Overall net migration hits record high – but migrant workforce is growing more slowly than it was pre-Brexit

New ONS data published today (Thursday) showed that overall net migration hit a record high of 606,000 in 2022. But Resolution Foundation analysis of separate ONS data shows that the number of migrant workers rose by 170,000 over 2022 – up from lows immediately post-Brexit but significantly below the pre-Brexit average of 230,000.

The latest migration data for the year ending December 2022 showed that overall net migration rose to 606,000 – driven entirely by non-EU migration (662,000, with net EU-migration actually falling). Among non-EU migrants, the most common reasons for coming to the UK were to study (39 per cent) to work (25 per cent) or for humanitarian reasons (19 per cent).

The Foundation notes that while work is only one reason why people choose to migrate to the UK it is a key one for people, firms and the wider economy – and is at the centre of the current immigration debate.

However, big changes to work-related migration since the Brexit referendum are often poorly understood, which risks impeding debates about migration policy.

The Foundation’s analysis of the ONS Labour Force Survey shows that there have been three big changes in the UK’s migrant workforce post-2016 – the scale of migration, where people are coming from, and where people are going to.

First, the number of migrant workers in the UK grew by 170,000 over 2022 (comparing Q4 2021 with Q4 2022), up from around 87,000 in each year between the Brexit referendum and pandemic, but significantly below the 2003 to 2015 average of 230,000, let alone the mid-2010s peaks of 430,000 (again comparing the final quarters of each year).

Second, the rise in the migrant workforce over the course of 2022 has been entirely driven by non-EU workers (up by 220,000 between Q4 2021 and Q4 2022). This continues the longer-term pattern since 2016, where the non-EU born workforce as a share of all workers has grown by 2.2 percentage points (ppts) – 845,000 people in total – compared to just 0.2 ppts (150,000 people) among EU-born workers.

Third, migration patterns have shifted away from the capital. Comparing the 2016 and 2022 averages, Inner London was the only area of the UK to see a fall in the share of both EU and non-EU born workers (down 1 and 3 ppts), and a significant rise in the share of UK-born workers.

In contrast, the West Midlands saw the biggest fall in the share of UK-born workers (down 5 ppts) as well as the biggest increase in non-EU born workers (up 3 ppts), while Strathclyde saw the biggest increase in EU-born workers (up 2 ppts).

Charlie McCurdy, Economist at the Resolution Foundation, said:

“Record levels of migration into the UK last year have sparked an often furious debate, but there has not been enough focus on the changing nature of migration.

“The new record for overall migration, driven primarily by students and people arriving for humanitarian reasons, hides a slowdown in the growth of the UK’s migrant workforce since 2016.

“The growth in the UK migrant workforce hasn’t just slowed, it’s changed with very different impacts across our economy. London has actually seen a fall in its share of migrant workers, while areas like the West Midlands and Strathclyde have seen their migrant workforces continuing to grow.”

Notes to Editors

The Foundation’s analysis uses data from the ONS Labour Force Statistics.