Net migration rose to 606,000 in the year to December 2022, official statistics show.
The figure overtakes the previous post-war high of 504,000 in the year to June last year – and comes despite a Tory 2019 manifesto commitment to “bring overall numbers down”.
Net migration is the annual number of people arriving in the UK when both immigration and emigration are taken into account.
The figures, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) this morning, show that total long-term immigration was estimated at around 1.2 million in 2022, while emigration was 557,000.
Most people arriving in the UK last year were non-EU nationals (925,000), followed by EU (151,000) and British (88,000), the ONS said.
However, the ONS said that despite the rise in immigration last year, its long-term international migration estimates “suggest a slowing in growth over the most recent quarters”.
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“This may reflect the temporary nature of these world events, as well as beginning to see higher numbers of international students emigrate. We will continue to monitor these patterns in the coming months,” it said.
The body said it was a “unique year” for migration due to “world events” including the war in Ukraine and unrest in Hong Kong.
It said that while it did not know whether arrivals from Ukraine and Hong Kong would stay in the UK long term – defined as at least 12 months – it estimated that there were 114,000 long-term arrivals from Ukraine last year, while there were 52,000 long-term arrivals from Hong Kong on the British National (Overseas) visa.
Record net migration will fuel the Tory right and re-ignite debate
There will be a small sigh of relief in Number 10 today, that predictions that net migration would be north of 700,000, even one million, did not come to pass.
Even so, the headline figure sends a clear message. The government wants to cut migration but the numbers are plainly going in the opposite direction: net migration has hit a record level of 606,000.
In recent years several factors have come together at once: a boom in the recruitment of international students, skilled workers coming from outside the EU post-Brexit and schemes helping those coming from Ukraine and Hong Kong.
Whatever the complexities behind the rising figures, and even if they were not as high as expected, record net migration will fuel the right of the Conservative party and re-ignite a migration debate. There will be questions about whether the government’s rhetoric matches its action.
The prime minister knows on legal migration there is a balance to be struck with economic concerns over workforce shortages, a view expressed by the chancellor.
Former cabinet minister Robert Buckland told Kay Burley this morning a “more measured and calm debate” about migration is needed.
The home secretary, however, takes a tougher stance and behind the scenes it has even been suggested to me backlash to today’s figures could help her cause in cabinet.
Whatever tensions might exist out of view, the government will struggle to detach itself from today’s record net migration figures, and to explain why, despite years pledging to bring the numbers down, the figures are still going in the opposite direction.
Jay Lindop, the director of the centre for international migration at the ONS, said numbers arriving on humanitarian routes increased over the 12-month period.
“The main drivers of the increase were people coming to the UK from non-EU countries for work, study and for humanitarian purposes, including those arriving from Ukraine and Hong Kong,” she said.
“For the first time since using our new methods to measure migration, we have also included asylum seekers in our estimates, with around 1 in 12 non-EU migrants coming via this route.
“There are some signs that the underlying drivers behind these high levels of migration are changing. As lockdown restrictions were lifted in 2021, we saw a sharp increase in students arriving.
“Recent data suggests that those arriving in 2021 are now leaving the country, with the overall share of non-EU immigration for students falling in 2022.
“In contrast, those arriving on humanitarian routes increased over the 12 months. Evidence also suggests immigration has slowed in recent months, potentially demonstrating the temporary nature of these events.”
The fresh statistics are likely to draw the ire of Tory backbenches who want to see immigration reduced.
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Sir Robert Buckland suggests the newly released migration stats are not as bad as they seem, when you consider students and Ukrainians Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is under pressure after he appeared to back away from a commitment made under his predecessor, Boris Johnson, that net migration would fall below 250,000.
Last week he vowed to bring the level of net migration down to below the 500,000 figure he “inherited” upon taking office but would not put a number on the figure he would like to see.
Labour and the Conservatives sparred over immigration during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, with Sir Keir Starmer accusing the Tories of “breaking promises” to bring numbers down.
Rishi Sunak responded by claiming the Labour leader would like to see “even more people” coming to the UK.
He also pointed to new curbs on international students announced by the home secretary that will end their right to bring family members to the UK unless they are on postgraduate courses that are currently designated as research programmes.
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Responding shortly after the figures were released, former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland told Sky News that while they were “high”, they were “nowhere near as high” as expected.
He also called for a “more measured and calm debate” on migration and not one “laced with unpleasant overtones”.
Sir Robert said excluding arrivals from Ukraine and Hong Kong – which the ONS said have contributed to high immigration levels over the last 18 months – “might allow us to have… a somewhat more mature and honest debate about the need for some migration, but also the need for us to increase the number of people here in the UK who are economically active”.
Asked whether he thought Ms Braverman’s tone on migration is appropriate, he said the home secretary has not always got it “right”.
Earlier this week, separate figures seen by Sky News showed a growing number of skilled workers from Africa and Asia are moving to Britain to plug staff shortages, with businesses making use of the new post-Brexit migration system to bring in IT professionals, nurses and accountants.