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25 May 2023

How does UK net migration compare with the rest of Europe?

Crises like the war in Ukraine haven't just affected the UK.

By Ido Vock

Immigration to the UK hit a record high of 1,163,000 in 2022. Combined with emigration of 557,000, net migration to the country therefore stood at 606,000, the highest figure on record, according to the Office for National Statistics. How does that figure compare to other big European countries?

Comprehensive figures for 2022 are not yet available for other European countries, so direct comparisons cannot yet be made. However, in 2021, the latest year for which more reliable data is available across the continent, net migration to the UK was significantly higher than in other big European countries.

That year, net migration to the UK stood at 488,000, compared with around 329,000 in Germany and 161,000 in France, according to those countries’ statistics authorities. The figures include British, German and French citizens returning from living abroad.

Watch: Freddie Hayward and Rachel Wearmouth discuss the immigration statistics on the New Statesman podcast.

The 2021 figures were some of the highest in German and French history, though lower than in a few exceptional years. In 2015, at the height of the European migrant crisis, Germany recorded net migration of 1.1 million. In France the highest net migration in recent years was 201,000 in 2018.

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Several exceptional events have contributed to unusual migration flows in recent years, most of which have affected Europe as a whole. Two in particular stand out.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which began in 2020, led to a drop in migration as governments sealed their borders. Then, in 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians fled their country, in a mass exodus which quickly became the largest movement of refugees in Europe since the Second World War. The most common destination in Europe was Poland, followed by Germany, where nearly one million people moved in 2022, according to the UN refugee agency. A far smaller number – though still significant in absolute and historical terms – went to France and the UK. Around 120,000 Ukrainians fled to France while 200,000 settled in the UK.

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Other events, such as the 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the Belarus migrant crisis that same year, only contributed relatively low numbers of migrants coming to Europe. In both cases the numbers were only in the tens of thousands Europe-wide – relatively small in the context of total movement of people across borders.

[See also: Labour’s immigration opportunity]

Some British schemes in the past few years have led to migrants specifically moving to the UK, contributing to the country’s high migration figures. An immigration route for British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders from Hong Kong introduced in early 2021 allowed eligible Hongkongers to move to the UK, Hong Kong’s former colonial power. According to the ONS, 52,000 people used the scheme to come to the UK in 2022, contributing to higher immigration figures. A similar scheme to resettle Afghans has meant about 21,000 people moving to the UK, according to the Home Office.

Overall, however, the ONS figures show that record high immigration is largely down to people coming to the UK to work and study rather than seek protection. Last year 235,000 people and their dependants came for work and 361,000 for study, representing more than half of immigration to the UK. Humanitarian routes brought 420,000 people to the country.

Across Europe, historically high immigration rates in recent years have to some extent been followed by a political backlash. The rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the country’s most powerful far-right force, is at least in part linked to Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to largely Middle Eastern migrants in 2015. In France, Marine Le Pen, the three-time far-right presidential candidate, largely campaigned on a promise to restrict immigration.

The UK’s vote to leave the EU in 2016 was widely interpreted as a call to restrict immigration. However, far from dropping after the UK left the EU’s structures in early 2020 and imposed the same restrictions on EU citizens as on people from the rest of the world, migration has risen. That rise is down to an increase in non-EU migration, from ad hoc schemes for Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan and to meet the needs of an economy still strongly reliant on imported labour.

While migration resulting from global crises might taper off in the coming years, changing the fundamentals of an economy dependent on foreign workers will prove more challenging.

[See also: Why are voters so relaxed about immigration?]

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