Posted on May 30, 2023

Brexit Was Expected to Slash Immigration. Instead It Hit a Record.

David Luhnow and Max Colchester, Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2023

When the U.K. voted to leave the European Union in 2016, many backers of Brexit hoped the move would cut immigration by ending the right of EU residents to move here freely, a growing trend that some Britons felt was taking jobs away from locals.

Instead, immigration has risen to a record high, as growing numbers of migrants from non-European countries have outstripped a sharp decline in those from the EU. Though the ruling Conservative Party has repeatedly pledged to cut migrant numbers post-Brexit, it has instead let in more in a bid to boost stagnant economic growth.

Data released on Thursday by the Office for National Statistics showed that net migration during 2022 rose by 606,000, the largest increase on record. The figures don’t include migrants who arrived illegally on boats across the English Channel, the number of whom surged 60% last year to a record of about 45,000.

“Numbers are too high, it’s as simple as that, and I want to bring them down,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Thursday.

The U.K. experience illustrates that even if industrialized nations want to curb migration, and take drastic steps to do so, they can come under pressure to allow it to avoid economic damage from labor shortages. In the U.K., the labor force is now smaller than it was prepandemic, and some industries have complained they can’t find enough workers.

It also underscores the political headache this trade-off presents. Thursday’s immigration numbers elicited criticism among some Conservative Party lawmakers, who said voters wanted this influx brought down. Sunak’s government announced new restrictions this week on how many family members visa-holding students could bring to the country. Polls show that Britons have mixed views on whether migrants are a boon or not, but they put a lot of weight on whether the government is seen to be controlling the flow of people into Britain.

Contributing to the rise was the granting of humanitarian visas to some 300,000 people from Ukraine following the Russian invasion and from Hong Kong amid growing political repression in the former British colony. But it was also fueled by a sharp rise in visas for students and workers from non-EU countries. About 136,000 visas were granted to students’ families in 2022, an eightfold increase from 2019.


Before Brexit, any EU national had the right to settle and work in the U.K. During the referendum, the “Leave” campaign said the U.K. should have more control over who entered the country. After voting to quit the EU, the U.K. government in 2021 introduced a new immigration system that only allowed in people who met certain criteria {snip}

In 2022, total long-term immigration, measured as anyone who stays for longer than a year, was estimated at around 1.2 million. Of that total, 925,000 were from non-EU nations.