How Brexit and skill shortages influenced the record influx of migrants to the UK
Behind the headline-grabbing figure that some 606,000 more people came to the UK than left last year lies a cat’s cradle of economic and political stresses and strains – from the Ukraine war to Brexit to rates of long-term sick leave – which dictates the rate of migration.
The complexities of calculating and tracking migration mean that today’s figures, intertwining as they do multiple human narratives from small boat migrants to the young unemployed, tell multiple stories about the state of the nation.
But it is possible to tease out a number of important trends and implications – some short term, others now increasingly hard-baked into population movements – from the fact that 1.2 million people entered the UK last year intending to stay for a year or more – nearly double the pre-pandemic level.
One startling fact to emerge from the figures is that inward migration from the European Union, so long a source of labour for British employers, has been put into a sustained reverse. The end of freedom of movement meant a net loss of 51,000 EU citizens from the UK last year.
Experts argue that the effect of this has been to drastically restrict the pool of talent, both skilled and unskilled, available to UK Plc at a time when internal pressures such as a rise in long-term sick leave from the workplace – a record 2.5 million people in Britain are now not working due to health problems – are making it hard to fill vacancies.
The result is what some say is labour shortage that has contributed towards wage inflation as employers battle for recruits while facing reduced margins amid spiraling cost of living pressures. Chetal Patel, head of immigration at City law firm Bates Wells, said: “Businesses still haven’t recovered from Brexit dramatically limiting the number of potential recruits. Now with record numbers of people on long-term sick leave and others leaving the workforce early, skills shortages are being more acutely felt.”
At the same time, changes brought in by the Government in part as a result of the latitude on migration rules allowed by Brexit have had an effect by increasing numbers entering the country. Particular increases have come from the granting of long-term work visas for care workers and the rise in the numbers of foreign students following a reintroduction of a post-study two-year work visa. International students made up nearly 40 per cent of all non-EU migrants last year.
The result is, according to experts, something of a mixed picture when it comes to calculating the effect of Brexit on migration flows, with some suggesting that broader trends such as the UK’s mixture of low unemployment and high demand for workers would have meant higher net migration regardless of the changes brought in after leaving the EU.
Madeleine Sumption, director of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, said: “It’s clear from the data that migration to the UK would have been unusually high right now even if the post-Brexit liberalisation of work and study visas had not happened.”
New reality or short-term blip? It’s complicated
Today’s figures are somewhat lower than many had anticipated – one think-tank had suggested the net migration figure could be close to a million. But they nonetheless reflect a sharp departure from the long-term trend – census data shows that in the decade between 2011 and 2021 migration added an annual average of 200,000 to the population of England of Wales.
Certainly, a confluence of several factors – namely the Ukraine war, large numbers of international student arrivals and high demand for health and care sector workers from non-EU countries – is widely regarded as having contributed considerably to the 606,000 more people who remained on these shores rather than left in 2022.
But there are early signs that some of these trends are already beginning to fall. The number of monthly arrivals from Ukraine has fallen from about 10,000 last May to about 1,000, while the number of international students leaving the country will accelerate over the next two years – a figure which already more than doubled last year to 153,000.
At the same time, there are repeated warnings that unless Britain can solve the conundrum of increasing the skills of the UK population while also making struggling industries such as hospitality and care more attractive to the workforce, demand to bring in workers from abroad will remain high. The numbers arriving in Britain from outside the EU to work nearly doubled to 235,000 last year compared to 2021.
The result is an unpredictable picture, albeit one in which long-terms repeats of today’s figures are judged unlikely.
As Ms Sumption puts it: “It is very difficult to predict future migration patterns, because surprising developments can disrupt them. For example, a few years ago, none of the forecasts suggested migration would rise above 500,000 – not least because they did not anticipate the war in Ukraine. With that caveat, there is no reason to assume that net migration would remain this high indefinitely.”
A microcosm of the wider migration debate is to be found in the situation of those who come to Britain as refugees and migrants, many of them arriving via the small boats crossing the English Channel.
Separate Home Office figures published today show the backlog of those awaiting a decision on asylum applications rose by 6,500 to more than 172,000 – the numbers waiting more than six months for a decision rose by 22,000. Overall, asylum accounted for 8 per cent of long-term migration to the UK last year.
Rishi Sunak today vowed to reduce the processing backlog, despite some right-wing political voices suggesting that the prospect of a swift decision on the right to remain in the UK could act as an incentive for new arrivals.
But in the same way that the wider migration figures are largely composed of individuals who come to Britain to work or contribute to the economy by paying student fees, campaigners argue that the asylum system is hindering the ability of those coming to the country as refugees to contribute by being able to work.
Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, said: “The human cost of the failure to process asylum claims is staggering. Many people wait years for a decision in which time they’re forced to live in poverty, banned from work, segregated from communities and detained in run-down hotels.”
Amid the debate about the significance of the figures, it may be worth remembering that the UK is not unusual among high-income countries in terms of the share of population who arrive via migration.
According to Oxford’s Migration Observatory, the UK’s foreign-born population stands at about 14 per cent – broadly in line with a swathe of countries from Spain and France to the United States and Estonia.
By contrast, Australia has roughly-double the proportion of foreign-born residents as the UK.
The Migration Observatory points out that it is the “composition” of the arrivals rather than their numbers alone that are the deciding element in assessing the implications of immigration. It said: “Whether migrants are working and what skills and qualifications they bring are among the key factors that affect the effects of migration on the economy.”