Tuesday, April 23

U.K. Net Migration Numbers Hit a Record, Embarrassing Conservatives

Legal immigration into Britain climbed to almost three-quarters of a million people in 2022, official statistics showed on Thursday, a new and unwelcome record for the country’s governing Conservative Party after it promised to use its post-Brexit powers to curb the number of arrivals.

The latest figures on net migration were a new setback for the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, prompting anger within the party, as he also struggles to stop asylum seekers arriving in small boats on the British coast, revive a slumbering economy and deal with dismal polling numbers.

“In every election since 1992 we have promised to reduce migration,” Neil O’Brien, a Conservative lawmaker and Brexit supporter, said on social media, adding that Thursday’s “extraordinary numbers” meant that the prime minister “must now take immediate and massive action” to do so.

The figures, released by the Office for National Statistics, the country’s official statistical agency, revised net migration figures for the year ending December 2022 — previously estimated at 606,000, itself a record — upward to 745,000.

The statistics released on Thursday relate to people given permission to enter the country mainly from outside Europe, and mostly to work or to study, and the trend is politically awkward for supporters of Brexit — including Mr. Sunak — as that policy ended the automatic right for citizens of E.U. countries to settle in Britain.

Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union increased the government’s ability to determine immigration levels, and during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016, those advocating departure promised to “take back control” of the country’s borders.

But far from immigration falling, as many had expected, the number of people arriving in the country legally has more than doubled since Brexit, even as Britons lost their automatic right to live and work elsewhere in Europe.

No longer able to recruit freely from their near neighbors, British employers have looked further afield, including to Asia, Africa and the Middle East, to fill gaps in the labor market, and there has been a big rise in the number of overseas students from countries outside Europe.

Although Britain’s economy remains sluggish, labor shortages in areas such as health care and hospitality emerged as the coronavirus pandemic receded. The net migration figures have been further inflated by the admission of people through humanitarian routes, including those fleeing Ukraine and Hong Kong.

Some of those increases are likely to be temporary, and experts expect the numbers to decline in a few years, but the rise has stirred tensions within the Conservative Party, which has been in power for 13 years and which began that period by promising to limit net migration to less than 100,000 people a year.

A Conservative lawmaker, Jonathan Gullis, told Times Radio that the rise was “completely unacceptable and it will be unacceptable as well to the majority of the British people.” He called on the prime minister and the home secretary “to take drastic action now” as well as “stopping the boats.” Although a highly visible symbol of Britain’s inability to control its frontiers, the number of people crossing on small boats is much lower than the number arriving legally; last year’s total amounted to around 46,000.

Provisional figures for the year ending June 2023 showed a slight decline from the recent peak, with around 968,000 non-European arrivals, 129,000 from the 27-nation European Union and around 84,000 Britons returning.

Slightly more than half a million people emigrated during the same period, leaving net migration at 672,000, though this, too, is a provisional figure subject to revision.

Earlier this year Mr. Sunak said that the numbers were “too high, it’s as simple as that,” and that he wanted to bring them down. But with labor shortages hampering economic growth, he also faces pressure from employers including in the health care and hospitality sectors who have pressed for visas to recruit foreign workers.

On Thursday, Downing Street reiterated its determination to bring the numbers down, saying that the current levels were too high and that they were placing unsustainable pressure on communities.

In the year to June 2023, the top five non-European nationalities for immigration flows into Britain were Indian (253,000), Nigerian (141,000), Chinese (89,000), Pakistani (55,000) and Ukrainian (35,000), the statistical agency said. That underscored the striking change in the profile of migration since Brexit and the reduction in the flow of people from continental Europe.

To try to push the numbers downward, the government said earlier this year that it would prevent the majority of international students from bringing family members into the country.

Under the new measures, only postgraduate research students will be entitled to visas for dependents, ending a system that allowed others, like those studying for a master’s degree, to bring them in.

The government says that the impact of those changes has yet to be felt. But migration has become an increasingly sensitive issue in recent months, in part because of the government’s faltering efforts to stop the arrival of asylum seekers reaching Britain’s southern coast in small boats.

Last week, Britain’s Supreme Court rejected government plans to deter people from attempting that journey by deporting some who arrived in that way to Rwanda. Mr. Sunak has since promised a new agreement with Rwanda to try to resolve the court’s concerns, and new emergency legislation to push the plan through.