UK Net Migration Record Poses Sharp Dilemma for Sunak

When Britain voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, Brexit campaigners promised to “take back control” of the country’s frontiers with stricter policies that many Britons assumed would cause immigration numbers to fall.

In 2022 the figures climbed to a new high, according to official data released on Thursday, an unwelcome record for a government that is divided internally over how to manage migration policy more than two years after Brexit gave it power to control who enters the country legally.

Statistics for last year show net migration at 606,000, an increase of almost 120,000 over the year before. The figures underscore the dilemma confronting Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who faces growing political pressure to curb the number of immigrants even as he tries to revive a sluggish economy hampered by labor shortages.

Though the figure was lower than many had expected, the upward trend has stirred tensions at the highest reaches of the government; the Conservative Party has been in power for 13 years but has failed to meet a succession of promises to reduce immigration.

“The numbers are too high, it’s as simple as that, and I want to bring them down,” Mr. Sunak told the British broadcaster ITV on Thursday, though he rejected suggestions that immigration was out of control.

The cabinet minister responsible for migration, Suella Braverman, the home secretary, is a hawk on the issue, and she has gone further than Mr. Sunak, appearing to criticize her own government’s policy. Last year she said she wanted net migration numbers to fall below 100,000 a year.

The rise in numbers was driven by non-European immigrants after the end of the pandemic. The total includes around 360,000 international students and their dependents, 235,000 people coming to Britain for work and 172,000 on humanitarian visas.

In an effort to pre-empt Thursday’s announcement, the government said earlier this week that it would prevent the majority of international students from bringing family members with them into the country.

Beneath the political tensions lies a striking change in the profile of immigrants since post-Brexit rules came fully into force in January 2021; that was the date at which the European Union’s citizens lost the automatic right to work in Britain and faced the same visa restrictions as other nationalities.

Since then, the number of Eastern Europeans entering Britain, from countries like Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, has dwindled to a trickle while British employers have increasingly recruited from India, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines, as well as other non-European nations.

“It is a very big change over such a short period of time,” said Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University. She, like other analysts, said she had expected overall immigration to fall after Brexit.

However, she added that temporary factors had inflated the numbers.

The latest statistics, for instance, include almost 160,000 people admitted from Ukraine and Hong Kong, which could well be a short-term phenomenon. In addition, many of those who arrived after the pandemic to study in Britain will return home in the coming years.

“The reasonable expectation is that the net figures will actually come down in the next two to three years to more familiar territory,” Ms. Sumption said.

According to separate statistics from the Home Office for the year ending March 2023, cited by The Daily Telegraph, more than 343,000 visas were issued to people from India, more than 200,000 to those from Ukraine and almost 180,000 to those from Nigeria. By contrast only 2,598 were given to citizens of Poland, once Britain’s biggest source of immigrants.

Opinion polls have showed the public to be less concerned about legal migration in the years after the Brexit vote and, since becoming prime minister last fall, Mr. Sunak has put his focus on tackling illegal immigration and stopping the flow of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel from France on small boats.

But there is growing unrest on the political right, where critics say that migration puts pressure on Britain’s creaking public services, such as health care and education, as well as on housing availability.

Some argue that Britain’s employers are addicted to importing cheap labor and should instead raise wages to lure more Britons back into employment, or increase their investment in training and mechanization.

Nigel Farage, a prominent Brexit campaigner, recently claimed that those who supported Britain’s exit from the European Union had been betrayed by a promise from Conservative politicians to take back “control” of migration.

“The great British public took it as an acknowledgment that immigration would be reduced. In fact, it was a vast deception,” wrote Mr. Farage in The Daily Telegraph. As a result of increased migration, he added, Britons were “being denied the basic standards in public services that were taken for granted a generation ago.”

John Hayes, a former minister and a close ally of Ms. Braverman, told the BBC on Thursday that Britain needed a higher-skilled economy. He called for more training of British workers and criticized high immigration, adding that “the pressure it places on public services and housing is unsustainable.”

Although the sudden arrival of migrants can stretch services (for example school districts) analysts argue that, over the medium term, immigrants generally contribute through the tax system more than they take out. They also play a key role in staffing public services.

“It’s extremely difficult to argue that immigration overall is putting pressure on the National Health Service because so much of the recruitment in the N.H.S. is coming from migrants,” said Ms. Sumption.

Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, noted that under the previous pattern of immigration, newcomers had spread out around the country filling jobs including food processing or fruit picking. The most recent arrivals, by contrast, have headed for cities, which tend to be more diverse and accustomed to assimilating migrants.

That is because to qualify for many work visas under the post-Brexit immigration system, immigrants need to seek higher-paying jobs, and those tend to be more easily found in bigger urban centers.

“The geography is really important.,” Professor Menon said. “If these immigrants were going to the same places that E.U. immigrants were going to we would have had a public outcry a lot quicker.”

“It hasn’t been as noticeable because they have gone to places where there were already a lot of immigrants, where it’s harder to notice and where people are relatively relaxed about immigration anyway,” he added.

Despite the record migration numbers, many employers still complain of labor shortages and have pressed the government to expand programs for sectors that struggle to fill vacancies.

That has led to a tussle within the Conservative Party, where Ms. Braverman’s public calls for lower migration have even raised speculation that she might resign over the issue and try position herself as a potential successor to Mr. Sunak if the party loses the general election expected next year.

Professor Menon said that Mr. Sunak faced tough choices because immigration was beneficial to Britain’s output and, for the Conservatives to have any hope of re-election, they needed to expand the economy quickly.

“The leadership of the Conservative Party are absolutely clear that the only way they can have a chance in the next election are if the economy improves significantly,” he added, “and yet their own troops are hampering their attempts to do something about the economy.”