Record net arrivals highlight UK’s post-Brexit migration dilemma

By Sachin Ravikumar and Muvija M

LONDON (Reuters) -Net migration to Britain reached a record high of 606,000 last year, data showed on Thursday, drawing fresh promises from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to reduce arrivals, but underscoring the difficulty of doing so at a time of acute labour shortages.

The increase was driven by people from outside the European Union coming to Britain to work or study and by people arriving from Ukraine and Hong Kong under special visa schemes, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

“Numbers are too high, it’s as simple as that,” Sunak told broadcaster ITV following the release of the data.

He said he wanted to bring net migration down, pointing to reforms announced this week which would remove the right for some international students to bring family members into the UK.

Sunak also promised more measures but did not set out a specific target for net migration.

High levels of legal migration have long dominated Britain’s political discourse and the issue was a major impetus of its 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union.

For more than a decade, successive Conservative-led governments have promised to cut migration – once targeting a net figure of less than 100,000.

But ONS data published on Thursday showed a net 606,000 people came to Britain in the year ending December 2022.

The ONS said there was evidence that the rate of immigration had slowed in recent months however.

Previous data covering the year ending June 2022 had shown a net figure of 504,000, and this was revised upwards in the latest release, also to 606,000.


Post-Brexit immigration policy is proving to be a difficult balancing act for Sunak ahead of an election expected next year where it is likely to be an influential factor for many people.

On the one hand he faces pressure from some voters, particularly those loyal to his own party, to curb migration – a legacy of the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU. Many who voted to leave cited high migration and the pressure they said it imposed on public services.

On the other hand, Britain is facing labour shortages in key sectors, partly due to an exodus of EU nationals caused by Brexit itself. Tight labour market conditions are a factor in the country’s persistently high inflation.

On the same day the government announced the tightening of rules for students’ family members, it also said it was relaxing visa rules for fishermen due to a labour shortage.

The opposition Labour Party said separate government data published on Thursday showing a 119% increase in the number of work visas issued – around 300,000 in the year to March 2023 – was evidence that the government’s policy was in chaos.

“Ministers have completely failed to tackle skills shortages, especially in health and social care, or to get people back into work after Covid,” Labour immigration policy chief Yvette Cooper said.

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick said the combination of new measures and easing of temporary inflows from Ukraine and Hong Kong would see net migration fall and return to pre-pandemic levels.

He added that being outside the EU meant it could better control immigration. Net migration to Britain in 2015, the year before the Brexit referendum, was 329,000.

The data put overall immigration in 2022 at around 1.16 million, offset by emigration of 557,000. The ONS said 925,000 of those arriving in 2022 were non-EU nationals, 151,000 came from the EU and 88,000 were British citizens.

It estimated that in 2022 under the special visa schemes there were 114,000 long-term arrivals from Ukraine and 52,000 from Hong Kong.

(Reporting by Sachin Ravikumar and Muvija M; editing by William James, Michael Holden and Mark Heinrich)