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Net migration remained unusually high in 2023, while visa data indicate further declines may come in 2024

23 May 2024

As the UK heads into a General Election official migration data, released today, show that net migration remained at unusually high levels, at 685,000, in 2023. However, a sharp drop in visa grants early this year and an increase in student emigration hint at the start of a long-expected fall in net migration, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said today.

The 2023 migration data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) mark the third year running that overall net migration —a measure of how much international migration adds to the UK population— has exceeded the pre-Brexit, pre-Covid levels of roughly 200,000 to 300,000. Today’s provisional estimates put immigration in 2023 at 1,218,000 and emigration at 532,000.

Earlier years’ figures have been revised up for a second time: ONS figures still suggest that net migration peaked in 2022, but have revised this figure up to 764,000. This is up from their previous 2022 estimate of 745,000. The revision took place because more complete travel data is now available for previous periods. The 10% decline from 2022 to 2023 is still provisional and may be revised.

The main contributors to the provisional year-on-year decline in net migration were:

  • Lower immigration on humanitarian visas (i.e. Ukrainians and Hong Kongers) (down 108,000 since 2022)
  • Fewer non-EU students: non-EU student immigration fell 40,000 and emigration rose 42,000, taking 82,000 off the overall net migration figure compared to 2022

By contrast, these declines were partially offset by some increases elsewhere:

  • Non-EU work visa immigration rose 146,000 in 2023, driven by large numbers of workers arriving for health and care jobs. However, this looks set to change: separate data show that the health and care visa grants had collapsed by early 2024.
  • Fewer EU citizens emigrated (down 37,000 since 2022). However, net migration of EU citizens is still negative, at –76,000.

Work visas granted to non-EU citizens are now the largest contributor to net migration by some distance (41% of non-EU immigration and 47% of non-EU net migration in 2023), followed by study (37% and 31%, respectively). Asylum made up 8% of non-EU immigration (10% of non-EU net migration).

Dr Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “This period of high net migration has now persisted for a while, because it has had several different causes. Initially, student visas and Ukrainians drove increases in migration, but in 2023 they were replaced by health and care work visas as the main driver. Meanwhile student emigration hasn’t increased as much as expected, because more students have been staying on to work. However, early data suggest we may see a bigger decline later in 2024, following the recent policy changes.”

Policies designed to cut net migration were introduced from January to April this year. These included a ban on most international students’ family members (January 2024), a ban on care workers’ family members (March 2024), a much higher income threshold for British citizens’ family (March 2024) and higher salary thresholds for workers outside of health and care (April 2024).

The ONS net migration data do not yet reflect the impacts of any of these changes. However, visa data suggested a 23% decline in the total number of visas granted between Q1 2023 and Q1 2024 (excluding visit-type visas), from 295,000 to 228,000. The visa decline was driven by decreases in students’ family members (down 32,000 or 80%) and skilled worker main applicants (down 27,000 or 46%). The number of care and senior care workers declined sharply in Q1 2024, down 87% from Q1 2023.

Dr Ben Brindle, researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said: “The big fall in care visas is not a result of the ban on dependants, which came into force after most of the decline had already happened. Other factors, such as tighter Home Office scrutiny of care employers’ requests for workers or perhaps even a fall in demand, may be at play. One of the big uncertainties for the coming year is what will happen to the number of international students. Early indications are that the UK has become less attractive to international students, including due to the ban on their family members. But we won’t have the full picture until after the summer, which is when most international students apply for their visas.”

In the asylum system, the government has continued to reduce the backlog. On 31 March 2024, around 118,000 people in the UK were awaiting initial decisions on their asylum claims – down from 173,000 on 31 March 2023, a fall of around a third (32%).

Dr Peter William Walsh, Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “While there has been progress towards clearing the backlog, the government is now running out of road unless it changes the immigration rules. This is because most of the remaining applications in the backlog are now unclearable, because they were submitted on or after 7 March 2023, the current cut-off date in the Illegal Migration Act.”

Data on small boat arrivals show that while the first three months of 2024 has seen more crossings than in the same period for previous years (around 5,400, compared to 4,500 in Q1 2022) the numbers are still down year-on year. Around 31,000 crossed in small boats in the year ending 31 March 2024, compared with 45,000 in the year to 31 March 2023 – a fall of 31%. Because most crossings take place during the warmer months of the year, it is too early to be confident about how 2024 will compare to previous years.


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