Why Are So Many People Moving to the U.K.?
For years, Britain’s governing Conservative Party has pledged to restrict immigration, and a vow to “take back control” of borders and migration was a centerpiece of the Brexit campaign to leave the European Union.
Instead, immigration soared in 2022, according to national statistics released on Thursday — news that was somewhat embarrassing to party leaders, whose largely pro-Brexit voters had expected it to fall.
The new figures show that last year, net migration to Britain — people moving in minus those moving out — reached a record 606,000. That is a 24 percent jump from 2021, and roughly double the rate of net migration in the years just before and after the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Migration is driven by a complex mix of domestic and global factors like war, job opportunities and politics. So what do the numbers say about what is happening in Britain?
Violence and oppression are helping to fuel migration.
From 2004 to 2017, about 600,000 people moved to Britain each year. In 2022, that figure jumped to 1.163 million, an all-time high and a figure that is unlikely to be matched soon.
There were big increases last year in the number of people fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine (more than 120,000 Ukrainians have moved to Britain since the war began in February 2022), the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the growing crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong. Britain has humanitarian visa programs specifically for those groups.
But those flows already show signs of subsiding. And some of last year’s surge might have been movement that would have occurred earlier but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, when migration dropped.
Until a few years ago, migration from the European Union accounted for most of the influx of people to Britain. But after Brexit took away the automatic right of E.U. citizens to settle in Britain, the numbers fell sharply, last year accounting for less than 8 percent of the total.
Emigration from Britain has grown in recent years, much of it by E.U. citizens returning home.
Education and economics play major roles, as well.
While the current Conservative government has long voiced its opposition to the high levels of migration, Britain has major labor shortages, particularly in health care, social services and agriculture, partly because of Brexit.
The unemployment rate is below 4 percent, far lower than it was before the pandemic, and many jobs go unfilled, so whatever the government’s position, Britain remains attractive to migrants looking for work. Many employers want the government to grant more work visas.
The government also points to education as a driver of immigration. Foreign graduate students living in Britain have increasingly taken advantage of a provision that lets them obtain visas for dependent family members.
Suella Braverman, the home secretary, recently said that such visas had jumped 750 percent since 2019, to 136,000 last year. Most were for people from Nigeria and India.
The government said it would make the dependent visas harder to get, but migration experts have said the change would have a limited effect, and universities argue against discouraging foreign students, who they say benefit the economy.
Arrivals in the English Channel make up a small fraction of migration.
The political rhetoric on migration in Britain in recent years has focused largely on the highly visible arrival of people — mostly refugees seeking asylum — in small boats across the English Channel.
But the new migration data offered a timely reminder that undocumented people making the dangerous crossing of the Channel make up just a small portion of new arrivals, while most enter legally.
Just 45,755 people were detected arriving by small boats across the Channel in 2022, according to government statistics published this year. That amounts to 3.8 percent of the total number of people moving to Britain.
But even in its response to the new migration statistics released on Thursday, the Home Office focused on how to keep boat arrivals down, in addition to slowing overall immigration.
“We remain committed to reducing overall net migration, while stopping the boats and delivering control of our borders, prioritizing tackling abuse and preventing dangerous and illegal crossings,” the office said in a statement.
Megan Specia is a correspondent on the International Desk in London, covering the United Kingdom and Ireland. She has been with The Times since 2016. @meganspecia
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