New figures show net migration is higher than ever. Who is coming to Britain and what can the government do to bring the number down?
“Net migration has jumped to a record level to just off 600,000 – the Conservative party had promised to cut the number…”
Net migration is calculated as the number of people coming to live in the UK for a period of time – minus those who leave.
The government has made controlling immigration a central part of its promise to voters.
So for some, these numbers are a hard pill to swallow.
“I think the government as a whole has got to grasp,” senior backbench Conservative MP Sir John Hayes told the BBC. “You can’t have your population grow by 700,000 a year. Where are you going to house these people?”
The trouble is, all the talk about ending the passage of people to Britain across the Channel in small boats… hasn’t actually made much difference to overall net migration.
In 2016, when supporters of Brexit demanded to “take back control”, annual net migration had reached 336,000.
It has since nearly doubled. But the surge has a lot more to do with the government’s own policies than illegal dinghy landings, which accounted for 45,000 new arrivals last year.
So who is coming to Britain?
Refugees from Ukraine and Hong Kong represented the biggest boost. They were awarded special visas by the Home Office.
In total 166,000 migrants who came to Britain last year were fleeing either Russia’s war of aggression or China’s suppression of free speech.
Of course, geopolitical uncertainty isn’t something the Home Secretary has the power to control. And opinion polls suggest most Britons agree it is right to give these vulnerable people refuge.
The second big category of people is made up of international students and their dependents.
Post-pandemic, thousands of people returned to the UK to study… which added to the overall growth in immigration. But experts say it’s likely to be a temporary bump.
Here’s Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford:
“If you look over a period of 5 to 8 years, the large majority of people will not extend and go onto other visas; more than 80 per cent will see their visas expire, and then we have separate data that says compliance is pretty high and people will return home after their visas expire.”
This too, was part of the plan. Fees from international students are critical to the finances of Britain’s universities, and the government set a target of bringing 600,000 international students into Britain every year.
The number of student visas last year exceeded that figure. But now the pressure is on to control the numbers of dependents accompanying these students.
The government is planning to stop foreign students below PhD level from bringing them to the UK. So it’s quite possible that net migration has peaked for now.
“I think we can probably expect that this will be the high point if you like, that we’re going to see net migration start to fall after this figure, because things like Ukraine and Hong Kong probably will reduce unless there’s some other unexpected event,” said Mark Easton, Home Editor of the BBC.
There are legitimate reasons to question whether that’s a good thing.
The third large contingent of immigrants to the UK in 2022 was skilled workers – and they are something the UK can’t afford to do without.
Technically, an increase in skilled workers coming to the UK is welcome news for the economy.
There are 1.1 million job vacancies and long term sickness has removed more than half a million people from the workforce. The NHS is in particular need.
“The biggest single driver of skilled workers has been health and care workers,” says Madeleine Sumption, “so the opening of the immigration system to care but also high demand in the NHS, particularly for nurses.”
In 2022, ‘Skilled Worker Health and Care’ visas grew by 140 per cent on the previous year.
‘Seasonal Worker’ visas, which allow a person to do a job such as fruit picking, rose from two and a half thousand in 2019 to thirty four and a half thousand in 2022.
Those opposing high levels of immigration ask why British people can’t do these jobs. One of the biggest barriers, along with a lack of training and skills, is low pay.
The Migration Advisory Committee, which advises ministers on policy, has called on the government to introduce a minimum rate of pay for care workers that is above the national minimum wage of £10.42.
For a Conservative government that wants to cut spending, that looks unlikely.
Maintaining high levels of net migration is also important for another of the government’s aims: growing the economy.
Official projections show net migration averaging around 265,000 a year until 2028. According to calculations by Bloomberg Economics, limiting that to 100,000 a year, as suggested by the Conservatives in 2010, would knock 1.5% off GDP.
Perhaps that’s why Rishi Sunak has been so vague about exactly how much net migration the country should be aiming for. “Numbers are too high,” he said. “It’s as simple as that and I want to bring them down.”
It’s unclear whether Rishi Sunak’s new policies can help achieve that – or even quell the voices in the Conservative party pushing him to do more.
The relentless focus on small boats might please a section of the party and the electorate. But sooner or later he’ll have to address the demands that legal migration places on the UK’s housing, GP’s surgeries and schools.
As for the British public, support for reducing immigrant numbers has actually softened since Brexit. Opinion polls suggest it has fallen from 67 to 42 per cent. And support for immigration increases when it’s required “to meet social and economic needs”.
Record immigration is often framed as a problem, but there’s a way to see it more positively. Numbers are high because of Britain’s humanitarianism, its world class universities and its need for skilled individuals to work in its public health service.
This episode was written by Barney Macintyre and mixed by Imy Harper.