The figures have renewed a debate about levels of immigration, long a hot-button issue in Britain and one of the drivers behind the country’s decision to break away from the European Union. Many in the pro-Brexit campaign said that they wanted Britain to “take back control” of its borders and expressed a deep anxiety over immigration and the stresses they said were being put on public services.
A closer look at the figures reveals a very real Brexit impact, with more E.U. citizens leaving than arriving in Britain Last year, there was a net loss of 51,000 E.U. citizens. But there was a jump in people coming from the rest of the world, notably to work in health and social care. There were also more international students, which made up almost 40 percent of all non-E.U. migrants in 2022.
Britain also welcomed more than 110,000 Ukrainians and 50,000 Hong Kongers who came on special visas.
Attitudes about migration levels have changed dramatically since the 2016 Brexit vote. It is no longer the salient issue that it once was. Polls show that Brits are more concerned about inflation or the economy than they are immigration.
Rob Ford, a politics professor from Manchester University, told a Twitter Spaces event on the topic that the picture has changed hugely since the 2016 referendum. He said that there were large spikes in public support for “more migration for catering, restaurants, construction, fruit picking. Voters are responding to those pressures.”
“The architects of Brexit should be cheering,” he added. “We have a system that voters approve of, and when pressures rise in the labor market, voters say ‘okay.’ That’s where the electorate are. We need the politicians to catch up with them.”
But taking a hard-line stance on immigration has worked for previous Conservative governments, and the current one is betting on it, too.
Sunak has said that he wants to bring net migration below 500,000, the figure he “inherited” when he came into office. His administration has also made stopping asylum seekers arriving on “small boats” one of its five key pledges ahead of the next general election, which must be held by January 2025. The Conservatives are hoping that focusing on immigration will help to galvanize their base. A recent poll found them trailing the opposition Labour Party by 18 points.
The new figures published Thursday tell many stories, one of which is that net migration may have peaked.
Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said, “These unusually high net migration levels do not have a single cause but result from several things happening at once: the war in Ukraine, a boom in international student recruitment, and high demand for health and care workers.” While it’s difficult to predict future trends, she said, “there is no reason to assume that net migration would remain this high indefinitely.”