On the eve of the 2016 referendum on EU membership, official figures showed annual net migration to the UK had risen to an unprecedented high of 336,000 — fuelling demands from supporters of Brexit to “take back control of our borders”.
In the coming week, analysts expect new estimates from the Office for National Statistics to show net migration rose to at least double that level last year — a record that is largely the result of government policy choices and has much less to do with clandestine boat arrivals from France.
For some hardline advocates of Britain’s divorce from the EU, who saw Brexit as a means of drastically reducing immigration, this represents a betrayal. Anticipation of the data, due on Thursday, has already triggered infighting at the top of the Conservative government, which won the 2019 election under then leader Boris Johnson on a pledge to slash net migration.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak has sought to distance himself from that pledge and adopted a more pragmatic approach by evading firm commitments either way.
Instead, he has focused on the contentious measures his government is putting in place to address chaos in the asylum system and curb the number of people crossing the Channel in small boats. Last year a record 45,000 arrived via that route.
Advocates of much lower overall migration, such as the campaign group Migration Watch, are not easily persuaded by these tactics.
“The government must not be allowed to use the boats to divert attention away from the catastrophic levels of legal migration for which they are largely responsible,” said Alp Mehmet, a former British diplomat and chair of the group.
A big rise in the 2022 net migration figure was anticipated by government and analysts with some predicting the figure will top 700,000. But it has surprised in its scale mostly due to one-off factors.
Covid played a big part, suppressing the initial impact of new post-Brexit immigration rules, which came into force in January 2021. These did away with free movement of people from the EU, but, in order to offset the impact on labour markets, ministers liberalised the visa regime for the rest of the world to favour skilled workers.
Home Office visa statistics for 2022, already published, show employers making liberal use of the visa system for skilled workers — especially in the NHS and care sector, where ministers have cut fees and waived some salary and skill requirements to help stem staffing crises. The visa statistics also point to a post-Covid surge in the number of international students coming to the UK.
Meanwhile, the flow of refugees from Ukraine, and arrival of people with British National (Overseas) status from Hong Kong, has boosted the numbers dramatically.
Taken together the statistical outcome for 2022 has exposed what Madeleine Sumption, director of the Oxford Migration Observatory think-tank, describes as “cakeism”, or wanting two incompatible things at once, both in majority public attitudes to migration, and in the way the government responds. In effect, people want a relatively liberal system that does the impossible and delivers low numbers of immigrants.
“It’s like with public finances: people support the idea of a balanced budget but they also like all of the different things we spend money on,” Sumption said, adding: “Often people are keen on lower migration but also support most of the constituent schemes of high migration.”
Barring further surprises, economists expect immigration to ease from current highs as arrivals from Ukraine slow, students return home and a post-Covid hiring boom subsides.
“Universities are full and the labour market pressure is going to come off,” said Jonathan Portes, professor at King’s College. He argues that job vacancies have declined across the economy, and hiring could slow even in the health and care sectors once workers, who left in a wave of post-Covid burnout, have been replaced.
But, in what is already a problem for Sunak within his fractious party, this would still leave net migration running at much higher levels than officials expected when the post-Brexit regime was introduced.
Nor do migration experts believe government policy towards irregular arrivals will resolve record backlogs in the asylum system and deter clandestine Channel crossings before the next general election, which is expected next year.
Instead, flaws in the Illegal Migration Bill going through parliament, and the absence of working agreements with third countries to enable deportations at scale could compel the government to detain tens of thousands of people indefinitely, according to both the Oxford Migration Observatory and the Refugee Council charity.
Meanwhile, business groups say they are still suffering acute labour shortages in low-paid sectors that can no longer hire from the EU and are lobbying ministers to add more roles to the list of shortage occupations.
Despite the public splits between ministers on show last week, the policy changes under discussion would be relatively minor changes to the overall framework.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt told business leaders at the recent British Chambers of Commerce annual conference that the government would “at the margins, always be pragmatic” — suggesting he was open to expanding the shortage occupation list, but not to a radical expansion of low-skilled migration.
For now, the public seems relatively acquiescent. Opinion has significantly softened since the eve of the EU referendum when 66 per cent of Britons favoured strict limits — if not an outright ban — on immigration.
Only 31 per cent were in that camp last year, according to an FT analysis of the joint World Values Survey and European Values study. For the population at large migration has slid down the list of priorities with only one in four Britons listing it as their priority, according to an Ipsos survey last month.
“I keep expecting the salience of migration to go up in public opinion. It is surprising that it is not given how prominent it is in political debate,” said Sumption. She added however, that this week’s data could begin to change that.