When the Office for National Statistics revealed that net migration to the UK was at 606,000 for 2022 - an increase of 118,000 from 2021 - panic spread within the Conservative party. The Prime Minister faced accusations of abandoning control of UK borders, as well as demands for tighter restrictions on the “too lenient” post-Brexit system. One Conservative MP told The Guardian: “We promised a lot in 2019 about taking back control of our borders and time is ticking.” During a TV interview with ITV’s This Morning, Rishi Sunak himself acknowledged that the “numbers are too high, it’s as simple as that. And I want to bring them down.”
Such sentiments are not a new phenomenon within the Conservative Party. David Cameron infamously pledged to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” during his 2010 election campaign. His commitment to this pledge only strengthened after winning office, insisting he would achieve it by the 2015 election, "no ifs, no buts". His government sought to reduce irregular immigration through the “hostile environment” policy, which introduced a series of measures aimed at making life so difficult for irregular migrants that they would leave the country voluntarily. But, when the 2015 election came around net migration stood at 379,000 - an increase of 127,000 since 2010. While Cameron’s promise never came close to being fulfilled, it nevertheless became “the albatross around both his neck and those of successive Tory leaders.”
It was also around this time in 2015 that the movement for Brexit was gaining momentum, which positioned immigration as a central issue of debate. Supporters claimed that leaving the European Union would allow the UK to “take back control” of its borders by ending the freedom of movement. The emotionally charged campaign, which included inaccurate warnings about a projected surge of Turkish migrants if the nation gained membership and controversial posters showing refugees queuing to enter the UK, resonated with a substantial portion of the population. On the 24th of June 2016, 17.4m people (52%) voted to leave the European Union, with most post-referendum analyses pointing to immigration as a determinating factor.
When Theresa May came to power, she had long maintained a hard stance on immigration as Cameron’s Home Secretary for six years and creator of the “hostile environment.” She repeated Cameron’s aims to reduce immigration down to tens of thousands at the snap election of 2017, claiming that Brexit was the answer as it would end freedom of movement. However, when she was ousted from Downing Street in 2019, the net migration figure had risen to 275,000. 
Boris Johnson refused to commit to the “tens of thousands targets” but did pledge that “overall numbers would come down” in the party’s 2019 manifesto. He introduced an Australian-style points system to specifically reduce the number of unskilled workers coming into the country, although some visa routes were opened up to address the country’s labour shortages after emerging the 2021 lockdown. Nevertheless, Johnson urged British employers to entice more home-grown talent into the roles through higher wages, stating: “What I won't do is go back to the old failed model of low wages, low skills supported by uncontrolled immigration." Though the ONS changed the way it recorded net migration at this time, meaning it was not comparable to the previous decade's figures, it stood at 239,000.
As 2021 came to a close, attention had shifted to people crossing the Channel in small boats after it was revealed that more than 25,000 made the journey that year - three times the number for 2020. The then Home Secretary Priti Patel pledged to make the route “unviable”. Meanwhile, new legislation deemed anybody who travelled to the UK via a ‘safe’ country inadmissible for asylum, which includes everyone crossing the Channel and the vast majority of other irregular migrants. Johnson also announced his Rwanda scheme later that year, which would send those arriving by boat to the country to have their asylum claims processed; however, the scheme was immediately halted by legal challenges. Come 2022, net migration had jumped to 504,000. The ONS said that the waning impact of COVID-19, the return of international students and new asylum routes made available from Afghanistan, Ukraine and Hong Kong were all contributing factors. However, the government continued to hone in on the "illegal immigrants" - often asylum seekers - making the crossing in dinghies from France.
Now, it is Rishi Sunak’s turn to decide how to bring net immigration down to an “acceptable level,” which for him means below 500,000. So far, Sunak has continued to focus on irregular migrants by making “stopping small boats” one of his five key priorities for 2023. The fight for the implementation of the Rwanda scheme in the courts is ongoing and the Illegal Migration Bill introduced this March would make those arriving illegally unable to stay in the UK. At the same time, Sunak has expressed concerns that legal migration is “too high” and said he was “considering a range of options” to bring it down. Shortly after this statement, the government announced that it would be removing the right for postgraduate students to bring their dependents to the UK.
However, the reality is that record-high net migration figures are good news for Britain: people migrate to prosperous nations, and prosperous economies depend on immigration to grow. Public attitudes towards immigration have also significantly softened since the Brexit referendum: in a 2022 poll, well over half of voters thought that immigration has had a net positive effect compared to 9% who thought it was negative. That is not to say that there is no need for a sensible and considered approach to immigration - no one is suggesting completely open borders. But a closer look at the statistics shows that the vast majority of those immigrating to the UK in 2022 are either workers the economy desperately needs, students whose short-term stay brings longer-term benefits, or those on special humanitarian schemes that Britain should take pride in welcoming. Indeed, immigration is a great British success story and it is time politicians tell the truth about it rather than continuing a decade-long fixation that is both harmful and unnecessary.
International students made up the largest proportion of net migration in 2022, with the government issuing 485,758 student visas. This figure has been increasing every year as part of an explicit government strategy to increase the international student population to 600,000. Nor should it be any different: their contributions boost the UK economy by £41.9bn annually. First, the fees international students pay alone are worth an estimated £28.8bn in exports, which cash-starved universities use to fund teaching and subsidise domestic students. Their expenditure on housing, food and other services also benefits local communities. While most return to their home countries upon graduating, those who stay to work continue to contribute through taxes.
Beyond these economic advantages, international students also enrich the country with diverse cultural perspectives and strengthen Britain’s soft power when some return home with a strong social network and positive views of the UK. The government’s recent announcement that visas would no longer be issued for most dependents of foreign graduate students is short-sighted and counterproductive. First, it represents a feeble attempt by the government to be seen to act. The Home Office has previously acknowledged that “those coming on sponsored study visas bring relatively few dependants, with 83% of the visas issued being to main applicants, and therefore around one in six grants being to a dependent”. It is also unclear how this policy will impact official migrations figures: students and family members who come to the UK for less than a year are not included in the figures and the policy does not apply to postgraduate students on research programmes.
Secondly, the announcement sends the wrong message to a group of immigrants we should be welcoming. Dependents still contribute to the economy through visa fees and an annual contribution towards NHS services - both of which Sunak recently announced will be increasing to fund pay rises in the public sector. Adult dependents working in the UK will also pay taxation and national insurance contributions, further adding to the total economic contribution that international students bring. As Simon Marginson told The PIE News, “the tabloid would love stories on international student dependants getting a free ride from the taxpayer,” yet “sometimes government rhetoric is totally unreal in terms of real lives in a real society.” Meanwhile, older international students are likely to be seriously discouraged from applying to study in the UK in the future, causing universities to miss out on much-needed income.
It is also important to recognise the negative impact this policy will have on the postgraduates now forcibly separated from their families, especially those that must leave young children behind. The University and College Union (UCU) has called it a "vindictive move," noting that those accompanying overseas students to the UK "bring huge value to our society and deserve the right to live alongside their loved ones whilst they study." Meanwhile, Universities UK (UUK) has warned the government that the changes are "likely to have a disproportionate impact on women and students from certain countries".
Work visas make up the next biggest chunk of incoming migration, of which the government granted 268,000. The economic benefits of an influx of working-aged migrants are already well documented; in general, they make positive contributions to government finances by paying taxes, increasing total spending and being less likely to claim benefits or use NHS services. But it is now more pertinent than ever that Britain has a steady influx of migrants to boost the workforce and support its ailing public services. In 2022, the UK faced an exodus of EU nationals because of Brexit (-51,000), which has led to huge labour shortages in key sectors. These tight market conditions are contributing to the country’s high inflation. As a result, this influx of work migrants is a sign that the UK economy is attempting to recover by increasing work permits for non-EU nationals.
More than half (54%) of all granted work visas went to skilled workers in 2022, mostly in the sectors where there are significant skill shortages such as health and social care. It is highly doubtful that the public wants less staffing for the NHS. Even if UK employers tried to close the country’s skill deficit by training domestic workers this requires time and long-term planning. In the meantime, it is useful holding the country’s economy back by preventing the necessary workforce from entering. As Jonathan Portes, an economist at King’s College London, told CNN: “It’s bizarre that the prime minister and the home secretary are sort of trashing the one thing that they’ve actually managed to do reasonably well for the last five years … we have successfully introduced a new post-Brexit (immigration) system that is actually working pretty well.”
Yet it is not just skilled workers that the UK needs. A "shortage occupation list" is available under the points-based system to help companies fill certain positions. These positions have lower income requirements, which makes it easier for candidates to accumulate the necessary amount of points to obtain a visa. Under this system, a large chunk of migrant visas went to truck drivers, fruit pickers, and hospitality workers in 2022. But the government has not gone far enough: there were over 165,000 vacancies in social care in 2022. Before the referendum, EU migrants were mostly employed in lower-skilled occupations such as agriculture, accommodation, food services and support services. Now these sectors are facing the largest rise in vacancy rates and job-worker gaps.
Within the immigration debate, politicians have been intent on reducing the number of low-skilled migrants. The Conservative party’s most recent manifesto pledged, “there will be fewer lower-skilled migrants and overall numbers will come down.” This is partly because ‘low-skilled’ immigration is often viewed as unnecessary. After the net figures were released, Home Secretary Suella Braverman suggested more British people should be trained to do jobs commonly done by overseas workers, such as lorry driving and fruit picking. However, not only does the UK have a fairly low unemployment rate at the moment (4%), but even if there are hypothetically enough domestic workers to fill these vacancies this has not happened. This may be because these jobs are typically lower-paid, which would force recruiters to raise wages and push inflation up further. Alternatively, many positions are located in rural areas and therefore unattractive to young domestic workers. Regardless, an immigration system based purely on skills will not be enough to fully offset the gap in workers. The economy needs people of all skills and pay levels to grow.
The high net migration figure is a reflection of the UK’s humanitarian efforts in response to world events last year. In 2022, the UK welcomed 115,800 arrivals from Ukraine after the country was invaded by Russia, as well as 52,000 from Hong Kong via a special visa scheme. How long these arrivals stay in the UK will depend on the situation in their home countries. Nevertheless, these schemes generated significant support from the general public and displayed a generosity of which the government should be proud.
In many ways, the UK government has not gone far enough in its humanitarian efforts. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called the Illegal Migration Bill an effective “asylum ban”, which would force the government to detain and deport anyone who enters the UK unlawfully. The government claims that they want to deter unlawful migration by “unsafe and illegal routes,” yet have failed to provide alternative safe and legal routes. Unless a person qualifies for a very limited number of special visa schemes (e.g. UK Resettlement Scheme, Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, Community Sponsorship), entering the country illegally is the only way to claim asylum; there are no visa routes to enable people to claim asylum in the UK from overseas. Although much of the debate has focused on arrivals in small boats, recent amendments to legislation would deny access to asylum for anyone arriving in the UK who has transited via a “safe” third country - regardless of whether or not they had a chance to seek protection there. Given that almost 90% of refugees globally come from countries that do not offer direct flights to the UK, this means that almost no one would be able to seek asylum in the UK.
More than 45,755 people came to the UK in 2022 by crossing the channel in small boats, the highest figure since records began. The government claims that this high volume of arrivals has led to a backlog of asylum claims waiting to be processed. However, the backlog predates the increase in arrivals, suggesting the fault lies with the falling number of applications processed by the Home Office. Meanwhile, applicants must remain in expensive, overcrowded detention centres, banned from working while they wait for their application to be processed. With the exception of pregnant women and children, there is also no time limit for how long they can be detained: though the majority are held for a month some are detained for a year or more. “The focus of attention really needs to be on the asylum system, on asylum processing, getting that working properly so people are able to present their claims,” warned the UN refugee agency’s UK representative, Vicky Tennant. Notably, the vast majority of claims for refugee status were successful in 2022 (75%). Therefore, the government must help these people embark on their integration journey as quickly as possible while efficiently filtering out disingenuous claims.
The government is also determined to stick with the Rwanda policy, despite the high court ruling that it is unlawful. Two of the three judges deemed Rwanda an ‘unsafe’ country because of a real risk that asylum seekers may be sent to their home country and face persecution. The UN refugee agency welcomed the judgement and reaffirmed its "longstanding and well-known concerns about the 'externalization' of asylum obligations." The UK director of Human Rights Watch, Yasmine Ahmed, urged Braverman to focus her efforts on the country’s “broken and neglected” migration rather than "treating human beings like cargo it can ship elsewhere."
Yet, Braverman has confirmed that the government will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, adding that it was her “dream” to see people on a deportation flight to Rwanda. She has emphasised that £6 million of taxpayer money is spent on providing hostels for asylum seekers every day. But an economic assessment estimated that it would cost £63,00 more to send a migrant to Rwanda than to keep them in the UK when taking into account the cost of the flights, escorting the individual and payment to the third country. The government claims that no costs are incurred if the policy deterred individuals from entering the UK illegally, although the assessment was “uncertain” of how many people would be deterred since the policy is “novel and untested.” According to the report, the policy would need to deter 37% of people from entering the UK illegally for it to be cost-free.
Beyond practical concerns, we cannot forget the real harms these types of policies have on vulnerable people's lives. It was not too long ago that The Guardian exposed the harmful impacts of the “hostile environment” policies on members of the Windrush generation who came to the UK as children in 1971 when commonwealth immigrants were given indefinite leave to remain. Many of them entered on their parent’s passports and it later emerged that the UK Home Office had kept no records of those granted permission to stay. Unable to prove they were in the country legally, those affected by the policies were denied access to healthcare, work, and housing - forcing them into desperate financial situations for which many are yet to be compensated. Meanwhile, at least 83 people were wrongly deported back to a country that they had not lived in for 50 years. The ensuing public outcry opened up a rare opportunity to investigate how an entire process was built on suspicion and prejudice. As Amelia Gentleman writes in her book, The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment, “if you are deliberately trying to make life hard for people, then life is inevitably going to become hard for the most vulnerable at the bottom of the chain, and that’s not the moment to start thinking about being compassionate. The system was not meant to be compassionate.” Instead, political parties reinforced old stereotypes of “good” vs. “bad” immigrants to suggest the system had simply failed to filter properly.
Now, refugees are the latest victim of the government’s obsession to route out “bad” immigrants” and the consequences have been dire. In the absence of more safe routes, refugees are forced to take riskier journeys, which has lined the pockets of exploitative smugglers and led to unnecessary deaths. Under the Illegal Migration Bill, vulnerable individuals will be denied access to safety in the UK, potentially including victims of trafficking and modern slavery. Instead, they might be shipped off to Rwanda if the policy goes ahead, which the United States recently criticised for its appaling human rights record. Despite being Britain’s closest ally, its annual human rights assessment described conditions in the country’s detention centres as “harsh to life-threatening,” claiming “individuals suffered from limited access to food, water, and health care.”
That is not to say that there are no genuine concerns about the rising scale of net migration. For instance, many fear that immigration is fuelling the housing crisis by putting upward demands on an already limited supply. However, immigration is just one factor among many contributing to the rise in house prices: the delay in getting married, more single people and the rise in life expectancy are all also increasing the number of single households. Furthermore, the government cannot scapegoat immigrants to evade blame for a decades-long failure to build enough affordable housing for the growing domestic population.
Clearly, the government understands the economic and social value of immigration - the high net-migration numbers last year were a feature, not a bug of government policy. Public attitudes toward immigration are also overwhelmingly sensible, pragmatic and compassionate. However, year after year, Conservative politicians revert to anti-immigration rhetoric to shift focus away from the grim state of the economy and appease the demands of the Right. It is time to end the moral panic surrounding immigration: it is unhelpful, harmful and only serves to advance politicians’ political careers.
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 McGarvey, Emily. “Sunak: Court is wrong to stop Rwanda plan, and we will appeal,” BBC News, 29 June 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/live/uk-66045323
 The Home Office. “Impact Assessement: Illegal Migration Bill.” Ministry of Justice, HO 0438. Published 26 June 2023, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1165397/Illegal_Migration_Bill_IA_-_LM_Signed-final.pdf
 Ibid: 1.
 Ibid: 33.
 BBC, “Windrush 75: What is Windrush and who are the Windrush generation?” 22 June 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43782241
 Magee, Caolan. “Windrush scandal: Thousands misclassified by UK as illegal immigrants still without compensation,” CNN, 22 June 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/06/22/europe/windrush-compensation-scheme-home-office-intl-cmd/index.html
 BBC, “Windrush 75.”
 Gentleman, Amelia. The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment. (London: Guardian Faber Publishing, 2019), 248.
 Scott Jennifer. “Theresa May slams Illegal Migration Bill for allowing 'more slave drivers to make money out of human misery',” Sky News, 11 July 2023, https://news.sky.com/story/theresa-may-slams-illegal-migration-bill-for-allowing-more-slave-drivers-to-make-money-out-of-human-misery-12919165#:~:text=%22It%20will%20enable%20more%20slave,that%20will%20be%20the%20impact.%22
 Wintour, Patrick. “US calls conditions in Rwanda’s detention centres harsh to life-threatening,” The Guardian, 21 March 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/mar/21/us-describes-conditions-in-rwandas-detention-centres-as-harsh-to-life-threatening
 Warner, Jeremy. “Nobody wants to admit the truth: Mass immigration is fuelling the housing crisis,” The Telegraph, 10 May 2023, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2023/05/10/mass-immigration-is-fuelling-the-housing-crisis/
 Pettinger, Tejvan. “Immigration and Housing,” Economic Help, 23 May 2022, https://www.economicshelp.org/blog/20107/housing/immigration-and-housing/