What are the facts about immigration in the U.K.?

What are the facts about immigration in the U.K.?

By: nikolaj kristensen&
June 19 2024

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What are the facts about immigration in the U.K.?

(Source: Tony Melville/Reuters)

"Immigration is too high and we will need to take bold action to bring it down," prime minister Rishi Sunak said during the June 4 ITV debate with Keir Starmer. "The levels of migration are at record highs," Starmer seconded before adding, regarding Sunak, "He's made a promise, and he's completely failed to keep it."

Immigration seemed almost destined to be one of the most critical issues in this year's election. In April, after much back-and-forth, the U.K. parliament finally passed the Rwanda bill, the Conservatives' much-discussed plan to deter migrants from crossing the channel in small boats by deporting asylum seekers to the East African nation. Earlier the same day, Sunak had pledged the U.K. would start sending asylum seekers to Rwanda within 10 to 12 weeks. 

When Sunak called the snap election in May, pundits speculated that he would try to get the first plane off for Rwanda in early July, just around election day, to woo voters. Labour has said they will scrap the policy if they win the election.

The very next day, however, Sunak shelved the plans until after the election. 

Meanwhile, first-quarter figures show that small boat crossings have reached their highest point since 2018. This bodes ill for Sunak's government, as 84 percent of respondents in a recent YouGov poll said the government was handling immigration badly (only 7 percent said the government is handling the issue well). An Ipsos poll from late March 2024 showed dissatisfaction with how the government handled immigration hasn't been higher since at least 2015.

 

Worse still for Sunak, polls show immigration to be the most important issue to Conservative voters and third-most in general, with 40 percent of voters picking it as one of their top three issues, trailing only the economy (51 percent) and health (49 percent).

According to the Ipsos/British Future immigration attitudes tracker, Conservative voters are especially dissatisfied with the government's failure to reduce Channel crossings, while Labour voters – also concerned about the Channel crossings – are dissatisfied that the government is too harsh and has created a fearful environment for migrants living in the U.K. 

Another YouGov poll showed Labour as the party that respondents thought best to handle asylum and immigration. All parties, however, were outdone by the share of voters, 25 percent, who did not know which party would do best on the issue. 

However, immigration shouldn't be reduced to the number of people risking their lives in small boats in the English Channel. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people enter the U.K. to work or study. Some leave again relatively quickly, and others stay to make a life for themselves in British society.

 

Migration by the numbers

Provisional estimates from the Office for National Statistics show a net total of 685,000 people immigrated to the U.K. in 2023. This was primarily driven by people from non-EU countries, of which more than one million are estimated to have immigrated to the U.K., driven in large part by health and care workers. Migration from the EU fell sharply after the EU referendum in 2016.

 

  

About 13 percent of that one million immigrated in relation to asylum and other humanitarian reasons. By far, the most arrived in relation to work or study, namely some 800,000. Roughly 40 percent of these are dependents, meaning they are partners or children of someone who's obtained a visa to work or study in the U.K. Partners and children can obtain a visa if they live up to requirements that prove their relationship to the person coming to work or study. 

migration obs analysis

How long a work or study visa lasts depends on the type of visa. On a skilled worker visa, for example, a person can stay for up to 5 years before having to extend it. Temporary workers' visas usually last between 6-24 months. Visas issued to dependents typically run out at the same time as the work or study visa. The length of student visas depends on the courses and studies completed in the U.K. 

While visas are temporary, immigrants can obtain indefinite leave to remain, or settlement, which gives a person the right to live, work, and study in the U.K. indefinitely, to apply for benefits if eligible, and to apply for British citizenship. In order to apply for settled status, the person will usually have to have lived in the country for a number of years.

Research by Oxford University's Migration Observatory shows that the majority of non-EU migrants who came to the U.K. between 2004 and 2017 did not go on to acquire settlement and that, in 2022, no cohort of the migrants who had been granted visas in years 2004 through 2012 had more than 31 percent settlement rate at least ten years after they first got a visa. Up until the end of 2020, EU citizens did not require visas for the U.K., and so they are not included in the main settlement figures. Almost half of the people granted settlement in 2022 had been on a temporary visa for five to seven years. 

Of non-EU countries, most people immigrating to the U.K. are largely from former colonies, such as India, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Bangladesh. India has been the highest contributing country since at least 2019, and last year saw 250,000 Indians immigrate to the U.K. Recent years have also seen a significant influx of people from Hong Kong following Beijing's implementation of the security bill in the former colony, and Ukrainians seeking refuge from the war being waged in their home country.

entry clearance visas

Housing and jobs

The high levels of migration have coincided with an extensive lack of affordable housing, leading some to blame the housing crisis on mass immigration. 

In a 2022 report, the Migration Observatory found that positive net migration may affect house prices and rents but noted that the effect depended on multiple factors, not least of which is policies regarding the construction of new homes. 

"The impact of migration on housing costs is difficult to estimate, but there is some evidence that migration is likely to have increased house prices in the U.K.," the report noted, explaining that migration contributes to demand for housing through its contribution to population growth. "Given that the supply of housing in the U.K. has increased more slowly than demand, migration may be expected to increase housing costs."

In 2020, the Affordable Housing Commission found the lack of growth of social rented housing to be the main factor behind U.K. residents' struggles to find affordable housing. England has seen a decline in the social housing sector over the past decades. In 1979, there were 5.5 million social homes in the country. In 2021, the number was down to 4.1 million.

A 2022 government report found that 93 percent of social renters were from the U.K. or Ireland. U.K. residents born outside the U.K. are less likely to be homeowners and more likely to be in the private rental sector than those born in the U.K.

The U.K. limits access to public and housing benefits for some types of migrants, meaning some—including people with work, family, or student visas—are not eligible for housing benefits or allocation of social housing.

Similar to claims about migration causing the housing crisis are claims that immigrants are "taking the jobs" of people born in the U.K.

However, the number of jobs in the U.K. economy is not fixed in the same way as housing is—migrants might compete with existing workers in the U.K. for jobs, but this might also lead to more jobs being created. Therefore, the Migration Observatory found that the effect on wages and employment for U.K.-born workers is small to non-existent. 

"Low-wage workers are more likely to lose out from immigration while medium and high-paid workers are more likely to gain, but the effects are small," the Migration Observatory writes in a 2023 report, adding that the effects of immigration on wage are likely to be greatest for workers who are themselves migrants. 

As of 2024, 6.8 million foreign-born people are employed in the U.K., making up over a fifth of the workforce. The unemployment rate for foreign-born people is 5 percent, slightly higher than for people born in the U.K. (3 percent).

Migration misinformation

The one-month-old election campaign has seen several examples of misleading or outright false claims about migration appear online. A social media advert from Reform U.K. claimed that there will be 14 million new arrivals to the U.K. in the next 12 years, citing the Office for National Statistics as the source of the figure. The ONS however said the figure was lower, as the office's population projections show it to be 10.35 million. 

Another claim on social media said that Keir Starmer had won a case against the government in 2003 demanding that benefits should be extended to illegal immigrants, thereby laying "the ground for today's scandal of hotel and benefits for illegal 'small boat' migrants that cost the taxpayer 8 million a day." However, while Keir Starmer was a barrister representing asylum seekers in a 2003 court case, he did not sue the government demanding benefits be extended to illegal immigrants.

The early days of the election campaign also saw a video circulate online of a speech by Labour Party MP Rachael Maskell with the extract: "We must keep going [with mass migration] until we really are at saturation point, because what does it matter if we have to wait another week for a hospital visit? Or if our class sizes are slightly bigger, or if our city is slightly fuller? What does it matter if things are slightly more challenging, if we have to pay a little bit more into the system? Surely it is worth it." However, Logically Facts found that Maskell's speech was from 2015 and did not discuss mass migration. It was made in response to Prime Minister David Cameron setting a 20,000-person quota for accepting Syrian war refugees.

Campaign immigration claims

Misleading and unnuanced migration claims haven't been limited to the computer screens. 

In the June 7 BBC debate that included all parties, Reform's Nigel Farage made the inaccurate claim that most migrants "are not productive members of society." Figures show that almost half of the increase in non-EU immigrants is linked to work visas, with another 39 percent linked to students. As explained above, dependents do make up a considerable share hereof, but depending on the type of visa issued, dependents can work or study. One estimate by the ONS suggests that immigration is worth around £3.3bn annually to the U.K.

In the same debate, referring to the difficulty of finding housing in the U.K., Farage blamed rising rents on the "population crisis." Similar claims that housing is taken by immigrants have often surfaced, including one from last year that "half of London's housing is occupied by migrants," which was not true. There is a long-term housing crisis in the U.K. due in part to fewer homes – and far fewer social homes – being built than needed and the continued negative impact of the right-to-buy policy introduced in the 1980s by the Conservatives, as the housing expert and sociologist Lynsey Hanley has pointed out.

In the first TV debate between Sunak and Starmer on June 4, the prime minister claimed that the number of illegal small boat crossings was down by a third over the past year. This is true if one looks at small boat arrivals in 2023 compared to the previous calendar year, but – as shown above – this overlooks the caveat that arrivals in 2024 so far are higher than in previous years. Provisional figures show that in the first quarter of 2024, 5,435 people arrived by small boat, compared to 3,793 in the first quarter of 2023, an increase of 43 percent. 

Sunak also said of the government's Rwanda plan that "all our plans are compliant with our international obligations." However,  in November 2023, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that the plan is unlawful, as it breaches domestic laws and international agreements such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the U.N. Refugee Convention, both of which the U.K. is a signatory to. The court especially expressed concern about compliance with the non-refoulement principle and about Rwanda's poor human rights record.

In the second debate between the pair on June 12, Sunak again spoke of small boat crossings, saying: "What we've seen is one particular country, Vietnam, accounting for the majority of the increase." But the figures don't match official statistics, as Vietnamese migrants only made up 8 percent of irregular migrants detected at U.K. ports. The majority of small boat arrivals came from Afghanistan, at 19 percent, followed by Iran and Turkey. 

With just under two weeks to go until the election, such claims are likely to continue being repeated, both on the campaign trail and in the scheduled debates. 

Follow Logically Facts' coverage and fact-checking of the U.K. General Election here.

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