Shoosmiths LLP
  June 15, 2023 - Milton Keynes, England

Net migration figures continue to increase, according to ONS
  by Shoosmiths LLP

Net migration figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for the year ending December 2022 show an increase on figures from the previous year. Taking a closer look into the categories of migration behind the net figures gives further insight as to why the target to reduce net migration figures are not being met.

These figures show that total immigration into the United Kingdom for 2022 was in the region of 1.2 million with emigration counted at approximately 557,000. From this, the ONS estimate net migration to be at around 606,000, an increase of 118,000 on the previous year’s figure.

These increasing figures have naturally attracted media attention, particularly given the UK government’s public aim at getting a handle on immigration. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s view is that migration numbers are too high but not “out of control”.

Taking a closer look into the immigration categories behind the net figures gives further insight as to why the target to reduce net migration figures are not being met.

Routes into the United Kingdom

The majority of migrants entering the UK in 2022 were non-EU nationals (925,000), followed by EU nationals (151,000) with three different types of immigration route; work, study and humanitarian. 

Skilled workers 

Work related visas made up 25% of non-EU long-term immigration in 2022, with an estimated 235,000 arrivals compared with 137,000 in 2021. Naturally, this came with an increase in the number of people in the UK on work dependant visas, from 61,000 in 2021 to an estimated 108,000 in 2022, making up 12% of the figures. Although these figures include all work categories, the increase is mostly due to a big increase in Skilled Worker visas, and specifically Skilled Worker- Health and Care visas which were introduced in 2020. 

In the latest sponsorship figures released May 2023, the number of organisations on the UK's register of work sponsors for Q1 2023 reached 61,153, up from 41,621 the previous year in Q1 2022 and compared to a much smaller figure of 27,815 in Q1 2019 prior to the UK’s exit from the EU. 

There is certainly a link here between the increase in sponsored work figures and the UK’s exit from the European Union in 2019, which led to a massive skills gap in the UK labour industry for specific sectors such as healthcare, care work, automation, tech and hospitality. This has proven a barrier to growth in these industries. 

Humanitarian routes

The number of migrants arriving on humanitarian routes increased from 9% to 19% between 2021-2022. However, the majority of these migrants aren’t coming through the UK’s traditional asylum route as might be expected. 

Ukraine schemes

114,000 Ukrainians arrived in the UK in 2022 , following the introduction of the 3 new immigration routes for those affected by the conflict in Ukraine – the Ukraine Family Scheme (for those who have family that had already settled in the UK), the Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme (for those who wished to be sponsored by a UK household) and the Ukraine Extension Scheme (for those who held permission to live in the UK in early 2022 at the time that the conflict in Ukraine began). 

Subject to the required parliamentary process, the government has indicated that they expect to extend the eligibility for the Ukraine Extension Scheme in July 2023. It is likely that rules for the Ukraine Extension Scheme will be updated to include those who were granted permission to live in the UK later than the initial early 2022 date (after 16 May and by 16 November 2023), with all applications to be made before 16 May 2024.

Hong Kong BN(O) scheme 

The UK also saw 52,000 Hong Kong citizens move to the UK in 2022 under the BN(O) Status Holder and the BN(O) Household Member routes. This is another humanitarian scheme which opens a route to the UK for Hong Kong British Nationals Overseas, following the introduction of a national security law in Hong Kong by Chinese authorities which made it easier to punish protesters and placed these people at humanitarian risk. 

Looking at these two new humanitarian categories alone explains the increase of 164,000 on the year prior. 


International students continue to make up a large part of these figures, although the numbers have actually decreased from the previous year. In 2022, 39% of non-EU migrants arriving in the UK were for study related reasons, down from 47% in 2021. The initial increase in 2021 was said to be linked to the lifting of lockdown restrictions in that year, which finally allowed many international students to make the move to the UK that they had planned. 

The most recent figures for 2022 show that many of those students are now leaving the country, as was expected given that courses of study will generally last between 1-3 years and the student route does not lead to settlement, meaning that the time spent studying in the UK is usually only for a short-term period. 

The release of these statistics comes just a few days after the Government announced changes to the student route taking effect in January 2024 with the intention of reducing net migration. Exact details are yet to be confirmed however we know these will include a ban for the majority of students bringing their family to the UK to remain with them during their period of study and a tightening of the mechanism for students to switch into the Skilled Worker category, who will no longer be able to switch until they complete their studies.

These changes for students will of course make some impact in reducing net migration figures, however this will likely be at the expense of the UK education system. Many international students are likely to look to study in alternative countries with similarly impressive universities where they can bring their family for support during their course, reducing interest in UK universities who depend on the high fees that international students pay for their courses. 

What next for migration figures?

As can be seen, the majority of the net increase is relating to the UK’s offering of humanitarian schemes for Ukraine nationals and British Nationals (Overseas) Hong Kong residents. Beyond the humanitarian routes, the increase can also be attributed to the shortage of workers in the UK following the UK’s exit from the EU, and the large number of international students who were finally able to undertake their studies in the UK following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions. 

It is really a combination of cumulative odd events which have led to this scenario. Dr Peter Walsh, of Oxford University's Migration Observatory, described to the BBC that the current period is "very unusual"[1]”. Jay Lindop, Director of the Centre for International Migration, ONS also notes: 

"A series of unprecedented world events throughout 2022 and the lifting of restrictions following the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic led to record levels of international immigration to the UK.”

Where these figures are caused by unprecedented events like this, it is difficult to predict what could happen to migration figures in future.

It is likely that numbers of migrants coming through the Ukraine and Hong Kong schemes will reduce, and that the number of new sponsored workers may also reduce as UK businesses come to grips with the impact of Brexit. However, as we’ve seen in recent years, it continues to be difficult to anticipate or predict how UK migration will change when this is so closely linked to major world events. 

The UK government continue to be focused on reducing net migration and recent announcements regarding changes to the student routes do suggest they are serious about this. However, considering that the increase in figures is based on much more than students alone, it is certainly possible that the government’s reaction to restrict immigration categories like the Student route may end up doing very little to reduce net migration figures overall despite having quite a damaging impact on the UK education system and economy. 



  1. Migration figures: Rishi Sunak denies he's lost control of rising migration - BBC News

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