Migration figures ‘failed to count 500k migrants’ entering UK on cheap flights

Prime Minister tackles questions on latest immigration figures

A total of 1.2million people moved to the UK in 2022, while 557,000 left, according to the latest ONS figures released today. The net figure is up from just under 500,000 in 2021. However, in previous years, the migration figures have apparently been way off, as the ONS reportedly missed an extra 500,000 migrants arriving on cheap flights to non-major airports in their counts.

The statistics office said the record level of overall migration this year was due to a “series of unprecedented world events throughout 2022 and the lifting of restrictions following the coronavirus pandemic”. It said the number of arrivals appeared to have levelled off in recent months.

In previous years, the ONS used a method called the International Passenger Survey (IPS) to estimate migration. However, the ONS later realised from census data that it had missed nearly half a million migrants from Eastern Europe, who arrived using cheap WizzAir flights landing at non-major airport like Leeds and Luton, not covered in their original method.

However, the new method which today’s figures are based on uses hard data from the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office.

As well as people coming to Britain to work, the final figure for this year includes tens of thousands of international students and more than 160,000 people who have arrived under special programs for people fleeing war in Ukraine and China’s clampdown in Hong Kong.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the immigration figure was “too high,” but he did not say what an ideal number would be.

“We’ve got to be sensitive to the needs of the (health service), the economy, but fundamentally the numbers are too high – I’m bringing them down,” he told ITV.

Asked whether immigration is out of control, Mr Sunak said: “Well, no, I think the numbers are just too high.”

The high figure revived debate about Britain’s departure from the European Union, which was motivated in part by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people from across Europe in the years before the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Supporters of Brexit said leaving the EU — which gives citizens of any member country the right to live and work in all the others — would allow the U.K. to control its borders. Many who voted for Brexit thought immigration would fall, but the opposite has been true. The UK still issues tens of thousands of work visas a year to fill jobs in hospitals, nursing homes and other sectors.

While the number of people moving to Britain from EU countries fell to 151,000 in 2022, the number from outside the bloc was 925,000, and India has overtaken European nations as the top source of workers.

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While most economists say immigration is an economic boon to Britain, some residents say new arrivals are putting more pressure on overstretched public services and worsening a national housing shortage.

Reacting to the figures, Tory MPs said immigration is “too high” and have reached “unsustainable levels”.

On migrant Channel crossings, immigration minister Robert Jenrick said he would be meeting counterparts in the French interior ministry next week, telling the Commons: “If there was a possibility of a readmissions agreement with France that’s certainly something that the Government would welcome.”

He added: “We’ve made that clear and in our conversations both with President Macron and with the (European) Commission president Ursula von der Leyen we have offered a range of solutions that could lead to that.”

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Tory concerns about immigration were laid out in the Commons during a Labour urgent question as MPs demanded to know how the level would be reduced.

Conservative Aaron Bell said: “Today’s figures are too high and my constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme will expect to see them fall.”

While Conservative Louie French (Old Bexley and Sidcup) said: “Unsustainable levels of migration continue to have a significant impact on the likes of housing in the South East. Does (he) agree that we must do all we can to reach sustainable levels of migration?”

Mr Jenrick told the Commons: “We expect net migration to fall to pre-pandemic levels in the medium term.”

The Government faces a balancing act, with years of Tory promises to cut net migration coming up against demands from businesses and public services for overseas workers to fill skills gaps.

The figures have also been inflated by people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine and the decision to offer a route out of Hong Kong.

But shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper pointed to a 119 per cent increase in work visas granted in the year to March 2023 compared with 2019 as evidence that the Government has “no plan and no grip” on the immigration system.

She also highlighted Home Office figures showing a rise in the backlog of asylum claims to 172,758.

She said: “Ministers have completely failed to tackle skills shortages, especially in health and social care, or to get people back into work after Covid.

“Net migration should come down and we expect it to do so.

“Support we have rightly given to Ukrainians and Hongkongers has unusually affected the figures this year.

“But that can’t disguise the fact that the Conservatives’ chaotic approach means that work visas are up 119 percent, net migration is more than twice the level ministers were aiming for, and the asylum backlog is at a record high despite Rishi Sunak promising to clear it this year.”

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