Net migration to Britain has more than doubled from pre-Brexit levels, figures show

On the eve of the 2016 referendum on EU membership, official figures showed that annual net migration to the UK had risen to a record high of 336,000, fueling calls from Brexit supporters to “take back our borders”.

Next week, analysts expect new estimates from the Office for National Statistics to show net migration at least double last year’s level – a record largely the result of government policy and much less to do with the arrival of clandestine boats. from France.

For some hard-line advocates of Britain’s divorce from the EU, who saw Brexit as a means of drastically reducing immigration, this represents a betrayal. The forecast of the data due on Thursday has already sparked infighting at the head of the conservative government, which won the 2019 election under then-leader Boris Johnson by promising to reduce net migration.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sought to distance himself from that promise and took a more pragmatic approach by avoiding firm commitments in either direction.

Instead, he focused on controversial measures his government is introducing to end the chaos in the asylum system and curb the number of people crossing the Channel in small boats. Last year, a record number of 45,000 people arrived on this route.

Advocates of much lower overall migration, such as the campaign group Migration Watch, are not easily persuaded by these tactics.

“The government must not be allowed to use the boats to divert attention from the catastrophic level of legal migration for which they are largely responsible,” said Alp Mehmet, a former British diplomat and the group’s chairman.

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The government and analysts had expected a large rise in the net migration figure for 2022, with some predicting that the number would exceed 700,000. But it was surprising in magnitude, mostly due to unique factors.

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Covid played a big role in dampening the initial impact of the new post-Brexit immigration rules that came into force in January 2021. These ended the free movement of people from the EU, but to offset the impact on labor markets Ministers liberalized the visa system for the rest of the world to favor skilled workers.

Home Office visa statistics for 2022, which have already been published, show that employers are making liberal use of the visa scheme for skilled workers – particularly in the NHS and the care sector, where ministers have cut fees and relaxed some pay and qualification requirements in response to the workforce crisis. in order to curb it. Visa statistics also suggest a post-Covid surge in the number of international students coming to the UK.

Meanwhile, the influx of refugees from Ukraine and the arrival of British national (overseas) status holders from Hong Kong increased the numbers dramatically.

Overall, the 2022 statistical results revealed what Madeleine Sumption, director of the Oxford Migration Observatory think tank, describes as “Kakeism”, that is, wanting two incompatible things at the same time, both in the attitudes of the majority of the public towards migration and in the government’s response. In fact, people want a relatively liberal system that does the impossible and delivers low numbers of immigrants.

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“It’s like public finances: people support the idea of ​​a balanced budget, but they like all the different things we’re spending money on,” Sumption said, adding, “People are often interested in lower immigration, but they also support a lot of the constituents. . systems of large-scale migration.”

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Barring any further surprises, economists expect immigration to moderate from current peaks as arrivals from Ukraine slow, students return home and the post-Covid hiring boom subsides.

“Universities are full and labor market pressures will ease,” said Jonathan Portes, a professor at King’s College. It argues that vacancies have fallen across the economy and that hiring may even slow in the health and care sector as workers who leave in the post-Covid burnout wave are replaced.

But, which is already a problem for Sunak within his fragmented party, it would still leave net migration at a much higher level than officials expected when the post-Brexit system was introduced.

Migration experts also do not believe the government’s policy on illegal arrivals will solve record backlogs in the asylum system and discourage clandestine crossings across the Channel ahead of the next general election, due next year.

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Instead, errors in the law on illegal migration The Oxford Migration Observatory and the Refugee Council charity said it would have to go through parliament and the lack of working deals with third countries to allow large-scale deportations could force the government to detain tens of thousands of people indefinitely.

Meanwhile, business groups say there are still acute labor shortages in low-paid sectors that can no longer recruit from the EU and are lobbying ministers to add more roles to the list of shortage occupations.

Despite the divisions between ministers on display last week, the policy changes discussed represent relatively minor changes to the overall framework.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt told business leaders at the recent annual conference of the British Chamber of Commerce that the government would be “on the fringes, always pragmatic” – indicating he was open to expanding the list of jobs in short supply but not a radical expansion of low-skilled jobs. migration.

For now, public opinion seems relatively complacent. Public opinion has softened significantly since the eve of the EU referendum, when 66 percent of Britons supported strict restrictions on immigration, if not a total ban.

According to the FT analysis of the joint study of the World Values ​​Survey and European Values, only 31 percent of them were in this camp last year. For the general population, migration has slipped down the list of priorities, with only one in four Britons naming it as a priority. Ipsos survey last month.

“I constantly expect that migration will be of paramount importance in public opinion. It’s surprising that they don’t take into account how prominent it is in the political debate,” Sumption said. However, he added that this week’s data could change that.