Recent data released on Thursday revealed that net migration to Britain reached a record high of 606,000 last year. This surge in arrivals has prompted Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to renew promises to reduce immigration.
However, addressing this issue has proven challenging amidst acute labour shortages.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) attributed the increase in net migration to individuals from outside the European Union who came to Britain for work or study, as well as those arriving from Ukraine and Hong Kong through special visa schemes.
Following the data release, Prime Minister Sunak stated in an interview with ITV that the numbers were too high and expressed his desire to decrease net migration.
He referenced recent reforms that would remove the right for certain international students to bring their family members to the UK. Sunak also pledged additional measures without specifying a specific target for net migration.
The topic of high levels of legal migration has long been a dominant issue in Britain's political discourse and played a significant role in the country's decision to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum.
Despite successive Conservative-led governments promising to reduce migration for over a decade, the ONS data published on Thursday revealed that a net of 606,000 people arrived in Britain in the year ending December 2022.
Although the rate of immigration has shown signs of slowing in recent months, the revised figures indicate an increase compared to previous data covering the year ending June 2022, which reported a net figure of 504,000.
The post-Brexit immigration policy presents a challenging balancing act for Prime Minister Sunak, especially as an election is expected next year where immigration is likely to be a significant factor for many voters.
On one hand, there is pressure from voters, particularly within his own party, to restrict migration due to concerns raised during the EU referendum about high migration and its impact on public services. On the other hand, Brexit has caused labor shortages in key sectors, including an exodus of EU nationals. These tight labour market conditions contribute to the country's persistent high inflation.
Simultaneously, while the government announced stricter rules for the family members of students, it also relaxed visa rules for fishermen due to labour shortages.
The opposition Labour Party criticized the government's policy, pointing to separate data published on Thursday, which indicated a 119% increase in the number of work visas issued, reaching around 300,000 in the year ending March 2023.
Labour's immigration policy chief, Yvette Cooper, argued that the government has failed to address skills shortages, particularly in health and social care, and to reintegrate people into the workforce after the Covid pandemic.
Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick expressed confidence that a combination of new measures and the easing of temporary inflows from Ukraine and Hong Kong would lead to a decrease in net migration, returning it to pre-pandemic levels. He also highlighted that being outside the EU allows for better control over immigration.
In 2015, the year prior to the Brexit referendum, net migration to Britain stood at 329,000.
According to the ONS, overall immigration in 2022 reached approximately 1.16 million, offset by emigration of 557,000. The data revealed that 925,000 arrivals in 2022 were non-EU nationals, 151,000 were from the EU, and 88,000 were British citizens.
The special visa schemes accounted for an estimated 114,000 long-term arrivals from Ukraine and 52,000 from Hong Kong.
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