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Migration Levels: Why Can’t Rishi Commit to a Number?

rishi sunak

Back in 2019, when Boris Johnson was attempting to win his first general election as Prime Minister, the Conservative Party made a number of pledges in their manifesto.

One of these pledges revolved around net migration. Net migration refers to the number of people moving to the UK minus the number of people who leave. It is argued that if this number is on the rise then issues around housing and employment could arise.

In 2019, net migration stood at 226,000 and Boris Johnson committed to bringing net migration down as part of his election campaign. However, just three years later that figure has more than doubled and is now at 504,000 – a new record high.

New figures are to be released next week and the expectation is that they will once again set a new record as the government continues to wrestle with migration. Speaking to reporters ahead of the G7 Summit in Japan, the Prime Minister was given the opportunity to make a pledge about where he wants to see these figures get to in the coming years but declined.

Instead, he seemed to shift the blame onto his predecessor, and while he wants the numbers to drop he seemingly doesn’t want to commit to getting them at least back to where they were in 2019 when his party said they wanted to reduce it. Sunak said:

“I’ve inherited some numbers and I want to bring the numbers down. When it comes to legal migration, the key thing for people to know is we’re in control of why people are here, the circumstances and the terms in which they are here, making sure they contribute, to public services like the NHS for example.”

Pointing to Brexit

Despite his opposite number, Sir Keir Starmer, saying yesterday that he believes the UK’s Brexit deal should be renegotiated, Sunak has pointed to the nation’s exit from the European Union as the reason why the migration system, in his opinion at least, now works better.

Sunak said that the fact immigration policy is now decided solely at Westminster means that the UK can be more selective on migrant applications so that they only allow people in who can contribute to society.

While Sunak is full of praise for the new migration system, it hasn’t helped to curb net migration levels which have rapidly been on the rise since the COVID pandemic. For Sunak, the issue is almost solely around illegal immigration and boat crossings across the English Channel, something he is keen to eradicate. He said:

“I do think most people’s number one priority when it comes to migration is illegal migration, that is crystal clear to me. That’s why one of my five priorities is to stop the boats, that’s why recently we have moved to a Covid-style committee structure when I am meeting twice a week with ministers to drive the implementation of the new Illegal Migration Bill.”

On the topic of illegal migration, Sunak spoke about a potential breakthrough in relation to the UK establishing an agreement with Frontex, a European Border and Coastguard Agency to help them limit small boat crossings. He said that such an agreement would be of “practical value to us in stopping illegal migration.”

Quick fixes in the meantime

While Sunak continues to push the “stop the boats” narrative and the new Illegal Migration Bill, there are a few measures which the government are considering bringing in to try and curb net migration in the coming months.

One area which is set to be targeted is education and international students. According to recent figures, there are more than 650,000 international students in the United Kingdom and ministers are considering camping down on allowing international Masters students to bring dependents with them.

How this will be received by the international community remains to be seen, especially at the fees they pay to study at British universities.

Final thought

The issue of net migration in the UK continues to be a contentious one, with the latest figures showing a record high of 504,000. While the government has pledged to bring down the numbers, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to do so.

The Prime Minister’s refusal to commit to a specific target for net migration and the emphasis on illegal migration isn’t a surprise considering their focus on boat crossings in recent times.

The proposal to limit the number of international students may also pose issues as it is important to ensure that the UK’s universities continue to attract people who contribute to the economy, subsidise costs for UK students and enrich the academic community.

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