Net migration to the UK rose to an all-time high of 606,000 in 2022, piling pressure on Rishi Sunak’s government, but the country’s statistics agency said the influx was now starting to level off.
Thursday’s record numbers fell short of some earlier forecasts that net migration reached 700,000 last year. However, they contradicted the Conservatives’ 2019 pledge – reaffirmed by Sunak – that “overall numbers will come down”.
“The numbers are very high, it’s that simple,” the prime minister told the international satellite television station after the 606,000 figure was released. “And I want to bring them down.”
The Office for National Statistics said the total – which compares to the 2021 net immigration figure of 488,000 – was driven by people coming to the UK from outside the European Union, including from Ukraine and Hong Kong. But he said net immigration to the UK is now leveling off, with immigration slowing and immigration increasing.
The statistics agency also noted that the mix of immigrants had changed throughout the year, with relatively fewer newcomers arriving as students and more through humanitarian routes.
The Office for National Statistics estimated total migration from outside the European Union at around 925,000, up 287,000 from 2021. Students and their families made up more than a third of this total, with 235,000 arriving on work visas and around 250,000 asylum seekers or humanitarian routes.
Migration outside the EU has also increased, largely due to students returning home, leaving net migration from outside the EU at 660,000.
Total immigration from the EU, which accounted for more than half of arrivals until 2018, will only be 151,000 in 2022. With 202,000 EU nationals leaving the UK during the year, immigration to the EU is now negative.
Guy Lindup, director of the ONS International Migration Center, said “unprecedented global events” combined with the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions have led to record levels of migration.
But, she added, the evidence points to a slowdown in migration, “which indicates the temporary nature of these events.”
Immigration remains highly politically charged, with the government under attack from the right and Labor saying it has lost control of the issue.
Sunak stressed that measures announced this week to prevent foreign students bringing their family members with them would lead to lower levels over time, and urged the public to “rest assured” that the issue has been brought under control.
But the current flows are still well above the government’s 2010 pledge to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands”.
The ONS also revised its figure for net migration for the year ending June 2022, which now stands at 606,000 after including asylum seekers – up from a previous estimate of 504,000.
Tory MPs issued warnings to the government to redouble its efforts to bring down numbers.
“Where are you going to house these people? We build around 180,000 new homes a year,” former Conservative minister Sir John Hayes, who heads the so-called common sense group of right-wing MPs, told the BBC before the figures were released.
Labor criticized the government for the “extraordinary figures”, stressing that the number of work visas issued had doubled since the pandemic.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said the government had “no control over immigration” and had “completely failed to address skills shortages, particularly in health and social care, or to get people back to work post-Covid”.
But Jonathan Portes, a professor at King’s College London, said the figures show net migration is likely to decline in 2023.
“The narrative that migration is escalating or is simply out of control is simply wrong,” he said. He added that the figures showed the continuing impact of Brexit, with “a complete reorientation of British migration flows away from the EU and towards the rest of the world”.
Marley Morris, associate director for migration at the IPPR think tank, said ministers should avoid “unintentional overreactions” to the numbers.
He said there were clear signs that net migration was stabilizing and there was “strong public support for the main drivers of net migration, including NHS recruitment, international students and humanitarian routes”.