Net migration to Britain rose to a record high of more than half a million people in the year to June 2022, according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics on Thursday.
The rise in long-term arrivals to the UK was driven by a post-pandemic upswing in international investigations and by the influx of Ukrainian and Afghan refugees and residents in Hong Kong. Overseas recruitment by UK employers – particularly the NHS – also contributed.
“Brexit has not reduced net migration . . . The end of free movement does not mean Britain is closed to migrants; just open in a different way,” said Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College, London. But he added , that future flows were unlikely to remain at current levels and it was too early to say whether overall work-related migration would increase.
The data indicated that immigration reached 1.1 million. in the 12 months to June, with emigration of 560,000, leading to net immigration of 504,000. That’s about three times the total net immigration of the previous year, when the pandemic weighed on international travel, and double the historical average.
The increase is at odds with the government’s stated goal of reducing net immigration, which Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed earlier this week and rejected calls from business leaders to ease visa rules.
Downing Street said on Thursday that Sunak remained “fully committed to bringing the overall figures down”, adding “there are some unprecedented and unique circumstances which have a significant impact on these statistics”. Number 10 added that the Prime Minister had “not put a specific time frame” on reducing immigration.
Jay Lindop, director of the ONS’s Center for International Migration, said an “unprecedented” series of world events, including the end of coronavirus lockdowns, post-Brexit the transition, the war in Ukraine and the resettlement of Afghans and British nationals from Hong Kong had all contributed to “record levels of long-term immigration”. That meant it was too early to say whether higher immigration would continue, she added.
The ONS said Thursday’s estimates were preliminary and experimental because they were based on new methodology that draws on administrative data collected by various government departments. However, the figures provide the most complete indication yet of how the post-Brexit changes in UK migration policy are affecting the population.
Greg Thwaites, director of research at the Resolution Foundation, said the data suggested migration patterns had “fundamentally changed after Brexit”, with 51,000 more EU citizens leaving the UK than arriving in the year to June.
ONS said about the 1.1 million people who came to stay in the UK long-term, 704,000 were from outside the EU – an increase of 379,000 on the previous year. The net migration figure of 504,000 compares with official estimates that net migration will ultimately be just over 200,000 per year.
If migration continues at higher levels, increasing the size of the UK workforce, this would have implications for the economy and public finances. The Office for Budget Responsibility said last week that an upgrade to its forecast for net migration was the only factor adding “substantially” to Britain’s potential growth outlook over the next five years.
But both the Home Office and independent experts said the latest figures were not a reliable guide to future trends, with immigration likely to slow and emigration to rise over the next few years.
Madeleine Sumption, director of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, said unusually high levels of immigration had been driven by humanitarian routes, the upturn in international investigations and high demand for staff in the NHS, with political decisions made as a result of Brexit playing a minor role.
“We cannot assume they represent a ‘new normal,’ and it would be rash to make major policy decisions based on these numbers,” she said.
The ONS also revised down its migration estimates for the previous two years. That now puts net migration for the year to June 2020 at 88,000, a total that grew to 173,000 for the year to June 2021.
The ONS said the fastest growth in visa issuance over the past year was for students. Many of these will leave the UK at the end of their courses, although a recent easing of visa rules could allow more to stay and work when they graduate than in previous years.
Schemes for Ukrainians, Afghans and Hong Kong residents accounted for 140,000 of the total net migration. But the figures do not include people who arrived via clandestine routes.
Quarterly visa issuance statistics published separately by the Home Office on Thursday confirmed the overall picture painted by the ONS data. It also showed that 44,500 people arrived by small boat across the Channel in the year to September 2022, almost half of those in the three months to September.
Home Office figures showed that 72,000 asylum applications were made in the year to September, an 88 per cent increase on the previous year. However, the number of initial decisions on asylum applications increased by only 11 percent – leading to a backlog of unprocessed applications extending to 143,000.
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne