Immigration: how 14 years of Tory rule have changed Britain – in charts

Immigration was already a talking point of the UK election campaign, but last week Nigel Farage entered stage right and declared it the “immigration election”. Within 24 hours the Conservatives had pledged to reduce the number of migrant visas issued each year if they are they re-elected.

It was the latest in a long string of related Tory pledges, from the aims of David Cameron and Theresa May to limit net migration to “tens of thousands” to Boris Johnson’s promise that “overall numbers will come down” and Rishi Sunak’s commitment to “stop the boats”.

Yet, 14 years after the Conservatives went into coalition, net migration is more than two and a half times the 2010 figure and is double that of 2015, the year in which the Tories formed a majority government.

Here, as part of our wider data series on how 14 years of Conservative party rule has changed Britain, we look at the government’s record on immigration.


Small boat crossings exceed 2022 records

While the vast majority of people come to the UK via legal routes, it is dangerous crossings of the Channel in small and often unsafe watercraft that have become politically central, especially for Rishi Sunak who made “stop the boats” his flagship immigration policy.

Small boats chart

A core part of the plan to cut illegal immigration is the prime minister’s promised deportation flights to Rwanda, a programme that the National Audit Office said would cost about £500m and which has faced several legal challenges including multiple unlawful detention claims.

However, the threatened deportations – which Sunak has admitted will not begin until after the 4 July general election – if he is re-elected – have not, as of yet, affected the figures.

In the first five months of this year, close to 10,500 people have arrived in the UK in small boats, 12% more than in the same period in 2022 when the figure was close to 9,400 (45,755 people reached the country in small boats in total across that year).

Most of those arriving via small boats claim asylum, according to Home Office data. However, small boat arrivals in 2022 and 2023 accounted for less than half of the total claims.


The end of the ‘tens of thousands’ pledge

Theresa May and David Cameron were bold in their promises to bring net migration down to “tens of thousands”. But today the “tens of thousands” pledge rarely passes the lips of any Conservative candidate.

The last ONS estimates put long-term net migration – the number of people immigrating minus the number emigrating – at 685,000 in 2023.

Migration chart

This is below the 2022 high but still many multiples of the May/Cameron promise and higher than pre-Brexit levels.

While the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said net migration was “unusually high” in 2023, it went on to say there was a “hint” in the sharp drop in visas granted early this year and an increase in student emigration that a long-expected fall in net migration would yet materialise.


Non-EU workers now outnumber those from the EU

The nationality of those immigrating to the UK has changed: from mid-2012 onwards the majority of people came from EU countries. The reversal occurred in 2021, impacted by the end of free movement among other factors.

Workers chart

ONS data shows that 85% of people arriving – for any purpose, including for work, study or family reasons – in the year ending December 2023 were from non-EU countries, compared with just over half in 2010 and an average of a third between 2013 and 2018.

Separate HMRC figures show there were more than 5.9 million people born outside the UK working in the UK in December 2023, close to two-thirds of whom were non-EU citizens.

Even sectors that once heavily relied on EU citizens – such as accommodation and food services, administration and the wholesale and retail sector – now employ more non-EU workers than those from the bloc.

Since 2022, the number of workers from outside the EU has steadily increased across all regions, while EU workers have decreased or remained static.


The asylum backlog has soared

In the last 14 years, the number of asylum cases waiting for an initial decision has soared. In the year ending March 2024, the figure stood at 118,300 asylum applications, 16 times the number in the year ending March 2011. 

Asylum backlog chart

Two-thirds of those awaiting an initial decision from the Home Office in 2024 had been waiting for more than six months.

The backlog reached a record level in June 2023 of close to 175,500 applications. Since then it has reduced by 48%, due among other reasons to government measures aimed at tackling it.

The government came close to meeting its pledge to clear the backlog by the end of 2023 but did not succeed, , despite Sunak declaring it so in a claim considered misleading by the UK Statistics Authority.

The increase in the number of applications for asylum, especially since 2020, a lack of resources and administrative problems were among the contributors to a rise in the backlog. 


Student dependant visas halve in a year

Late last year the government announced a five-point plan that it estimated would help reduce net migration by 300,000 a year.

This included a ban on care workers and overseas students bringing their children and partners to the UK, with some exceptions for PhD and research-led master’s students.

Student visa chart

The ban on student dependant visas had been announced months earlier by the then home secretary, Suella Braverman. In the year to March 2024, this type of visa had almost halved, latest Home Office data shows.

Other measures in the five-point plan included a move to increase the salary threshold for skilled workers, meaning businesses would pay more if they recruited from overseas. Because this only took effect in April, it is too soon to tell what impact it will have on immigration.

The restrictions for care workers were introduced in March, meaning it also is too early to ascertain a trend. But while charities and activists have said the restrictions could exacerbate staff shortages in the adult social care sector, data shows that the number of care workers coming to the UK started to fall even before the measure was introduced.

During the first four months of 2024, almost 8,000 visas were issued – 80% below the number granted in the same period in 2023.

The Guardian

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