23 May 2023

Why is immigration so high – and how low could it go?


The Office of National Statistics looks likely to announce the highest ever level of net migration this week, despite the Government’s 2019 manifesto pledge that ‘overall numbers will come down’. That number rose to over half a million in the year to June 2022 and now seems likely to rise even higher when the figures are released for 2022.

So why is immigration so high? The spike in net migration is the result of two things: circumstance and choice.

Circumstance because the 2022 figures are exceptionally high for exceptional reasons. Net migration in 2022 was about 200,000 higher than it would otherwise have been because of the war in Ukraine. Nobody could doubt the breadth of public support for that. Three-quarters of the public supported the UK to making an uncapped visa-free offer to Ukrainians who wanted to come here. In hindsight, one in ten people think Britain took too many refugees from Ukraine.

But migration as a result of the Ukraine war is only half of the story of rising net migration. Higher migration is the direct result of government policy choices – with many decisions to significantly liberalise immigration from outside of the EU, while ending freedom of movement.

The one-off inflow from Ukraine accounted for most of the increase when net migration hit the half-million mark in the year to June. If the new figure is much higher than 500,000, it is other policy choices that explain the further difference, with more international students, more people coming to work in the NHS and social care, and in other sectors.

The biggest group of those counted in the immigration figures are international students. The Government could celebrate that. Its International Education Strategy, published in 2019, set a target to increase the numbers, from 500,000 to 600,000. The Government argued that this could boost income from this sector to £35bn a year – about a third in fees to universities and two-thirds from spending on accommodation, food, leisure and so on while students live in Britain. When the Government succeeds in increasing student immigration, it has a temporary spike in net migration – because the outflow happens three years later than the inflow. This is exacerbated in 2022 by a recovery from the pandemic disruption.

Around a fifth of the public would like to decrease the number of international students coming to Britain. Most people find it odd to mix up the issue of international students with immigration. Alp Mehmet of the pressure group Migration Watch has said his policy is ‘the more the merrier’, provided students are genuine.

Another dramatic increase is visas for the NHS and social care, where numbers went up 174% (although one reason for this is that EU citizens now require visas). Investing in NHS training would be popular, but cutting the numbers of doctors and nurses in the meantime would be extremely unpopular. Just 12% of people would reduce migration into the NHS.

Understanding how the numbers have gone up can inform the question of whether or how they could be reduced.

Boris Johnson’s policy was clearly ‘control, not reduce’. But despite ditching Theresa May’s net migration target on his first day in office, he agreed to a last minute addition to the Conservative 2019 manifesto stating that overall numbers should come down. Nick Timothy, former chief of staff to May, said this week that Johnson asked ministers not to repeat the pledge because he did not believe in it.

Rishi Sunak now has a modest ambition to reduce immigration to a lower level than he inherited as Prime Minister. In sharp contrast to his pledges to detain and deport everyone who crosses the Channel, this would be an immigration target that he can meet. An ambition to see immigration fall to those 2022 levels can be realised by making no policy changes at all, if we do not need to admit another 200,000 people from Ukraine in 2024.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman wants to reduce net migration to below 250,000 a year and is stepping up her vocal public campaign against her own government’s record on immigration. But Braverman is not having much luck with the rest of the Cabinet, especially as the higher numbers have helped Jeremy Hunt’s growth and fiscal forecasts. Her proposed curbs would, in any event, be insufficient to get anywhere near the level she wants, as they are primarily focused on curbing the right of graduates to work in the UK. Any serious effort would require the reversal of almost all of the Johnson 2019-22 policies.

Richard Tice of the Reform Party would go lower still to net zero. This is a good slogan for a party on 5% of the vote. Given that a quarter of the electorate would like to see large reductions in immigration, a populist fringe party does not have to come up with anything resembling a working plan to deliver it.

The Cabinet is likely to agree one or two policies – such as restricting the right of some one-year masters students to bring a spouse with them – but there is no plan to reduce numbers dramatically or to try to hit the 2019 levels within a year or two.

Any credible call to reduce the numbers therefore depends on specifying which kinds of immigration should be cut – and basic maths means it won’t be possible to achieve anything like the 100,000 figure without cutting out immigration that is broadly popular.

Politicians are torn about what to do, having taken back control: they want to secure the gains of immigration while worrying about how the numbers add up. The public also appear to be torn by these dilemmas, preferring to keep the immigration that makes a positive contribution to Britain. One thing is certain though – the populist idea that elites are betraying a public demand for much lower immigration over-simplifies the nuanced reality that politicians are facing.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future and author of How To Be A Patriot, published this week.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.