Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sought to reassure the public he had a grip on migration after official figures on Thursday showed net long-term arrivals in the UK reached an all-time high of 606,000 in 2022.
But the Office for National Statistics’ figures suggest measures announced this week to stop overseas students bringing family members with them will make only a modest difference to the numbers over time.
Net migration to the UK is already levelling out, as students who arrived in 2021 start to go home. Meanwhile, work-related immigration is increasingly dominated by the hiring of healthcare workers to address the staffing crisis in the NHS and care sector. Rising numbers of asylum seekers have also led to a record backlog of claims awaiting an initial Home Office decision.
Even after taking account of uncertainties in the ONS’s data, net migration to the UK of 606,000 is undoubtedly a record high. This reflects several coinciding factors — the opening of humanitarian routes for people from Ukraine and Hong Kong, a post-Covid surge in cross-border hiring and a government drive to attract foreign students. But as Madeleine Sumption, director of Oxford university’s Migration Observatory, notes, net migration may already have peaked, in September. “There is no reason to assume that net migration would remain this high indefinitely,” she said.
The impact of Brexit on cross-border movement with the EU has been stark: the figures show there are now more EU citizens leaving the UK than arriving. But arrivals from the rest of the world have surged, reflecting humanitarian flows from Ukraine since the outbreak of the war in February last year, and growing numbers coming to study or work, in particular from India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Pakistan.
The surge in net migration has no single cause. Work routes accounted for about a quarter of last year’s total. Humanitarian visa schemes and refugee resettlement made up roughly a fifth. Separately, asylum applicants, included in the ONS figures for the first time, accounted for 8 per cent of non-EU immigration, with Home Office figures showing that a backlog of unprocessed claims has risen to a record high as officials failed to keep pace with the number of applicants.
Meanwhile, student numbers continued to increase, with 361,000 arriving on study-related visas — including 85,000 dependants. But their share in net migration fell, as some 2021 arrivals graduated and went home.
The single most dramatic change in work-related migration since the introduction of post-Brexit visa rules for skilled workers has been the surge in overseas recruitment by the NHS and care sector, which gathered pace after the government eased the rules of entry for lower-skilled care workers.
Figures released separately by the Home Office on Thursday showed that visa applications for medical and care workers outnumbered those from skilled workers in all other sectors in the year to March. If anything, the sector is becoming even more dominant, with the figures pointing to a recent slowdown in hiring in other areas, such as finance and IT.
The government’s decision to prevent overseas students bringing partners and children with them follows a sharp increase in 2022 in the number of dependants. India and Nigeria were the nationalities with the biggest increase in both the number of students and dependants.
The ONS noted that the graduate visa route introduced in July 2021, which allows students to work in the UK for up to three years after completing their studies, could be one of the factors attracting international students.
Home Office figures showed that 92,951 previous students used this route — intended to attract talent to the UK — in the year ending March 2023.
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