Britain has seen a record increase in net migration of 606,000 people in the past year, largely driven by non-EU nationals, official figures released on Thursday show.
The increase from 488,000 in 2021, is a huge blow to the Conservative government’s aim to lower net migration, after previously promising to get it below 100,000.
It also raises further questions about Brexit after the break from the EU was mainly caused by concerns over high immigration numbers from the continent.
Total long-term immigration was estimated at around 1.2 million in 2022, and emigration was 557,000, the Office for National Statistics said on Thursday.
It means about 606,000 more people are estimated to have moved to the UK than left in the 12 months to December, up from 504,000 in the 12 months to June last year.
Although the figures show the numbers of migrants entering the UK has now reached a record high, they were lower than expected, with estimates ranging between 700,000 and 997,000.
Data shows that the number of migrants entering Britain has also slowed in recent months.
One out of every 12 non-EU migrants who entered Britain was an asylum seeker, said the ONS.
People arriving via humanitarian routes, including schemes for Ukrainian refugees, increased from 9 per cent to 19 per cent throughout 2022.
“The main drivers of the increase were people coming to the UK from non-EU countries for work, study and for humanitarian purposes, including those arriving from Ukraine and Hong Kong,” said Jay Lindop, director of the Centre for International Migration at ONS.
“There are some signs that the underlying drivers behind these high levels of migration are changing. As lockdown restrictions were lifted in 2021, we saw a sharp increase in students arriving.
“Recent data suggests that those arriving in 2021 are now leaving the country, with the overall share of non-EU immigration for students falling in 2022. In contrast, those arriving on humanitarian routes increased over the 12 months.
“Evidence also suggests immigration has slowed in recent months, potentially demonstrating the temporary nature of these events.”
According to the figures, among non-EU long-term immigration to the UK:
- Work-related visas accounted for an estimated 235,000 arrivals, up from 137,000 in 2021
- Study-related visas accounted for 361,000 arrivals, an increase from 301,000 in 2021, which was mainly due to dependents
- Humanitarian visas, including those issued via Ukrainian schemes, accounted for 172,000 arrivals, up from 57,000 in 2021
- About 76,000 people claimed asylum in 2022, up from 53,000 in 2021
- Family visas accounted for 51,000 arrivals, compared with 62,000 in 2021
- People arriving on “other” visas accounted for 29,000 arrivals in 2022, slightly up from 27,000 in 2021
Labour's shadow immigration minister, Stephen Kinnock, said the figures showed the government had “lost control” of the issue. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the net migration figures were “too high” but denied they were out of control.
Leading figures on the topic have suggested to The National the UK can still assimilate the migrants, while others have argued differently. But all agreed that Brexit has had a major impact, with more migrants arriving than before.
Speaking to The National before the figures were announced, Dr Alan Mendoza, of the right-leaning Henry Jackson Society, said the increase “clearly has to be amended or dealt with, because nobody signed up to this”.
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But Ryan Shorthouse, chief executive of Bright Blue, a liberal Conservative think tank, said the figures could be artificially high, given the high influx of students in the last year.
“I suspect this is a temporary thing because most of the people coming, the refugees or students, will leave eventually and it's just that the figures are not showing that,” he told The National.
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With the implementation of Brexit, EU citizens no longer have the automatic right to work in Britain, something that fuelled hostility in parts of British society particularly towards Eastern European migrants.
While there are now more EU citizens leaving Britain than arriving, the majority of migrants are now coming from beyond Europe, something Dr Mendoza said was “not intended by the architects of Brexit or by anyone who voted for Brexit”.
“The government does need to get a grip on this quickly,” he said. “Firstly, because their border control is vital to the country's future as we cannot have population change at this level. Secondly, it's one thing to be America, where you have a melting pot approach, but Britain does not have that same capability for that large a number of people.”
The benefits of migration
But Mr Shorthouse, a former Conservative party policy adviser, said that while there was a need to control immigration to within the 300,000-a-year range, there was also a need “to recognise the benefits that flow from migration” that helped the economy.
“The UK, compared to other European countries has also been quite successful in integrating and assimilating immigrants,” he said. “The employment and education outcomes of immigrants tends to be pretty good.”
A proportion of the figure comes from the influx of Ukrainian and to a lesser extent Afghan and Syrian refugees.
But many others have been allowed into Britain on sponsored study visas along with their relatives. More than 135,000 visas were granted to dependents of foreign students in 2022, nearly nine times the 2019 figure.
The government attempted to address this with an about-turn on its policy on Tuesday by say they could no longer bring in family members.
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There is also a vast number of care workers and medical staff that have been allowed into Britain on visas to make up for a shortfall in staff, particularly in the NHS.
While Mr Sunak has also launched a hardline “stop the boats” campaign to prevent illegal English Channel crossings following the record 45,000 immigrants in 2022, this is vastly outweighed by legal entries.
But a senior moderate Conservative told The National that the new net migrant figures could be used by right wingers to “campaign more shrilly on migration”.
He said: “For them, it is really useful to have a common enemy and to unite in moral panic against that common enemy. There will be Conservatives who are actually pretty pleased with the migration figures so they can dog-whistle to far-right supporters considering more right-wing splinter parties.”
He said the government should be “very proud” of the Ukraine refugees, but added that “this was another Brexit disaster” after the government had to ditch the Dublin Convention that forced people arriving on small boats back to their EU country of departure.
Brexit promise to control Britain's borders not working
One of the key tenets of Brexit was to control Britain’s borders, which the migration figures suggest is not happening, said Mr Shorthouse.
“I think it's a very difficult position for the Conservative government, given that it's been in power for so long. It shows yet again that there isn't a track record of delivery,” he said.
The increase has mainly come after the government “significantly liberalised immigration policy – which people tend to forget” said Rob McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory
Previously, visa applicants needed a university degree and starting salary of £30,000, but that requirement was dropped to A-Levels and a £26,200 ($32,397) salary.
“The UK has now made it vastly harder for the 500 million people that live in the EU to enter and much easier for the other 7.5 billion people in the world to come because of these changes,” he said.
The government had also opted to “extremely liberalise the ability to work” in health due to significant vacancies and because it takes several years to train nurses and doctors.
“Britain is not in a position where you can magically have a pool of trained British workers,” he added.
But Dr Mendoza criticised the policy of creating lower-paid jobs filled by migrants “as opposed to seeing how we can improve wages across the board to bring British people back into the workplace”.