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Understanding the UK immigration debate

5 December 20160 comments

Immigration control has been at the top of the British Government’s priorities but new data shows they have failed to deliver on the Brexit-inspired promise to cut the number of people entering the country.

And the debate has become bogged down because Britain does not require people arriving in the country to fill out immigration forms so it does not have accurate migration statistics.

Immigration to the UK has reached a record level as the inflow of EU citizens hit a historic high.

UK flagOfficial figures showed about 650,000 people arrived in the country in the year to the end of June – the highest number ever recorded.

The number entering the UK over the 12 months – which mainly covers a period before the referendum as well as a week after – included a record 284,000 EU citizens.

Net migration – the overall difference between the numbers arriving and leaving the country – was at a near record of 335,000, well above the government’s controversial target of less than 100,000.

It was also revealed that in 2015, Romania was the most common country of last residence for the first time, making up 10 per cent of immigrants.

Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), said in a statement: “Net migration remains around record levels, but it is stable compared with recent years.

“Immigration levels are now among the highest estimates recorded – the inflow of EU citizens is also at historically high levels and similar to the inflow of non-EU citizens.

“There were also increases in the number of asylum seekers and refugees. Immigration of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens continues the upward trend seen over the last few years and in 2015 Romania was the most common country of previous residence.”

The agency said it was too early to say what effect the referendum has had on long-term international migration but there did not appear to have been any significant impact during the run-up to the vote.

The ONS said the main reason people came to the UK was for work and there has been a significant increase in numbers looking for employment, particularly from the EU.

In the year ending in June, 189,000 EU citizens arrived for work – the highest estimate recorded.

About 57 per cent, or 108,000, of those reported having a definite job to go to while around 82,000 arrived looking for work – a record number and a statistically significant increase on the previous year.

The jump includes a rise in the number of citizens arriving to seek employment from the rest of the EU15 group of nations – Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Spain and Sweden.

The ONS said the rise may in part reflect weaker labour market conditions in some southern EU states.

The data also showed that in the year ending in June, non-EU net migration was 196,000, similar to the previous year

The number of people immigrating for more than 12 months to study was estimated to be 163,000 – a statistically significant reduction.

The net migration figures prompted fresh scrutiny of the conservative government’s objective to reduce the number to five figures.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott accused the government of bungling migration policy.

“The Tories made a promise to the British people on net migration that they knew they could never keep, eroding public trust. But rather than learn from her mistakes as home secretary, Theresa May now seems committed to repeating them,” Ms Abbott said.

“We should welcome overseas students and the contribution they make to our universities and wider society, and yet the Tories seem determined to discourage them.

“Scandalously, the number of asylum applications from Syria has gone down, even though we know the crisis there is deepening,” she said

UK Government ministers are divided about how to tackle the challenge: with some, including Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson, seeking to exclude foreign students from the figures on the basis that they are not the focus of public concern. Prime Minister Theresa May has ruled out this suggestion.

And Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has proposed new limits on overseas students, in response to official figures showing that large numbers are overstaying illegally after their studies have finished.

Meanwhile, the statistics that underpin this debate have been challenged.

Observers say the measure of migration – The International Passenger Survey – was not designed for the job it is being asked to do.

It was established in the 1960s as a travel and tourism poll. But because the UK does not require migrants to register after arrival it has become, by default, the measure of net migration, one of the most politicised and publicised statistics of current times.

In a review of the survey carried out three years ago, the ONS said: “Of some 800,000 people interviewed by IPS staff at ports each year, under 5,000 are identified as migrants”. “Whilst this sample size does allow estimates of migration at the UK level to be made, these estimates are subject to relatively wide margins of uncertainty.”

Travellers are questioned for the IPS only between 6am and 10pm, so it takes no account of overnight flights.

Research by the Financial Times shows that a third of flight departures after 10pm from Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport, were to countries within the top 10 origin nations for international students in the UK, including China, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist