Sunak under pressure as net migration to the UK hits 745,000

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is under increasing political pressure to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign workers, following a record net immigration of 745,000 last year, despite years of Conservative promises to lower these numbers.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed on Thursday that the net immigration figure for 2022 was 139,000 higher than previously estimated. This increase was attributed to a significant post-pandemic surge in individuals from outside the EU arriving in the UK for employment.

Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman criticised the figures as a “slap in the face to the British public,” emphasising the public’s consistent voting for migration control and reduction.

A faction of right-wing Tories cautioned Sunak that reducing net migration was a “do or die” issue before the upcoming election, expected next year. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer expressed concern over the “shockingly high” numbers.

The ONS suggested a potential decline in immigration, noting a net migration of 672,000 for the 12 months to June, compared to the previous calendar year’s total of 745,000. However, it acknowledged that the recent surge in immigration contributed to the fastest population growth in England and Wales in over 60 years.

During the 12 months to June 2023, 1.2 million people immigrated long-term to the UK, with nearly 1 million being non-EU nationals. Non-EU immigration increased, particularly in the health and care sectors, accounting for the fastest population growth in over 60 years.

The ONS attributed the rise in non-EU immigration to employment, notably in health and care, with an increasing number of dependents accompanying the migrants. Of the non-EU immigrants, 39% came to the UK for study, mirroring the proportion from the previous year.

Separate figures from the Home Office indicated a slowdown in the overseas hiring of skilled workers, except in the health and care sector. Labour market softening was cited as a reason for the decline.

Labour leader Starmer criticised the government for a “huge increase in work visas,” arguing that the figures revealed a failure to address skills-related issues. The Conservatives, in their last election manifesto, pledged to reduce reliance on cheap migrant labour and lower net immigration from the 2019 level of 226,000.

The impact of Brexit was evident in the surge in net immigration of non-EU nationals from 179,000 in the 12 months to June 2019 to 768,000 in the period ending in June.

While the Home Office and economists anticipate a future slowdown in net immigration, the ONS suggests that migrants might stay in the UK longer. The Office for Budget Responsibility predicted lower future net inflows, settling at around 245,000, citing rising emigration and recent visa rule changes.

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