Dr. Hannah White OBE is Director of the Institute for Government in London.
With the UK’s next general election expected in 2024, immigration has become a highly salient political issue. The UK has seen unprecedented inward migration following the introduction of its post-Brexit migration regime, with the net arrival of 745,000 migrants in 2022. This increase has proven awkward for the governing Conservative Party, which committed in its 2019 election manifesto to cut annual net migration to under 225,000.
The introduction of a points-based visa scheme, together with specific visa schemes designed to facilitate the arrival of Afghans, Ukrainians, and Hong Kongers, has created a marked shift in the make-up of migrants, away from European Union and towards non-European Union nationals.
The largest number of visas was issued to Indians (30%), followed by Chinese, Nigerian, and Turkish migrants. The changes to the UK’s migration regime are reflected in the country climbing two spots to 4th place on the Henley Passport Index for 2024, with visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 191 destinations worldwide.
During 2023, the government announced a package of measures created to reduce the number of student visas being issued. From January 2024, this decision removed the right of international students to bring dependents (unless they are on postgraduate research courses) and removed the ability of international students to switch on to work routes before their studies are completed.
In late 2023, the government introduced a further suite of changes to the UK’s migration regime, designed to cut legal migration by around 300,000. This included tightening the Health and Care Worker visa (issued to 101,000 migrants in the year to September 2023) to prevent overseas care workers from bringing their dependents to the UK.
The government also decided to increase the earning threshold for overseas workers by nearly 50% from its current position of GBP 26,200 to GBP 38,700 from spring 2024. It also increased the minimum income required for British citizens and those settled in the UK who want their family members to join them, although the scale of the increase was reduced following a public outcry at the latter measure. A further measure designed to reduce immigration and decrease the risk of ‘health tourism’ was an increase in the annual Immigration Health Surcharge from GBP 624 to GBP 1,035.
Political discussions of migration have focused on the pressure that the steep increase in legal migration has put on public services and housing in certain parts of the UK, but also conflated legal migration with unauthorized ‘small boat’ arrivals across the English Channel from France. In the year ending June 2023, there were 52,530 irregular migrants detected entering the UK, up 17% from the year ending June 2022. 85% of these migrants arrived via small boats.
The growing number of undocumented arrivals — albeit somewhat reversed during 2023 — led Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to introduce a highly controversial policy of off-shoring asylum seekers to Rwanda, agreeing on a memorandum of understanding with the African nation to process and admit successful claimants removed from the UK. The aim of the policy is to discourage illegal migration through the threat of removal to Rwanda.
However, the implementation of the scheme has been delayed by court challenges. The government has responded to these legal setbacks with new legislation, proposing to set aside certain international agreements to which the UK is signatory. This legislation has itself proven controversial between different wings of the Conservative Party, and it remains deeply uncertain whether the policy will be implemented before the next general election.