Net migration hits record high of 606,000 - almost double pre-Brexit level

The immigration numbers have triggered an almighty debate, ITV News deputy political editor Anushka Asthana reports

Net migration in the UK hit a record high of 606,000 in 2022, almost double the level seen before the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016.

The figure from Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows the Conservative government has failed to achieve the target set by Boris Johnson ahead of the 2019 general election of bringing net migration below 226,000.

Around 606,000 more people are estimated to have moved to the UK than left in the 12 months to December, the new statistics show, up from 504,000 in the 12 months to June last year.

The UK saw a net gain of 311,000 migrants in the year to June 2016, before Brexit.

Rishi Sunak said the net migration figures are "too high" but denied they were out of control.

Reacting to fresh estimates showing net migration at a new record high of 606,000 last year, the prime minister told ITV's This Morning: "Numbers are too high, it's as simple as that. And I want to bring them down."

Asked whether immigration is out of control, Mr Sunak said: "Well, no, I think the numbers are just too high."

The ONS said factors contributing to relatively high levels of immigration over the past 18 months include people coming to the UK from non-EU countries for work, study, and for humanitarian purposes, including those arriving from Ukraine and Hong Kong.

Most of those arriving to the UK in 2022 were non-EU nationals (925,000), followed by EU (151,000) then British returnees (88,000).

A huge 1.2 million people entered the UK in the 12 months to December 2022, but 557,000 left.

Former Tory minister Simon Clarke issued a stinging criticism of the government, saying net migration is "too high" and "there is no popular mandate at all for this level of immigration to the UK".

"We have a responsibility to respond by pursuing more of the options that we know have been presented to the government," he added.

Former PM Liz Truss echoed his remarks, telling ITV News the "numbers are too high", adding: "I want to see the government taking steps to make changes bring down those numbers."

Labour Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said the "extraordinary figures" show the Conservatives "have no plan and no grip on immigration".

"Ministers have completely failed to tackle skills shortages, especially in health and social care, or to get people back into work after Covid."

She added: "The Conservatives’ chaotic approach means that work visas are up 119 per cent, net migration is more than twice the level ministers were aiming for, and the asylum backlog is at a record high despite Rishi Sunak promising to clear it this year."

The ONS warned the figures may not be entirely reliable, pointing out its "estimates are provisional, experimental and have a degree of uncertainty around them".

Director of the ONS's Centre for International Migration Jay Lindop explained that the latest figures are the first which have included asylum seekers in our estimates, with around 1 in 12 non-EU migrants coming via this route.

He said lockdowns and humanitarian crises had been driving up arrivals to the UK but "evidence also suggests immigration has slowed in recent months, potentially demonstrating the temporary nature of these events".

Cutting migration has long been a priority of the Conservatives, with David Cameron setting an ambitious target in 2015 of bringing the numbers below 100,000.

But the figures have gone in the wrong direction for the Tories, despite the promise of increased border controls following Brexit.

Brexit-backer Mr Sunak recently announced a new policy to ban overseas students from bringing their families to the UK for their studies.

The PM told ITV the policy is "significant" and will bring levels down over time.

He said the change for students was the “biggest-ever single measure to tackle legal migration, removing the right for international students to bring dependents, toughening the rules on post-study work, and reviewing maintenance requirements”.

But he told ITV there's "a few other things we're doing as well" to bring migration down, however he did not elaborate.

He said his main priority is "about illegal migration and stopping the boats" after a record 44,000 asylum seekers crossed the English Channel last year.

A statement from the Home Office said: “We remain committed to reducing overall net migration, while stopping the boats and delivering control of our borders, prioritising tackling abuse and preventing dangerous and illegal crossings.”

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Meanwhile, Labour unveiled immigration plans under which businesses would be stopped from easing staff shortages by hiring cheaper overseas workers.

During Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir Starmer told the Commons: “The prime minister stood on three Tory manifestos, each one promised to reduce immigration. Each promise broken.

“This mess on immigration reveals a Tory Party with no ambition for working people and no ambition for Britain, just the same old failed ideas – low wages and high tax.”

Mr Sunak questioned Labour’s contribution, saying: “There are absolutely no ideas … absolutely no semblance that there would be any control. Why? Because he believes in an open-door migration policy.”