UK net migration hits record high of 606,000 as government vows cuts and cracks down on student visas
The ruling Conservative party has overseen record rises in net migration despite its election promise to reduce the figure.
UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman attends the weekly government cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street on May 23, 2023 in London, England.
Leon Neal | Getty Images News | Getty Images
LONDON — U.K. net migration hit a record high of 606,000 in 2022, despite government pledges to reduce the figure.
Data published Thursday by the country's national statistics office showed that non-EU nationals accounted for 925,000 long-term arrivals, while 151,000 were from the European Union and 88,000 were British.
Total emigration from the U.K. was 557,000, of which 202,000 were EU nationals — meaning more people from the bloc left than arrived. The share of EU nationals coming to the U.K. was down from 42% in 2019, just before the U.K. officially left the EU, to 13%.
Reducing net migration was a pledge in the ruling Conservative party's election manifesto in 2019, when the figure was 226,000. The previous figures, out in November, showed net migration was at 504,000 in the year to June.
The government has stressed that many recent arrivals are refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. The proportion of people arriving via humanitarian routes increased from 9% to 19% in 2022, compared to the year before.
Legal migration is a contentious issue within the Conservative party. It comes as the government seeks to boost tepid economic growth and ease tightness in the labor market, which is causing challenges for businesses and driving up wages at a time of sky-high inflation.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said he wants net migration below 500,000, around the level it was when he took office last fall.
However, he has clashed with his more hardline interior minister, Suella Braverman, over some proposed measures to bring down the numbers. Sunak has also stressed that migrant workers are essential to sectors including the National Health Service.
In a speech earlier this month, Braverman said: "It's not xenophobic to say that mass and rapid migration is unsustainable in terms of housing supply, service, and community relations." She also said Britons should be filling job roles experiencing shortages, such as lorry drivers, butchers and fruit pickers.
On Tuesday, Braverman's department announced restrictions on student visas, the largest source of migration to the U.K. Only post-graduate research students will be able to bring family members with them to the country under the new rules.
The Home Office also said it would ban people "from using a student visa as a backdoor route to work in the U.K." by preventing them from switching visa types until their studies are finished, and reviewing checks on their proof of funds.
The government says that under its post-Brexit points-based immigration system, it has control over its borders and filling labor market gaps.
From 2025, even tourists to the U.K. from the EU and foreign countries including the U.S. will need an electronic visa to enter, with the government admitting it does not currently have accurate figures on arrivals and departures.
'Unfit for purpose'
However, workers in many sectors say they are struggling with recruitment challenges that have been exacerbated by Brexit.
Raj Sehgal, chief executive of Norfolk-based care home group Armscare, told CNBC that vacancies in the sector were at record highs over the last year with over 165,000 posts available, combined with a growing need for services and post-Covid burnout.
It is difficult to attract young domestic workers to the rural areas where many care homes are located, he said, and Brexit and the weaker pound have reduced the U.K.'s appeal to EU workers.
"The whole process of employing a migrant worker is completely unfit for purpose, being detrimental to employers who are looking to grow and expand the economy," Sehgal said.
"It's complicated and costly…for the worker it requires a lengthy and complex process of getting a sponsor, and for employers there is the cost burden, such as an immigration skills surcharge that acts as more than a tax on employment."
Responding to the new figures, a Home Office spokesperson said the U.K. had provided "safe and legal routes" for people in need of protection and seen "growth in the use of a range of visa routes including an unprecedented rise in the number of dependants arriving with students" which had "understandably contributed to higher levels of net migration."
"This week we carried out the toughest ever action by government to reduce migration by removing the right for most international students to bring family members, while continuing to benefit from the skills and resources our economy needs," they said. "We remain committed to reducing overall net migration, while stopping the boats and delivering control of our borders, prioritising tackling abuse and preventing dangerous and illegal crossings."