The number of European Union citizens moving to Britain has skyrocketed by over a third, putting pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to follow through on his vow to cut down on immigration.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said Thursday that net long-term migration into Britain was 243,000 in the year to March 2014, up from 175,000 in the previous year.
The jump in the number of people moving to the UK is a blow to Cameron’s government, which had attempted to reduce net migration.
Immigration is a key political issue ahead of the 2015 general election. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) has gained increasing support because it pushes for Britain’s exit out of the 28-country bloc. This would put an end to the right of EU workers to move freely to Britain.
David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May previously announced to cut net migration to below 100,000 by the general election on May 7 next year. The UK government has tightened visa rules to target migration from outside the EU and restricted access to Britain's welfare system to deter EU migrants. Student visas granted were down by over a quarter (29 percent) when compared to September 2010 figures, for example.
A surge in immigration from within the European Union (EU) was behind the increase as two-thirds of all immigrants to the UK in the period – 214,000 out of 560,000 – came from within the EU.
However, the Home Office said that the figures show that net migration has fallen by a quarter since its 2005 peak – from 320,000 to 243,000. It also stressed that non-EU migration is at its lowest levels since the 1990s, which “demonstrates that government reforms to curb abuse in the student, family and work routes are having an impact.”
Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said the Government remained focused on reducing net migration to sustainable levels. He said, “Uncontrolled, mass immigration makes it difficult to maintain social cohesion, puts pressure on public services and forces down wages.”
He added, “We are creating a system that is fair to British citizens and legitimate migrants but is tough on those who flout the rules.”
However, Mark Hilton, head of immigration policy at the business lobby London First, said the net migration target should be “put out of its misery” and that politicians should remember the economic benefits that migrants bring to the UK.
“The danger is ministers will take the only real steps open to them and clamp down on skilled non-EU migrants – who bring much-needed skills into the country – and students, who are not only a £10 billion market for us, but a key plank in Britain’s global influence in terms of soft power,” he said.
The ONS statistics also showed the number of Romanians and Bulgarians arriving in the UK more than doubled to 28,000 in the year up until March, compared to 12,000 in the previous year. Restrictions to the labor market were lifted for Romanians and Bulgarians on January 1.
There are now 1.7 million EU nationals employed in the UK – up 17 percent on the same period last year, the figures revealed. A total of 2.9 million non-UK nationals are currently in employment.
The number of people leaving the UK – 316,000 – remained stable within the same period.