Brexit has changed the face of immigration but not the numbers
Record levels of net immigration is not what many Brexit voters had in mind when they voted Leave to “take back control” of the UK’s borders.
But in the country’s first year outside the EU, where Covid restrictions have not artificially depressed travel and migration, that is what they have got with 504,000 net arrivals.
Ending free movement has reduced immigration from Europe – in fact 51,000 more EU nationals left the UK than arrived last year.
But Europeans are being replaced by immigrants from further afield, including Asia and Africa, with net immigration of non EU-nationals to the UK higher than the overall total at 509,000.
The figures should not be overinterpreted
Although the headlines will all be about record levels of net immigration, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is at pains to stress the figures are “unique” and unlikely to be repeated.
That is because of the 1.1 million long-term immigrants to the UK, large proportions were either on study visas (277,000) or arriving on emergency humanitarian schemes helping Ukrainian, Afghan and Hong Kong refugees (around 138,000) fleeing war and turmoil in their homelands.
The ONS put the big rise in study visas down to the lifting of Covid restrictions, meaning that as well as first year international students arriving as usual, thousands of people who were forced to take part of their course at UK universities remotely during the pandemic have added to the numbers in what is likely to be a one-off.
Combined with “unprecedented world events”, it means the the figures are likely to fall next year, should not be seen as a “new normal”, and it would be “rash to take major policy decisions based only on these numbers”, according to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford
The majority of asylum seekers still appear to be genuine refugees, not economic migrants, but the system is overwhelmed
The vast majority of asylum seekers (77 per cent) who had decisions on their claims last year were granted refugee status, with the most applicants coming from countries synonymous with conflict or repression such as Iran, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria and Sudan.
More than half (55 per cent) of asylum seekers who arrived via small boats across the Channel since 2018 and have had a decision on their claim have also been granted refugee status.
But there is a record backlog of more than 140,000 people waiting for decisions. This includes 43,476 of the 62,814 small boats arrivals.
These asylum seekers are stuck in limbo, unable to work and housed by the Government, often and controversially in hotels, until their claim is heard. Meanwhile, those who are not genuine refugees get to avoid deportation until a decision is made.
Unless the Government sorts out the backlog, public confidence in the asylum system will remain at rock bottom and ministers will continue to face pressure over Channel crossings.
The UK has seen a huge rise in asylum claims thanks to the Channel crisis but EU countries are still taking more of the burden
The number of people claiming asylum rose more dramatically in the UK (by 90 per cent) than in the EU (58 per cent).
But there are still 18 European countries that are taking in more asylum seekers per head of population than the UK.
It is figures like these that could make it harder to strike returns agreements with Brussels, given the EU could accuse the UK of failing to pull its weight amid a global migration crisis.