Rishi Sunak faces Tory backlash as net migration reaches record high

Prime minister says numbers are ‘too high’ after ONS data showing net migration into UK for 2022 was 606,000

Rishi Sunak has been accused of abandoning control of UK borders and faces a backlash from Conservative MPs after net migration and the backlog of asylum claims reached record highs, it emerged on Thursday.

The prime minister was forced to concede that the numbers should come down after figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that overall migration into the UK for 2022 was 606,000, which represents a 24% increase on the previous high of 488,000 last year.

The immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, appeared to suggest processing claims faster could encourage more people to come to the country through illegal routes after Home Office figures showed that more than 100,000 people had waited longer than six months for a decision.

Total long-term immigration was estimated at about 1.2 million in 2022, and emigration was 557,000, the ONS said.

The rise had been largely fuelled by people from outside the EU entering the UK to study, work or escape conflict or oppression.

According to the ONS data, the non-EU arrivals included 361,000 students and their families, 235,000 people coming for work-related reasons, 172,000 coming on humanitarian schemes from countries including Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan, and 76,000 people claiming asylum.

But after repeated claims by Conservative governments since 2010 that they would cut net migration, Sunak was forced to concede on ITV’s This Morning that the numbers should come down. “Numbers are too high, it’s as simple as that. And I want to bring them down,” he said.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said Sunak had lost control. “The Conservatives’ chaotic approach means that work visas are up 119%, net migration is more than twice the level ministers were aiming for, and the asylum backlog is at a record high despite Sunak promising to clear it this year.”

Tory MPs warned of voter anger and frustration at “unsustainable” levels of net migration.

Aaron Bell, the MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, said the figures were too high and his voters would “expect to see them fall”, while Louie French, the MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, said the “unsustainable levels of migration” were having a “significant impact” on housing.

Sir Edward Leigh, the MP for Gainsborough, said: “Some people in the Treasury seem to think a good way to grow the economy is to fill the country up with more and more people, but this is bad for productivity and bad for British workers who are being undercut by mass migration from all over the world.”

Martin Vickers, the Cleethorpes MP, said voters’ “anger and frustration will grow when they consider these legal migration figures”.

Home Office figures released on Thursday showed that 172,758 people were waiting for an initial decision on an asylum application in the UK at the end of March 2023.

This was up 57% from 109,735 at the end of March 2022 and was the highest figure since current records began in 2010.


Appearing in parliament to answer an urgent question, Jenrick was asked why fewer than 1% of people who arrived on small boats last year had had their asylum claims determined.

The minister replied: “It is not correct, however, to suggest that if you can process illegal migrants’ claims faster that that will reduce the number of people coming into the country. In all likelihood it’ll lead to an increase.”

Ministers have been braced for the net migration figure for several weeks, and have managed expectations by briefing to media organisations that the figure could be as much as 1 million.

The figure is more than double the level recorded in 2019, when the Conservative party pledged in its election manifesto to reduce immigration.

It is particularly embarrassing for the arch-Brexiters Sunak and Suella Braverman, who argued that leaving the EU would allow them to take control of UK borders.

The pre-Brexit average of net migration was between 200,000 and 250,000 people a year. Braverman last year said she aimed to reduce overall migration to “tens of thousands” and Sunak has previously stuck to Boris Johnson’s 2019 pledge to bring down the overall figures to below 245,000. This week he has declined to give a specific target.


Despite Sunak’s promise to reduce the asylum backlog this year, the number of people waiting for an initial decision went up to 172,758 from 166,261, Home Office statistics show. The number waiting more than six months has increased by about 10,000 to 128,812.

The number of foreign criminals and people refused asylum removed in 2022 was 38,000, the lowest number on record other than during the years of the pandemic, the Home Office figures showed.

Immigration, via regular routes such as visa schemes and irregular routes such as across the Channel in small boats, will be a significant political battleground at the general election expected next year.


The increase in net migration – the number of people entering the country minus those leaving – will result in demands from Conservative MPs to go further to meet their 2019 manifesto pledge.

Although ministers claim a crackdown on students would have a “tangible” effect on net migration, their own forecasts acknowledged that net migration would still be about 500,000 by the time of the next election, due at the end of 2024.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “This week we carried out the toughest ever action by government to reduce migration by removing the right for most international students to bring family members, while continuing to benefit from the skills and resources our economy needs.

“We remain committed to reducing overall net migration, while stopping the boats and delivering control of our borders, prioritising tackling abuse and preventing dangerous and illegal crossings.”


Rajeev Syal Home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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