UK net immigration hits record high of 606,000

Net migration to the UK rose to an all-time high of 606,000 in 2022, piling pressure on Rishi Sunak’s government despite the statistical agency saying the numbers were starting to level off.

Tory MPs reacted angrily to the news, warning that high levels of legal immigration were exacerbating a housing shortage and would heighten concerns among voters about irregular migration in small boats.

Thursday’s record figures fell short of some previous predictions that net immigration could top 700,000 last year. However, they contrasted with the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto pledge — reaffirmed by Sunak — that “overall numbers will come down”. The prime minister said: “Numbers are too high, it’s as simple as that.”

The Office for National Statistics said the total, which compares with a 2021 net immigration figure of 488,000, was driven by people coming to the UK from outside the EU, including from Ukraine and Hong Kong.

Students accounted for about a third of net immigration, and work-related routes for a quarter, while humanitarian visa schemes and refugee resettlement made up roughly a fifth. Asylum applicants, included in the ONS figures for the first time, made up 8 per cent of non-EU immigration.

Jay Lindop, director of the ONS Centre for International Migration, said the numbers reflected “unprecedented world events” combined with the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, but the evidence suggested immigration had slowed, “potentially demonstrating the temporary nature of these events”.

Ministers hope numbers will fall before the next general election, expected late next year. Analysts say this is likely because arrivals from Ukraine have slowed, while students who came in 2021 are starting to return home, boosting emigration. Home Office figures for skilled worker visas also suggest overseas hiring is slowing — except in the NHS and care sector, where numbers continue to rise.

“The narrative that immigration is spiralling ever upwards or is out of control is simply false,” said Jonathan Portes, professor at King’s College.

Marley Morris, associate director for migration at the think-tank IPPR, said ministers should avoid “knee-jerk reactions” because net immigration was stabilising and there was “strong public support” for its main drivers — NHS recruitment, international students and humanitarian routes.

However, Sunak faced a backlash from Tory MPs. Louie French, MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, said: “Unsustainable levels of migration continue to have a significant impact on housing in the south-east.”

The government is failing to meet its target of building 300,000 homes a year, a target that was initially set when net migration was expected to run at only 170,000 people a year.

Martin Vickers, Conservative MP for Cleethorpes, said the “anger and frustration” of his constituents over “illegal migration” in small boats would intensify because of the high legal migration figures.

Sunak maintained that measures announced this week to stop overseas students who come to the UK from bringing family members with them would bring levels down over time, and urged the public to “rest assured” that he had a grip on the issue.

But ministers have decided to take a political hit in the interests of keeping open the doors to migrants deemed essential to the economy, including students, NHS staff and construction workers.

Kate Shoesmith of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation said Britain should be looking to “attract and help work-ready immigrants to fill some of the 1.7mn jobs advertised across the UK”.

Labour lashed out at the government over the “extraordinary figures”, highlighting that the number of work visas issued had doubled since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, said the government had “no grip on immigration” and had “completely failed to tackle skills shortages, especially in health and social care, or to get people back into work after Covid”.

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