The “numbers are too high, it’s as simple as that,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told ITV after the figures were released. “I want to bring them down.”
A closer look at the statistics reveals a very real Brexit impact, with more E.U. citizens leaving than arriving in Britain. Last year, there was a net loss of 51,000 E.U. citizens.
But there was a jump in people coming from the rest of the world, notably to work in health and social care. There were also more international students, which made up almost 40 percent of all non-E.U. migrants in 2022.
Britain also accepted more than 110,000 Ukrainians and 50,000 Hong Kongers on special visas.
Public attitudes about immigration have changed dramatically since the 2016 Brexit vote. Overall, there has been a “gradual warming,” according to the Ipsos immigration tracker.
Polls show that Brits are now more concerned about inflation and the economy than they are immigration.
Rob Ford, a politics professor from Manchester University, noted during a Twitter Spaces session on Thursday that were large spikes in public support for immigration that could help address labor shortages in areas such as restaurants, construction and fruit picking.
“The architects of Brexit should be cheering,” Ford said. “We have a system that voters approve of, and when pressures rise in the labor market, voters say ‘okay.’ That’s where the electorate are. We need the politicians to catch up with them.”
But Conservative voters are more concerned about immigration than Labour voters are, and taking a hard-line stance on immigration has proved to be an election winner for previous Conservative governments. The current one is betting on it, too.
Sunak has said that he wants to bring net migration below 500,000, the figure he “inherited” when he came into office. His administration has also made stopping asylum seekers arriving on “small boats” one of its five key pledges ahead of the next general election, which must be held by January 2025.
The Conservatives are hoping that focusing on immigration will help to galvanize their base. A recent poll found them trailing the opposition Labour Party by 18 points.
The new figures published Thursday tell many stories, one of which is that net migration may have peaked.
Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said that the net migration figures in 2022 were “unusually high,” in part because of the war in Ukraine, a boom in international student recruitment, and high demand for health and care workers.
While it’s difficult to predict future trends, she said, “there is no reason to assume that net migration would remain this high indefinitely.”