Net migration to the UK has more than doubled from pre-Brexit levels, figures are expected to show

by The Insights

On the eve of the 2016 referendum on EU membership, official figures showed annual net migration to the UK had reached an all-time high of 336,000, fueling demands from Brexit supporters to “resume control of our borders.

Over the coming week, analysts expect new estimates from the Office for National Statistics to show that net migration has at least doubled that level from last year – a record that is largely the result of the political choices of the government and has much less to do with the arrivals of clandestine boats. of France.

For some diehard supporters of Britain’s divorce from the EU, who saw Brexit as a way to drastically reduce immigration, this represents a betrayal. Anticipation of the data, due on Thursday, has already sparked infighting at the top of the Conservative government, which won the 2019 election under Boris Johnson, over a promise to cut net migration.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has sought to distance himself from this commitment and has taken a more pragmatic approach by avoiding firm commitments in either direction.

Instead, he focused on the controversial measures his government is putting in place to address chaos in the asylum system and limit the number of people crossing the Channel in small boats. Last year, a record 45,000 people arrived via this route.

Proponents of much lower overall migration, such as the campaign group Migration Watch, are not easily convinced by these tactics.

“The government must not be allowed to use the boats to distract from the catastrophic levels of legal migration for which it is largely responsible,” said Alp Mehmet, a former British diplomat and chairman of the group.

A sharp increase in the net migration figure in 2022 has been anticipated by the government and analysts, with some predicting the figure to exceed 700,000. But it surprised in its magnitude mainly due to one-off factors.

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Covid played a big role, removing the initial impact of the new post-Brexit immigration rules, which came into force in January 2021. These removed the free movement of people from the EU, but, in order to compensate for the impact on labor markets, ministers liberalized the visa regime for the rest of the world to favor skilled workers.

The Home Office’s visa statistics for 2022, already published, show employers are making generous use of the visa system for skilled workers – particularly in the NHS and care sector, where ministers have cut fees and waived some salary and skill requirements to help stem staffing crises. Visa statistics also indicate a post-Covid increase in the number of international students coming to the UK.

Meanwhile, the flow of refugees from Ukraine and the arrival of people with British National (Overseas) status from Hong Kong have dramatically increased the numbers.

Taken together, the statistical results for 2022 revealed what Madeleine Sumption, director of the Oxford Migration Watch think tank, describes as “cake”, or wanting two incompatible things at once, both in mainstream public attitudes towards migration and how the government responds. Indeed, people want a relatively liberal system that does the impossible and delivers a low number of immigrants.

“It’s like with public finances: people support the idea of ​​a balanced budget, but they also like all the different things we spend money on,” Sumption said, adding, “Often the People want a reduction in migration, but also support most voters’ high migration patterns.

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Barring further surprises, economists expect immigration to decline from current highs as arrivals from Ukraine slow, students return home and the post-Covid hiring boom s attenuates.

“The universities are full and the pressure from the labor market will ease,” said Jonathan Portes, a professor at King’s College. He argues that job vacancies have fallen across the economy and that hiring could slow even in the health and care sectors once workers, who left in a post-burnout wave -Covid, will have been replaced.

But, in what is already a problem for Sunak in his cranky party, it would still leave net migration at levels much higher than officials expected when the post-Brexit regime was introduced.

Migration experts also don’t believe the government’s policy on irregular arrivals will solve record backlogs in the asylum system and deter illegal Channel crossings ahead of the next general election, due next year.

Instead, loopholes in the Illegal Migration Bill pending in Parliament and the lack of working agreements with third countries to enable large-scale deportations could force the government to detain indefinitely tens of thousands of people, according to the Oxford Migration Observatory and the Refugee Council. charity.

Meanwhile, business groups say they are still suffering from severe labor shortages in low-wage sectors which can no longer hire in the EU and are pressuring ministers to add more roles to the list of shortage occupations.

Despite the public divisions between ministers presented last week, the policy changes being discussed would be relatively minor alterations to the overall framework.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt told business leaders at the recent British Chambers of Commerce annual conference that the government would be ‘on the fringes, always pragmatic’ – suggesting he was open to expanding the list of professions in short supply, but not to a radical expansion of low-skilled jobs. migration.

So far, the public seems relatively willing. Opinion has softened considerably since the day before the EU referendum, when 66% of Britons favored strict limits – or even an outright ban – on immigration.

Just 31% were in this camp last year, according to an FT analysis of the joint World Values ​​Survey and European Values ​​study. For the general population, migration has slipped down the list of priorities, with only one in four Britons listing it as their priority, according to an Ipsos survey last month.

“I continue to expect the importance of migration to increase in public opinion. It is surprising that it is not seen how prominently it looms large in the political debate,” Sumption said. She added, however, that this week’s data could start to change that.

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