UK posts record migration numbers – but is it a problem?
Jim Drury
Seasonal workers on an English farm. /CFP
Seasonal workers on an English farm. /CFP

Seasonal workers on an English farm. /CFP

Net migration to Britain reached a record high of 606,000 last year, according to new figures. Much of the change came from people arriving from countries enduring conflict, including Ukraine, under special visa schemes, and an influx of university students, including a large number from China.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) report has been seized on by critics of Brexit, which was driven in large part by its proponents' pledges to cut migrant numbers sharply. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has also been criticized in light of the Conservative government's regular boasts that the opposition Labour party cannot be trusted to limit migration.

However, the data also showed that migration started to fall during the final three months of 2022. 

It's opened up a debate about the economic benefits of migration. In fact, the success of a government-sponsored strategy to recruit more foreign students to boost university sector finances was one of the drivers of the migration increase.


What do the figures show? 

The data put overall immigration in 2022 at around 1.16 million, offset by emigration of 557,000. The ONS said 925,000 of those arriving in 2022 were non-EU nationals, Another 151,000 came from the EU, while 88,000 were British citizens returning.

The figures estimated that in 2022 under the special visa schemes there were 114,000 long-term arrivals from Ukraine and 52,000 from Hong Kong SAR.

The ONS figures suggest that net migration peaked at 637,000 in the year ending September 2022, before falling to 606,000 in the year ending December 2022.  


Why is immigration so high?

The UK is facing labor shortages in key sectors, partly due to an exodus of EU nationals caused by Brexit. Tight labour market conditions are a factor in the country's persistently high inflation.

Independent data analysis from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford showed the "increasing numbers of international students (followed) a government-sponsored strategy to recruit more foreign students… as well as the reintroduction of a two-year post-study work visa. Students made up 39 percent of non-EU long-term immigration."

A study by Universities UK said overseas students provided a huge boost to the UK economy. It read: "Aggregating across the entire 2021/22 cohort of first-year students, we estimate the total economic benefits of international students to the UK economy to be approximately £41.9bn [$51.6bn] over the entire period of their studies, of which £4.3bn [$5.3bn] is generated by EU students, and £37.6bn [$46bn] is generated by non-EU students."

According to student statistics released by UK Higher Education for 2021/22, the highest number of international students in the UK belonged to China, with 151,690 students enrolled. 

Government encouragement of bringing foreign students to the UK has partly driven migration rise. /CFP
Government encouragement of bringing foreign students to the UK has partly driven migration rise. /CFP

Government encouragement of bringing foreign students to the UK has partly driven migration rise. /CFP

What's the government response to the figures?

"Numbers are too high, it's as simple as that," Sunak told UK broadcaster ITV following the release of the data.

Sunak said he wanted to bring net migration down, pointing to new reforms which would remove the right for some international students to bring family members into the UK.

He also promised more measures but did not set out a specific target for net migration. However, the government is relaxing visa rules for fishermen due to a labor shortage. This comes amid a growing row over Sunak's 'stop the boats' legislation to forcibly move illegal migrants to Rwanda. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, condemned the Illegal Migration Bill as "morally unacceptable."


Do immigrants benefit or cost the UK taxpayer?

In 2022 the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that higher net migration reduced pressure on government debt over time. 

It estimated that net immigration of 245,000 (the 'high-migration' scenario) would mean that by 2067-68, the primary budget deficit (i.e. excluding interest payments on debt) would be 0.8 percent of GDP lower, and net debt would be 30 percent lower.

This is partly because incoming migrants are more likely to be of working age than the general population, and thus contributing to public finances. However, in its 2013 analysis, the OBR pointed out that over a 50-year period migrants would also retire and add to age-related spending pressures. It concluded that "higher migration could be seen as delaying some of the fiscal challenges of an ageing population rather than a way of resolving them permanently."


Why do Chinese students want to study in the UK?

Chinese students in UK now outnumber their EU counterparts

Language, culture and cost are main reasons Chinese students choose the UK


What does the public think?

Post-Brexit immigration policy is proving to be a difficult balancing act for the UK government. 

He faces pressure from some voters, particularly those loyal to his own party, to curb migration – a legacy of the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU. Many who voted to leave cited high migration and the pressure they said it imposed on public services.

UK Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said the combination of new measures and easing of temporary inflows from countries such as Ukraine would see net migration fall and return to pre-pandemic levels.

Net migration to Britain in 2015, the year before the Brexit referendum, was 329,000.

According to the Migration Observatory: "More than 100 percent of overall net migration resulted from non-EU migration. Among EU citizens, more people left than arrived, leading to negative net migration of minus 51,000. Similarly, more UK nationals left than arrived, with net migration of minus 4,000. The cumulative impact of EU and UK net emigration thus reduced the total net migration figure by 55,000."

Yet polls have shown the issue has become less salient among the public amid a crisis in the public health sector partly driven by the removal of the free movement principle for EU nationals since the UK's exit from the bloc in 2020.   


Will migration numbers continue to rise?

Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory, said migration numbers might start to fall. Responding to the ONS survey, she said: "It is very difficult to predict future migration patterns, because surprising developments can disrupt them. For example, a few years ago, none of the forecasts suggested migration would rise above 500,000—not least because they did not anticipate the war in Ukraine. With that caveat, there is no reason to assume that net migration would remain this high indefinitely."

UK posts record migration numbers – but is it a problem?

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Source(s): Reuters

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