UK net migration reaches record levels, increasing pressure on government


The level of net migration to Britain reached record levels last year, official figures showed Thursday, putting pressure on the UK government which has made the issue a political touchstone.

Britain saw net migration of 606,000 people in 2022, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said, with 1.2 million people arriving in the country and about half that number leaving.

That comes despite pledges from successive Conservative governments to drastically reduce the numbers of people moving to the UK, particularly in the wake of Brexit – a rupture that was touted by its proponents as a necessary step for Britain to “take control” of its borders.

Thursday’s figures were affected by the lifting of Covid-19 travel restrictions and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which resulted in two new schemes by which Ukrainian refugees could resettle in the UK. “These (figures) are down to world events, but they’re also down to how the UK government has chosen to respond to world events,” Rob McNeil, the deputy director of the Oxford Migration Observatory, told CNN.

The vast majority of people arriving – 925,000 – were non-EU nationals, and around one in 12 of those were asylum seekers, included for the first time in the ONS’ annual release.

“The main drivers of the increase were people coming to the UK from non-EU countries for work, study and for humanitarian purposes,” Jay Lindop, Director of the Centre for International Migration at the ONS, said Thursday.

The headline figure will force difficult questions for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and his embattled Home Secretary Suella Braverman, both of whom have joined their predecessors in promising to reduce arrivals.

The pair have sought to focus attention on refugees and asylum-seekers crossing the English Channel on small boats, rather than on overall migration, despite that route representing a tiny proportion of arrivals to the UK.

Ministers have been criticized by rights organizations and politicians across the political divide for their use of hardline rhetoric against those people, with Braverman controversially rallying against an “invasion” of migrants across the Channel.

Critics of the government have long contended that Britain needs a steady influx of migrants in order to boost its workforce and support its ailing public services.

But before, during and since the bitter Brexit referendum campaign, in which lowering migration became a central debate, several Tory prime ministers have sought to appease the right wing of their party by making the reduction of migration a focal point of their premierships.

David Cameron infamously insisted he would reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” during his premiership, which ran from 2010 to 2016 – a vow that never came close to fruition, but which set the course for more than a decade of Tory fixation on the issue.

Privately, many Conservatives wonder why Sunak’s government decided to make immigration such a key issue when this year’s figures were inevitably going to be high.

Rishi Sunak has inherited and prolonged a long-running Conservative fixation over migration.

The UK welcomed 169,000 Ukrainian refugees in the 13 months following Russia’s invasion, separate figures showed, and a push by the British government to encourage foreign students to study in the UK also played a significant factor in Thursday’s numbers.

People from Hong Kong have also been encouraged to arrive through a special visa program.

And in the eyes of the public, immigration has become less of an issue since the Brexit referendum, as voters either understand immigration is good for the economy or feel that Brexit allowed a certain degree of control.

Sunak would prefer to shift attention to his long-touted promise to “Stop the Boats;” arrivals of asylum-seekers on small, illegal vessels run by criminal trafficking gangs have soared in recent years and attracted widespread media coverage.

But he is under pressure to show results in that regard too. The government’s own policy post-Brexit has removed the UK from the Dublin Regulation, an agreement among EU member states that asylum-seekers would be returned to the first safe country within the EU that they initially arrived.

From CNN

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