Annual net migration to the United Kingdom reached a record high of 606,000 last year, official estimates showed on Thursday, heaping pressure on British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who has pledged to bring numbers down.
The increase was driven by non-European Union nationals, including refugees under the British government’s Ukraine visa schemes and people migrating for work and education, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.
“Numbers are too high, it’s as simple as that,” Sunak told ITV following the release of the data.
He pointed to reforms announced earlier this week which would remove the right for some international students to bring family members into the country.
High levels of legal migration have long dominated Britain’s political discourse and the topic was a major impetus of its 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union.
For more than a decade, successive Conservative-led governments have promised to cut migration – once targeting a net figure of less than 100,000.
But ONS data published on Thursday showed a net 606,000 people came to Britain in the year ending December 2022.
“The main drivers of the increase were people coming to the UK from non-EU countries for work, study and for humanitarian purposes, including those arriving from Ukraine and Hong Kong,” said Jay Lindop, Director of the Centre for International Migration at the ONS.
Lindop said there was evidence suggesting that immigration had slowed in recent months.
Previous data covering the year ending June 2022 had shown a net figure of 504,000, and this was revised upwards in the latest release, also to 606,000.
The leaders of the Brexit referendum campaign argued that leaving the EU would give Britain greater control of its borders, and many who voted to leave cited high migration and the pressure they said it put on public services as factors in their decision.
But in recent years, Britain has opened visa schemes for people in Ukraine and its former colony Hong Kong, while companies in sectors such as engineering, construction and catering have called on the government to allow them to hire international staff to offset labour shortages.
The data showed overall immigration in 2022 at around 1.16 million, offset by emigration of 557,000. The ONS said 925,000 of those arriving in 2022 were non-EU nationals, 151,000 came from the EU and 88,000 were British citizens.
It estimated that in 2022 under the special visa schemes there were 114,000 long-term arrivals from Ukraine and 52,000 from Hong Kong.
Net migration to Britain in 2015, the year before the Brexit referendum, was 329,000.
Sunak has also pledged to crack down on illegal migration after tens of thousands of people arrived on small boats across the Channel from continental Europe in recent years.