, with the backlog of claims growing further. Urgent action is needed to tackle the backlog and to work with local authorities to find suitable accommodation for asylum applicants.

“Today also marks one year on from the tragic deaths of 32 people in the Channel. With numbers of small boats crossing the Channel continuing to rise, the government must work closely with France and the EU to stop the dangerous crossings and provide safe and legal alternatives.”

On Wednesday, the Home Secretary admitted the government has failed to control the UK’s borders as she blamed migrants crossing the Channel for overcrowding at the Manston processing centre.

Suella Braverman also struggled to explain the legal routes which asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution could use to come to the UK, prompting criticism that she was “out of her depth” and did not understand her own policies.

She was repeatedly questioned over where the fault lies for the problems at the Kent migrant holding facility when she faced the Commons Home Affairs Committee for the first time since her appointment.

The former military airfield near Ramsgate stood empty on Tuesday after everyone held there was moved into hotels, but it has been dogged by controversy in recent weeks, with ministers coming under fire over the conditions.

At its peak earlier this month, 4,000 were held there — more than double its 1,600 capacity — a move branded a “breach of humane conditions”.

The Home Office has now been threatened with five legal actions over the site.

Speaking to MPs, Ms Braverman said: “I’m not going to point the finger of blame at any one person. It’s not as simple as that.”

Updated: November 24, 2022, 11:55 AM
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