Rishi Sunak faces backlash from Conservative MPs after new figures showed net migration to the UK soaring to a record high, with 504,000 more people arriving in the country than departing over the past year.
“Unprecedented” global events including the lifting of Covid lockdowns, war in Ukraine and the Chinese security clampdown in Hong Kong sent immigration figures soaring.
At 1.1 million, the total number of arrivals in the 12 months to June was the highest since statistics were first gathered in 1964 and far outweighed the 560,000 departures, despite the fact that for the first time since 1991 more EU nationals left the UK than arrived.
Even after allowing for humanitarian schemes for Ukrainians and Afghans, the figures gave additional weight to the observation that Brexit has not reduced overall migration, as many supporters of the Leave campaign hoped.
Instead, the figures suggest that the result of EU withdrawal has been to alter patterns of migration to the UK, with departing Europeans replaced by nationals of countries like India, Nigeria and China who dominate the tables of work and study visas.
More than 20 Conservative MPs are believed to have signed a letter to Mr Sunak demanding action to bring overall migration numbers down.
Organised by Sir John Hayes – the chair of the Common Sense Group of traditionalist Tories and a close ally of home secretary Suella Braverman – the letter calls on ministers to get a tighter grip on the system for work and study visas, as well as clamping down on unauthorised Channel crossings by boat.
Home Office figures showed an 87 per cent increase to 381,459 in the number of work visas issued over a 12-month period, while visas to study rose by 38 per cent to 597,827. Both figures were more than double pre-Brexit levels.
Sir John said the influx of migrants was placing pressure on the UK’s environment, housing and infrastructure and “displacing” homegrown workers from jobs and training.
“The home secretary has been very open and honest and straightforward about the need for robust action to take control of our borders in relation to small boats,” he told The Independent. “There is a similar job to be done to retake control of visas, which I think are out of control now.”
The scale of immigration flew in the face of a promise in the 2019 Conservative election manifesto – endorsed by Mr Sunak since his arrival at 10 Downing Street – to get overall numbers down, said Hayes.
Responding to the ONS figures on Thursday, Ms Braverman said the record number of people arriving in the UK was “thanks to the generosity of the British people” towards Ukrainians, Afghans and Hong Kong holders of BNO (British national overseas) passports.
“The public rightly expect us to control our borders and we remain committed to reducing migration over time in line with our manifesto commitment,” said the home secretary, who in October told the Conservative conference her personal ambition was to reduce net migration below 100,000.
“My priority remains tackling the rise in dangerous and illegal crossings and stopping the abuse of our system.”
Downing Street said Mr Sunak remained committed to reducing net migration but has not set “a specific timeframe” for achieving the goal. The prime minister’s official spokesman blamed “some unprecedented and unique circumstances” for the record figures.
ONS deputy director Jay Lindop said that a significant driver in the figures was migration from non-EU countries by students, who are no longer forced to work remotely by Covid lockdowns.
An estimated 277,000 arrived in the UK over the past year, an increase from 143,000 in the year before.
The numbers also revealed a growing backlog in dealing with asylum claims, with 117,400 awaiting an initial decision, of whom almost 80,000 have been waiting more than six months.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the statistics revealed “serious problems with Conservative mismanagement of the immigration and asylum systems where they have completely failed to get a grip”.
Ministers have failed to tackle the criminal gangs organising Channel crossings and have managed to process the claims of only 2 per cent of the people arriving in small boats over the course of the last year, she said.
“Work visas have also substantially increased as a result of major skills shortages in the UK – yet the Conservatives are not taking any serious action to address skills shortages here at home,” said Ms Cooper.
Maria Stephens, head of campaigns at charity Refugee Action, said that the “snowballing delays in processing asylum claims are destroying lives”.
And Amnesty International called for a “complete overhaul” of the asylum and immigration system, saying that the government should provide safe routes for people seeking to come to Britain.
The organisation’s refugee and migrant rights director, Steve Valdez-Symonds, said: “These figures show the UK’s system for processing asylum claims remains in complete disarray.”
But leading Tory Brexiteer Peter Bone defended the government’s record, telling The Independent: “The fact that we are taking in people from Hong Kong, from Afghanistan and especially from Ukraine is the right thing to do.
“The point is that we are controlling our borders and we are making the decisions, not the EU. Imagine what the figures would have been if we still had free movement of people. That is what Brexit was about – it was never about having no immigration.”
“Student numbers may be rising, but most of them will go back to their home countries. The government’s priority must be stopping the illegal migration by boat across the Channel.”