Net migration in the UK hit a record 606,000 in 2022, official figures showed on Thursday, heaping pressure on the government, which has pledged to cut dependency on foreign labour.
Responding to the figures, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described legal immigration levels as “too high”.
“It’s as simple as that and I want to bring them down,” he told ITV in an interview.
Measures announced earlier this week to tighten the number of international students allowed to bring their families with them would have a significant impact, he added.
Immigration has long been a key political issue in the UK and was one of the main battlegrounds of the Brexit referendum in 2016, which saw the country leave the European Union.
Jay Lindop, director of the centre for international migration at the Office for National Statistics (ONS), said world events such as the end of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine played a part in the increase.
China’s squeeze on civil rights in Hong Kong, which led to the UK relaxing entry rules for holders of British overseas passports, also had an impact.
“A series of unprecedented world events throughout 2022 and the lifting of restrictions following the coronavirus pandemic led to record levels of international immigration to the UK,” said Lindop.
Brexit brought an end to the policy of free movement of people from EU member states, which many businesses have since blamed for a shortage of workers.
Among those hardest hit have been agriculture, and the health and social care sector, prompting the government to relax immigration rules to try to plug the gap.
The main opposition Labour party’s home affairs spokeswoman, Yvette Cooper, called the latest figures “extraordinary” and said it showed the government had “no plan and no grip” on the issue.
“Ministers have completely failed to tackle skills shortages or help people back into work after Covid,” she added.
Some members in Sunak’s ruling Conservative party said current immigration levels were unsustainable, as house building in England has plunged to its lowest level since World War II.
“Where on earth are you going to house these people? We build about 180,000 new homes a year,” John Hayes, a former government minister, told BBC radio.
“You just can’t grow the population at that pace,” he added, pointing to pressures on public services and housing.
Adding to Sunak’s woes is a growing backlog of asylum claims, particularly from migrants crossing the Channel from northern Europe in small boats.
Attempts to send failed asylum seekers to Rwanda, prompted by an unprecedented 45,000 arrivals last year, have been stuck in legal wrangling.
So far, no one who has had their asylum application turned down has been sent to the central African nation as part of a deal between London and Kigali.
Sunak said he believed the measures his government was taking to lower legal migration would “bring the numbers down over time”.
But he said he believed it was the issue of failed asylum-seekers that was of greatest concern to UK voters. A general election is expected next year.
Measures such as tightening the rules on overseas students went “alongside our other plan… to stop the boats because that’s really important”, he added.
Sunak argued that housing asylum-seekers in hotels while their applications are processed was costing large sums of taxpayers’ money and diverted resources from others.
“How can it be fair for someone to come here illegally when there are people who are waiting their turn and doing it properly?” he said.
“There are lots of vulnerable people in the world that we want to welcome here and look after. We can’t do that while the system is full of people who jumped the queue.”