UK’s net migration figure reaches highest level since end of World War II

By Amer Zaman

on December 21, 2022

Read Time: 7 Minutes

On Thursday 24th November, came news of historic significance to UK migration: net migration, defined as the difference between the number of people arriving in and leaving the UK, is estimated to have hit 504,000 for the 12 months to June 2022, according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This is well above the previous post-World War II net migration record of more than 330,000, set in 2016.

That previous figure, of course, was recorded in the same year as the UK’s referendum on its European Union (EU) membership, with migration having played a key role in the associated debates before and since the vote. But it appears this latest big jump has been largely driven by legal arrivals of people from outside the EU, as well as by various exceptional factors brought on by events over the last few years. The latter include the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent resumption of international travel, as well as the UK’s reception of people from Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Hong Kong.

What caused UK net migration to rise so much in 2021-2022?

There has been much talk about how the record net migration figures for 2021-22 are likelier to represent the result of an exceptional combination of circumstances, than a longer-term “new normal”. Apparent contributors to the latest big rise have included:

  • The end of COVID-19-related travel restrictions, which may have led many people who had postponed previous plans to travel to the UK during the 2020-21 period, to finally do so
  • A rise in non-EU migration, although not primarily due to policies the UK Government implemented to replace the EU’s free movement rules; meanwhile, the latest figures show that EU net migration remains negative
  • The humanitarian schemes put in place for arrivals from Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Hong Kong. With regard to Ukraine alone, for example, the Home Office has said that a total of 220,225 applications were received across both Ukraine Visa Schemes, with 189,131 of these being granted
  • A big increase in students arriving on UK visas. Again according to the Home Office, in the year ending September 2022, there were 476,389 Sponsored study visas issued to main applicants, which represents a 77% rise on the situation in 2019.

While small-boat crossings of the English Channel have been a highly visible topic of media and political discussion over the past year, it is important not to overemphasise their role in overall rises in immigration. It is estimated that about 35,000 people arrived in the country by small boats in the year ending June 2022, with the majority of these having gone on to apply for asylum.

Breaking down the net migration figures

The data shows that immigration to the UK actually reached 1.1 million in the year to June; when this is considered alongside the 560,000 people who emigrated from the UK, the overall net migration figure is shown to be around 504,000.

There are some important caveats to go with this information, the ONS having said the estimates are provisional and experimental due to the use of new methodology to formulate them, drawing upon administrative data that different government departments have collected.

Indeed, the degree of uncertainty surrounding the figures is perhaps reflected in the ONS having revised down its migration estimates for the previous two years. The agency now estimates net migration during the 12 months to June 2020 to have been 88,000, with the equivalent figure for the year to June 2021 being a much higher 173,000. This backs up suggestions that much of the recent rises can probably be attributed to a gradual easing in coronavirus-related travel rules.

A key trend observable in the figures is the shift from EU to non-EU migration to the UK with the introduction of the post-Brexit visa regime. Indeed, the ONS said that of the 1.1 million people who arrived in the UK for a long-term stay during the year to June, 704,000 of these were from outside the EU – an increase of 379,000 from the previous year.

Home Office statistics suggest that people continue to come to the UK for a broad range of reasons – such as work, study, and family – which could be further contributing to driving up the net migration figures. Looking at work visas alone, the year ending September 2022 saw a 128% increase in the number of ‘Worker’ visas granted to main applicants compared to 2019, reaching 145,258. Such bumper increases are largely attributable to the ‘Skilled Worker’ and ‘Skilled Worker – Health and Care’ visas that were introduced in December 2020.

What has been the UK Government’s response to the net migration figures?

Earlier in the same week the net migration data was released, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had reaffirmed the government’s previously stated goal of reducing net migration, defying business leaders who had called for a relaxation of visa rules.

After the numbers were made public on Thursday 24th November, Downing Street said Mr Sunak remained committed to driving down overall migration numbers, reasoning that “there are some unprecedented and unique circumstances which are having a significant impact on these statistics.” The Government also said that no specific timeframe had been put in place for lowering migration. Home Secretary Suella Braverman said the record levels of net migration were “understandable” in light of the circumstances in Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Hong Kong, as well as the “generosity of the British people.” She added, however, that the UK public “rightly expect us to control our borders and we remain committed to reducing migration over time.”

What do the figures mean for UK migration going forward?  

In the event that migration did continue at higher levels, this would have certain implications for the UK’s growth prospects and public finances, given how it would help expand the country’s workforce. Indeed, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) recently said that an upgrade to its net migration forecast was the only factor adding “materially” to the UK’s potential growth prospects over the next five years.

However, it looks far from certain that this latest record will actually be surpassed anytime soon. Not only at the Home Office but also among independent experts, it seems to be widely agreed that these record numbers have been largely driven by exceptional circumstances. As a consequence, it doesn’t seem that these data can serve as a reliable indicator of the shape that UK immigration is likely to take in the longer term.

It is probable that over the coming years, immigration to the UK will slow, and emigration from the UK will rise, as impacts related to Brexit, COVID-19, and the aforementioned humanitarian routes recede. It is surely too soon to think that net migration hovering at around 500,000 or more a year can be treated as a “new normal”, or to make long-lasting policy decisions based on this.

One example of the high degree of uncertainty around the longer-term impacts would be the situation around students, who the ONS said were responsible for the fastest growth in visa issuance over the past year. Although significant numbers of these students will presumably leave the UK once their courses end, a recent relaxation in visa rules might lead to higher numbers of foreign students staying in and working in the UK following graduation, than was the case in previous years.

Sure enough, the new Graduate visa route enables students to apply to work in the UK for as long as three years after their studies are over. But as the ONS pointed out, past research has found a high level of mobility among students, some 61% of non-EU students having left at the end of their study visa in the academic year ending 2019. Some students may also apply for new visas once their studies in the UK come to an end, and then leave at a later time, so it is difficult to predict exactly how their movements will impact on the UK’s net migration data in years to come.  

It should also be pointed out that while much of the public and political conversation around immigration to the UK in recent years has centred on those attempting small-boat crossings of the English Channel, the 73,000 asylum applications in the year to September represent only a small proportion of everyone who arrived in the country over the last 12 to 18 months.

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