Brexit was supposed to give the British government more control over the country’s borders and more power to set immigration policy. But figures released on Thursday showed that net migration reached a record 606,000 in 2022, more than twice as high as when Britain was part of the European Union.
The report is a political headache for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Conservative colleagues who supported Brexit and promised in the 2019 election campaign to keep net migration below 245,000, close to where it was when Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016.
“The numbers are too high, it is as simple as that, and I want to bring them down,” Mr. Sunak said Thursday. However, he refused to say whether he would stick to the 2019 commitment or set another target for net migration, which is the difference between the number of people leaving the U.K. and those coming in.
Concerns about immigration and the free movement of people across the EU fuelled much of the debate during the 2016 Brexit referendum. Campaigners for the Leave side argued that Britain needed to “take back control” of the country’s borders in order to ensure that immigrants didn’t swamp health care services and housing. But others said Britain’s economy relied on immigrants to fill job shortages in agriculture, the National Health Service and many other sectors.
Thursday’s report from the Office for National Statistics showed that around 1.2 million people settled in Britain last year. That was offset by 557,000 people who emigrated, putting the net figure at 606,000. The 2022 total was 118,000 higher than in 2021 and it far surpassed the 311,000 net migration level in 2016, the last year Britain was in the EU.
Of the total number who immigrated to the U.K. in 2022, 925,000 came from non-EU countries. That included 166,000 people who arrived from Ukraine and Hong Kong through special humanitarian programs. But the main driver of the increase was international students, who accounted for 39 per cent of all arrivals.
The number of international students soared in 2022 largely because of the removal of COVID-19 restrictions in 2021, the ONS said. The agency added that an increasing number of students who came in 2021 have started returning home, and that net migration had begun to level off.
That hasn’t eased the pressure on Mr. Sunak. On Thursday, several backbench Tory MPs complained about rising immigration. “The anger and frustration of my constituents has been focused on illegal migration up until now, but that anger and frustration will grow when they consider these legal migration figures,” Conservative MP Martin Vickers told the House of Commons.
But opposition MPs have pointed to the large increase in work visas as proof that Britain need immigrants to fill jobs. The Home Office issued 345,451 work visas during the year ending March, 2023, up from 162,588 the previous year.
Earlier this week Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who is responsible for immigration policy, said the country needed to do more to train British workers to drive trucks and harvest produce. “We need to get overall immigration numbers down. And we mustn’t forget how to do things for ourselves,” she told the National Conservatism conference in London. ”There is no good reason why we can’t train up enough HGV drivers, butchers or fruit pickers. Brexit enables us to build a high-skilled, high-wage economy that is less dependent on low-skilled foreign labour.”
However, critics cited a scheme launched in 2020 called Pick for Britain, which was designed to encourage U.K.-based workers to take farm jobs during the pandemic. The program attracted only a few recruits and was scrapped within a year. Farm groups say growers continue to rely heavily on foreigners to fill positions.
Earlier this week Ms. Braverman also took aim at student visas and announced plans to restrict provisions that allow international students to bring dependents. She also revoked the ability of students to apply for work visas before their studies have completed. “We expect this package to have a tangible impact on net migration,” Ms. Braverman said.
Mr. Sunak has made cracking down on illegal immigration a key priority as well, and in particular stopping the small boats that have been crossing the English Channel from France. Most of them have been filled with asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
The Prime Minister has made no progress so far.
On Thursday, the Home Office reported that 45,000 people arrived in small boats during the year ending March 31, 2023, a 42-per-cent increase from 2022. Officials also noted that while the number of boats crossing the channel had decreased slightly, each craft contained more people. The number of people per boat has increased to 43 from 29 in 2022.