More foreign nationals to arrive in UK this year than before Brexit


Boris Johnson promised that Brexit would allow Britain to ‘take back control of its borders’ by ending freedom of movement with the EU – Paul Grover/Pool via Reuters

More foreign nationals will come to the UK this year than before Brexit, an analysis suggests.

The number of non-EU workers, students and family relatives granted visas has already increased by more than 50 per cent to more than 840,000 since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016.

Lower salary and skill thresholds for foreign workers, the widening list of “shortage” jobs and the end of restrictions on students staying on to work after graduating have contributed to the surge, according to British Future, a think tank specializing in immigration and integration.

The numbers this year will be swelled by Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion – estimated at around 50,000 – and up to 150,000 Hong Kongers coming to the UK on British National Overseas visas.

Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, said: “Overall immigration will be greater than before Brexit because non-EU growth will be higher than the fall in EU immigrants.

“This year could be higher than any other year in recent British history. It has come about through active policy decisions by the Government to make immigration easier.”

In the referendum campaign and since, Boris Johnson promised that Brexit would allow Britain to “take back control of its borders” by ending freedom of movement with the EU.

However, he rejected his predecessor Theresa May’s targets designed to keep net migration below 100,000 a year and instead adopted a significantly more liberalized approach to post-Brexit immigration.

While tough on “illegal” migration, as illustrated by plans to send Channel migrants to Rwanda on a one-way ticket, he has relaxed rules for foreign migrants and students with sponsored jobs or university places in the UK.

But he faces a backlash as an organization that often sounds an alarm over mass immigration threatening that his pledge to take control of the UK’s borders through a new post-Brexit points system was “clearly a sham”.

Alp Mehmet, the chairman of Migration Watch, said: “The figures showing rocketing arrivals are proof of that. The Government must get a grip and deliver the sustained reduction in numbers that they promised. The loose system that they introduced 16 months ago does the opposite.”

Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates show that EU immigration to the UK fell as the end of free movement loomed, from 249,000 in 2016 to 198,000 in 2019. This was, however, more than compensated for by a rise in non-EU migrants , from 298,000 to 406,000.

Since 2019, the only data available to track immigration are UK visas from the Home Office, which excludes EU citizens who have been entitled to apply for EU status even abroad while may and later entered the UK.

Just under 53,000 work, study and family visas were granted to EU citizens last year – a big decline, but one that has been dwarfed by the growth in non-EU immigration.

The implementation of a points-based immigration system has opened up half of all jobs in the UK to foreign workers by lowering salary and skill thresholds for migrants. Previously, employers also had to prove that a British worker could not be recruited to fill a vacancy before looking abroad.

The number of professions that qualify for skilled visas has been significantly expanded to include jobs such as chef, bricklayer, electrician, welder, health and care worker, while the Government also removed caps on most visa routes.

As a result, the number of work-related non-EU visas has jumped by more than 20 per cent, from 163,900 in 2016 to 210,000 last year.

Countries with the biggest increases included India (up 18 per cent from 59,400 to 70,100), Nigeria (up 700 per cent from 1,400 to 11,600), the Philippines (up 23 per cent from 11,500 to 14,300), Pakistan (up 84 per cent from 3,200 to 5,900) and Ukraine (up 20-fold from 830 to 20,800).

The new graduate visas, allowing students to live and work in the UK for up to two years after their degree, saw a bigger rise of 41 per cent, with non-EU entrants jumping from 294,000 in 2016 to 416,250 last year.

Even more marked was the jump in “other” non-EU visas, including Hong Kongers and relatives of EU citizens living in the UK, which nearly tripled from 53,600 in 2016 to 165,325 last year, giving the total of 843,538.

British Future said this “liberal” approach to immigration was in sync with the British public, among whom attitudes towards the potential economic benefits of immigration had reversed in the past decade.

Whereas in 2012 55 per cent of the public believed immigration would damage economic recovery by taking jobs away from people already living in the UK, that figure now stood at 23 per cent, according to a Focaldata poll of 2,000 adults.

Madeleine Sumption, the director of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, was more sceptical about immigration figures being higher this year than 2016, saying she would be “surprised” if they were.

“But I certainly would not dispute the idea that what we are seeing in immigration policy is restrictions towards groups that the Government considers not to be desirable at the same time as significant liberalization to groups that it does think are desirable,” she added.



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