Policy 2024: What to look out for on immigration

Immigration is one of the areas that people have said they are most concerned about, and it’s back at the top of the political agenda.

ITV’s Social Affairs Correspondent Sarah Corker has picked out some of the key issues and policies - including the asylum backlog, illegal boat crossings and foreign student visas.

Illegal immigration

How to deal with illegal immigration is a fundamental dividing line between the two main parties. So first, let’s look at the numbers.

In 2022, a record number of people made the dangerous journey across the English Channel on small boats, with totals hitting nearly 50,000.

There was a drop in 2023, but so far this year has seen the highest number of crossings so far - more than 10,000 to the end of May.

Credit: ITV News

Afghans - many fleeing the Taliban - are the top nationality crossing the Channel, making up just under a fifth of all arrivals in the year ending March 2024.

Iranians (12%) and Turkish nationals (11%) were the next two most common nationalities.

The pledges

Let’s take a closer look then at the party pledges.

Rishi Sunak has repeatedly promised to "stop the boats" and the Conservative’s controversial Rwanda policy would see asylum seekers deported to Africa.

After years of setbacks, the Rwanda Bill became law in April, but the prime minister has admitted flights won’t take off until after polling day, meaning his plan may never get off the ground.

Labour has promised to scrap the Rwanda scheme and use the money to set up a new “Border Security Command", which would help to prosecute the smuggling gangs.

They also want a deal with the EU to return asylum seekers to EU countries.

The Liberal Democrats would also get rid of the Rwanda policy and instead focus on providing safe and legal routes to the UK.

Meanwhile Reform UK - formally the Brexit Party and now led by Nigel Farage - want the "small boats crisis" recognised as a national security threat and say they’d send people back to France. Although that’s easier said than done.

Asylum backlog

The UK’s asylum system costs £4 billion a year, with £8 million pounds a day spent on hotel accommodation.

A failure to process asylum claims efficiently has led to spiraling costs.

A large backlog of unprocessed claims built up between 2018 and 2022, although it started to fall in 2023 - a drop of 28% after 12 years of growth.

Credit: ITV News

Alternative plans to house asylum seekers include using disused RAF bases in Lincolnshire and Essex and the Bibby Stockholm barge on the south coast. However the spending watchdog says those plans will actually end up costing millions more than the hotel rooms.

And how do we compare with others countries? At the end of 2023, there were 129,000 people waiting for an initial decision in the UK. That’s the fifth-largest asylum backlog in Europe behind Germany, Spain, Italy and France.

The pledges

To clear the backlog, there’s already been a sharp increase in the number of caseworkers at the Home Office making decisions, but remember under the Conservative’s Rwanda plan, people will be removed from the UK and never have their applications processed here.

Meanwhile, Labour would create a new "fast-track returns and enforcement unit” to clear the backlog, and create temporary courts to hear legal challenges quickly.

The Lib Dems say they would improve the speed of decision making and lift the ban on asylum seekers working if they’ve been waiting for a decision for more than three months.

Dr Madeleine Sumption, Director of Oxford University's Migration Observatory, told ITV News political party asylum policies and announcements don't usually 'have a big impact', on those deciding whether or not to come to the UK.

Reform UK has said it will establish a new department of immigration and "zero illegal immigrants" would be able to resettle in the UK.

Net migration Let’s move on to net migration – that’s the number of people coming to the UK from overseas, minus the number of people leaving. Net migration to the UK fell 10% last year after hitting a record high in 2022, but numbers are still huge by historical standards at 685,000 - that’s three times higher than they were in 2019.

Why? The combination of people fleeing Ukraine and Hong Kong and a rebound in international students post-Covid has coincided with fewer people leaving due to the pandemic and students staying for longer than expected.

Dr Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “This period of high net migration has now persisted for a while, because it has had several different causes. Initially, student visas and Ukrainians drove increases in migration, but in 2023 they were replaced by health and care work visas as the main driver.

“Meanwhile student emigration hasn’t increased as much as expected, because more students have been staying on to work.”

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Student visas

In January, the government banned most students from bringing their family members with them to the UK.

Early indications are that the UK has become less attractive to international students as a result.

Universities have warned that they are falling into severe financial crisis - foreign students pay up to £38,000 a year, compared with home students paying just over £9000.

Skilled worker visas

Work visas granted to non-EU citizens are now the largest contributor to net migration by some distance - 41% of non-EU immigration and 47% of non-EU net migration in 2023.

Earlier this year, the minimum salary requirement for skilled work visas was increased to at least £38,700, a nearly 50% rise on the previous figure of £26,200.

While the rules don’t apply to jobs in health and social care, overseas care workers can no longer bring family with them.

The pledges

Rishi Sunak, like his predecessors in the Conservative party, has pledged to bring net migration numbers down, committing to a cap on work and family visas.

Temporary work routes, such as Seasonal Agricultural Workers, would be exempt from the cap.

The prime minister has pledged to halve migration, but hasn’t put a timeframe on that pledge.

The prime minister hasn’t put a number on the level of the cap, instead MPs would vote on visa numbers annually - based on recommendations from the expert Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).

There isn’t much to separate the parties on this.

Labour has pledged to cut immigration by training more UK workers in areas with skills shortages such as construction, social care and health. Like the Conservatives, the party has also refused to set an overall target.

The Liberal Democrats say migration numbers will come down under their plans, with a focus on increasing pay for care workers and recruiting more British workers to fill vacancies.

In contrast Reform UK, which is campaigning heavily on reducing immigration, says the UK should aim for "zero" net migration – that would mean that the number of people entering the UK should equal the numbers leaving.

The party has set out proposals to end what it calls the addiction to cheap foreign labour.

Compare that to the SNP, who want more inward migration to plug workforce and skills gaps.

Economic trade offs

Experts say migration is expected to drop substantially whoever wins the election, partly as student visas run out.

Cutting net migration has economic consequences - universities rely on the income of foreign students and are already warning of financial troubles.

Sectors like construction, social care and health have long been grappling with staff shortages and rely on foreign labour.

The pitch to voters to reduce immigration is an achingly familiar one, but numbers have continued to rise significantly in recent years.

For all parties, it’s about getting a balance between the economic and social impact of migration.

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