Your questions on immigration answered: What is migration? And why are some people always talking about it?

For the past few national elections, immigration has been a key issue and it looks like this trend is set to continue with the Conservatives in particular pinning their reelection hopes on bringing down the overall number of people coming to the UK. 

But between Government announcements, new laws, the publication of reports, and the release of fresh figures, it can be hard to keep up, so we’ve put together a quick explainer on everything migration related, and importantly, because nobody else seems to ask, isn’t immigration actually good for the UK?

What is a migrant? 

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), ‘migrant’ is an umbrella term, which generally refers to a person who moves away from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons.

How does a migrant differ from an asylum seeker or a refugee?

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home because of war, violence or persecution, often without warning. They are unable to return home unless and until conditions in their native land are safe for them again. The Government and media often uses the term migrant to describe refugees even though there is an obvious difference between someone fleeing danger and someone moving to find work or to study. 

An asylum seeker is someone who is also seeking international protection from dangers in his or her home country, but whose claim for refugee status hasn’t been determined legally. Asylum seekers must apply for protection in the country of destination - for most seeking asylum in the UK, that means they must arrive in the UK in order to apply as the Government has closed down most safe routes for them to do so from their country of origin. 

How many migrants came to the UK last year? 

New estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) put net immigration in 2023- the difference between the number of people arriving and leaving - at 685,000. This represents a fall from 764,000 for the year 2022.

According to the ONS, work replaced study as the main reason for migration to the UK in the past year. Almost half of those immigrating for work-related reasons came from India or Nigeria, most commonly in the health and social care sector. 

How has Brexit impacted net-migration? 

Prior to the 2016 referendum, EU citizens made up the majority of all net migration to the UK, excluding British citizens. 

Although policy towards EU citizens did not change until January 2021, EU net migration began to fall immediately after the referendum. But in 2021, net migration actually turned negative, meaning more EU citizens were leaving the UK than arriving. This was due to the introduction of the post-Brexit rules and regulations which substantially reduced opportunities for EU citizens to move to the UK to work and study.

According to ONS estimates, net migration of EU citizens in the year ending December 2023, stood at -75,000. In contrast, net migration of non-EU citizens has continued to rise, standing at an estimated 797,000 for the year ending December 2023. 

How does migration benefit the UK? 

The current government continues to present immigration as negative, despite the fact that immigration actually benefits the UK in a myriad of ways. Below are some key examples: 

  • Repeated studies have shown that immigrants pay more in tax than they take out in benefits or in using public services.
  • Immigrants help enrich our culture, by introducing new ideas, expertise, customs, cuisines, languages and art to the UK. 
  • The fees from overseas students goes towards subsidising fees for UK students at our universities. Without international students many of the UK’s world famous universities would go bust. 
  • Immigration results in economic growth and reliable public services, as immigrants help fill the hundreds of thousands of vacancies that exist in our labour market. This is particularly the case in the hospitality sector, where immigrants account for about 15% of the workforce and in the NHS and social care, which are both reliant on overseas recruitment to fill staffing gaps
  • Immigrants also help fill areas where skills are lacking - skills shortages can have disproportionately negative impacts on the economy by creating bottlenecks. 
  • Immigrants also fill jobs which would be unlikely to be filled by people already living in the UK. For example, if you have a young family and are looking for work near to your home in Hull, will you apply for a job on a soft fruit farm in rural Kent where most employees stay on site, you are only needed for part of the year and there are no realistic transport links?
  • With an ageing population - and, increasingly, an unwell population - Immigration helps maintain a working age population in the UK ensuring our public services and economy continues to run. 

Why has the debate around migration become so toxic? 

It has long been a tactic of some politicians, particularly from populist, conservative and right-wing parties, to create fear around immigration in the interests of winning votes. This is also a tactic used by some media outlets to increase their sales or audience. They often claim that immigrants are a drain on public services when in fact the opposite is true. They point at struggling public services or housing shortages as evidence of the impact of out of control immigration with no acknowledgement of the public spending cuts and failure to invest in infrastructure or housing.

This has led to political obsession with getting net-migration numbers down across the spectrum - which has gone hand-in-hand with ineffective, inhumane and counterproductive Government policies as well as discriminatory, dehumanising and dangerous rhetoric. And all at the expense of honest, humane and evidence-led debate about migration policy and the economic, social and cultural benefits of immigration to the UK. 

What are the Conservative Party’s policies on migration?

As the General Election nears, the Conservative Government have become increasingly focused on bringing numbers down, but many have claimed the new policies they have introduced are inhumane, not evidence based, will be damaging to the UK and are focussed on feeding anti-immigrant sentiment ahead of the next election.

This is evidenced by the Government’s five-point plan, announced in December 2023 by James Cleverly, which makes it much harder for people to obtain work and family visas in the UK, despite critical worker shortages across a range of UK industries. The Government has said that the changes will result in 300,000 fewer people coming to the UK each year.

What are Labour's plans for migration?

The Labour Party has outlined that they “won’t set an arbitrary target on migration”. In the National Policy Forum platform, Labour sets out plans to reform both the points-based immigration system and the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).  In their proposal, the MAC would work closely with national skills bodies and feed into industrial strategy. 

Labour has set out plans to confront exploitation, with a single enforcement body to enforce workers’ rights and monitor discriminatory practices against migrant workers. Labour has also committed to a visa waiver for touring artists and negotiation of an EU-wide cultural touring agreement.