Net migration - the gap between the number of people entering and leaving the UK - hit 606,000 in 2022, according to new figures.
The data - released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) - did not show the increase than some analysts expected, but will still place pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has promised to bring numbers down.
Most people arriving in the UK last year were non-EU nationals (925,000), followed by EU (151,000) and British (88,000). The ONS said it was a “unique year” for migration due to “world events”, with part of the rise explained by the war in Ukraine and unrest in Hong Kong.
The organisation added that the statistics suggest “levels of immigration from non-EU international students, and their dependents, remain high” - and had contributed to the increase. This comes just two days after the government announced that international students coming to universities in the UK would no longer be able to bring dependents, as part of its attempts to cut migration.
Previously, asylum seekers were not included in net migration figures - but the ONS said: “We have included asylum applicants (76,000 for 2022) in the immigration estimate, on the basis that under the current system, they might all be expected to remain more than 12 months.” The report said that around one in 12 non-EU migrants came via this route.
What has caused the high levels of net migration?
The rise in migration over the last 18 months has been fuelled by people entering the UK to study, work, or escape conflict or oppression.
One of the big contributors was the arrival of refugees from Ukraine following Russia’s invasion - with Ukrainians allowed to come to the UK on visas provided by the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme and Ukraine Family Scheme from March 2022. The ONS estimates that there were 114,000 long-term arrivals (those who stayed for a 12 month period) from the Ukraine schemes last year.
The UK also provided a visa scheme for British nationals overseas, their families, and their dependents in Hong Kong, when unrest broke out in the region. Estimates suggest that there were 52,000 long-term arrivals on these visas in 2022.
Outside of these specific schemes, the UK had 6,000 refugee resettlement scheme arrivals (a small proportion of the overall number) - including those who came to the UK under relocation programmes for Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the ONS also included 76,000 asylum seekers in its migration estimates due to the fact that, because of issues with processing applications, “they might all be expected to remain more than 12 months.”
In terms of the increase of people coming to the UK to work or study, the recovery in travel following the coronavirus pandemic also contributed to rising levels. The ONS commented: “The lifting of restrictions following the coronavirus pandemic led to record levels of international immigration to the UK.”
However, the ONS also pointed out that growth had “slowed in recent quarters”, “potentially demonstrating the temporary nature of these events.”
Is this a record?
The new figures released today show record levels of net migration compared to previous published estimates. The ONS had previously said net migration stood at a then-record 506,000 for the year ending June 2022.
However, it has now revised how it calculates immigration, most notably to include asylum seekers, and has today revised the estimate for the year ending June 2022 to 606,000, matching the estimate for the year ending December 2022. In the year ending September 2022, net migration stood at 637,000, which is the new record.
What’s the latest on asylum cases?
Separate figures released by the Home Office show the backlog of asylum seeker cases in the UK is bigger than at any point since records began in 2010.
More than 172,000 people were waiting for an initial decision on their application at the end of March 2023 - up 57% in 12 months. Nearly 129,000 people had been waiting more than six months.
What does the government say?
Reacting to the figures during an interview on ITV’s This Morning, Rishi Sunak said net migration numbers were “too high” and he wanted “to bring them down” but he denied they were out of control.
The Prime Minister has refused to put a number on any reduction beyond saying the total should be lower than the one he inherited when taking office last year. He declined to commit to the Conservatives’ last election manifesto pledge to “bring down” migration from its 2019 level, when it stood at 226,000.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman - who recently said she wanted to train up more British fruit pickers and lorry drivers so the workforce wasn’t so reliant on overseas labour - announced on Tuesday (May 23) that international students coming to the UK would no longer be able to bring dependents. Around 136,000 visas were granted to dependents in 2022, eight times as many compared with four years ago.
The government has also pledged to “stop the boats” and cut the number of asylum seekers making illegal journeys across the English Channel.
What about the opposition?
Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said: “These extraordinary figures, including doubling the number of work visas since the pandemic, show the Conservatives have no plan and no grip on immigration. Ministers have completely failed to tackle skills shortages, especially in health and social care, or to get people back into work after Covid.”
“Net migration should come down and we expect it to do so. Support we have rightly given to Ukrainians and Hong Kongers has unusually affected the figures this year. But that can’t disguise the fact that the Conservatives’ chaotic approach means that work visas are up 119%, net migration is more than twice the level ministers were aiming for, and the asylum backlog is at a record high despite Rishi Sunak promising to clear it this year.”
Does Labour have an alternative plan?
Labour announced on Wednesday (May 24) that if it won the next election, it would scrap rules allowing overseas workers coming to the UK to be paid 20% less than the going rate for that job. It also committed to reforming the current points-based visa system - which allows economic migrants to work in Britain providing they meet a number of criteria like having a job offer, speaking English and earning a minimum income.
The Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said there was “no doubt” that the UK needed to do more to “provide home-grown talent with the skills they needed”, but suggested many sectors of the economy were facing “acute difficulties” because of Brexit.
He called on the government “to urgently devolved some immigration powers” to London and other regions so they could make decisions at a local level.
How have industries reacted?
UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls told NationalWorld that “despite the numbers published today, there remain significant shortages across the hospitality industry, with 132,000 vacancies - 48% above pre-pandemic levels.
She warned that these shortages are “actively forcing businesses to reduce their opening hours or even days”, and urged the government to make the “best use of the immigration system to plug vital job roles”.
Ms Nicholls explained: “While there is enormous investment in skills and training, it’s not enough on its own in the short term and it’s time we had a sensible and pragmatic discussion about immigration. We need to take stock of the current labour market, where we have shortages and consider what role the immigration system can play in aiding businesses.”
One such example, she said, would be adding chefs to the Shortage Occupation List - describing this as a “practical measure to plug a gaping hole for businesses and provide a huge boost to the sector.”
Meanwhile, those in the engineering industry have said they need migrants to fill job vacancies because there is an “acute shortage” of specialist skills in the UK.
BBC Radio 4 spoke to Rahul in Coventry, who has been recruiting for a specialist engineering position for 18 months. He says that “about 95%” of all applicants have been from abroad.
Rahul explained: “Universities and migration, they’ve got to work hand in hand,” adding he doesn’t believe university courses are well enough “aligned with what the industry actually needs”.
“You can see companies like Jaguar, Land Rover, and Ford, they’ve got people who are actually going abroad to countries like India or Germany for engineering expertise or technical expertise.”