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Visas for care workers have driven increase in work migration, while small boats only account for 1/3 of asylum backlog

24 Aug 2023

Home Office data show that the decision to make care workers eligible for skilled work visas has driven a substantial increase in the number of long-term work visas being granted. Other data also show that small boat arrivals account for only one third (36%) of the asylum backlog, suggesting that other routes into the UK are key, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said today. 

Care work and work visas 

The number of long-term work visas issued to care and senior care workers reached 77,700 in the year ending June 2023, following the move to make care workers eligible for skilled work visas in February 2022. This is up from 12,300 in the year ending June 2022. 

Together with doctors and nurses, care workers have become the major driver of work-related migration to the UK under the post-Brexit immigration system. All Health and Care visas made up 121,000 or 64% of main applicants in the ‘Skilled Worker Route’, the main visa category for workers newly hired from overseas, in the year ending June 2023. In addition to care workers, the figures also included 9,600 doctors and 24,700 nurses that year. These figures all exclude family members coming with the main applicant. 

The number of skilled work visas outside the health and care route—in occupations such as IT, engineering and consulting—initially rose as the UK recovered from the pandemic and reached 69,000 in the year ending June 2023. These figures had started to level off by the second quarter of 2023, however, as vacancy rates in the UK labour market started to ease. But demand for overseas care workers showed no sign of abating.   

Dr Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “High demand for overseas care workers is driven in large part by severe funding difficulties in the sector, that have led to poor pay and conditions and difficulty attracting local workers. The increase in migration of carers will surely help to alleviate recruiting difficulties in the short run, but does not address their underlying causes. There are also risks, because care is a high-risk industry for labour abuses. We now see growing evidence that migrant workers on visas are being exploited in the sector and that the scale of the problem is stretching labour enforcement resources.” 

In June 2023, NHS England released a workforce plan that included proposals to substantially reduce reliance on overseas doctors and nurses. In care, however, the government has not laid out any plans to address workforce shortages. The government has not responded to a Migration Advisory Committee recommendation that the government address shortages in care by increasing pay for care workers.  

The number of care and senior care workers alone makes up 3.75 times the 20,700 skilled work visa cap that was in place from 2011 to 2020, and that was suspended under the post-Brexit immigration system. 

Overall visa grants 

Despite an increase in the number of work visas granted in the year ending June 2023, the total number of visa grants levelled off at around 1.45 million. This was up from 1.14 million in the year ending June 2022, but a slight decline from the year ending March 2023. Declines in entry visas granted to Ukrainians (-53,000) and Hong Kong British Nationals Overseas status holders (-38,000) partly offset increases in work and study visa grants. The number of student visas granted continued to increase, reaching 653,000 in the year ending June 2023.  

Asylum and small boats 

According to today’s figures, 41% of asylum seekers arrived by small boat in the year up to 30 June 2023 – down from 45% in the year ending June 2022. Last year saw a record number of people arriving in the UK by small boat, but over the first half of 2023 the number was 10% lower than the same period in 2022 (from 12,700 to 11,400).  

Dr Peter William Walsh, Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “Political debate has been hyper-focused on small boats, 90% of whom claim asylum. Yet in the year to June 2023, small boat arrivals made up only 41% of asylum claims – the remainder will have arrived in the UK via other routes.” 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to clear the “legacy backlog” – the number of cases that were awaiting a decision on the 28th June 2022 – by the end of the year. Today’s data show that this specific group has fallen from around 99,000 on 30 June 2022 to 68,000 in June 2023. Since Sunak made his pledge in December 2022, the legacy backlog has been reduced by only around a quarter (23%) as of 30 June 2023, while half of the time to the deadline has elapsed.  

However, the total backlog of applications has increased by 2,000 since the end of 2022, because 79,000 claims have been added to the ‘flow backlog’ (referring to claims submitted on or after 28 June 2022), of which 66,000 were awaiting a decision as of 30 June 2023.  

Dr Walsh added: “The backlog remains stubbornly high, despite falling numbers of asylum claims and more asylum caseworkers in the Home Office. It’s becoming harder to see how the government can meet its pledge to eliminate the so-called ‘legacy backlog’ of older claims by the end of the year, as the rate of decision-making would have to be more than doubled.” 


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