Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Net Migration to U.K. Rises to Near Peak, Adding to Brexit Mix

  • Figure increases to 333,000, the second-highest on record
  • Issue of foreign workers in U.K. part of EU referendum debate

Net migration to the U.K. rose to 333,000 in 2015, just below the record, increasing pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron a month before the referendum on European Union membership.

The figure represented a 20,000 increase on 2014, the Office of National Statistics said on Thursday. While the number has gone up because of fewer people leaving the U.K. to live abroad rather than more foreigners setting up home in Britain, it has been seized on by government opponents and supporters of an EU exit as evidence that the U.K. is powerless to control its borders.

“Mass immigration still hopelessly out of control and set to get worse if we remain in EU,” U.K.  Independence Party leader Nigel Farage said on Twitter. “I don’t believe these official figures and I’m sure the real numbers are much higher.”

“These figures are a serious disappointment,” Andrew Green, chairman of Migration Watch U.K., a policy group campaigning for immigration management, said in an e-mailed statement. “The effect on housing and public services will be enormous unless and until there is decisive action to bring these numbers down.”

While migration from the EU accounts for just under half the total, immigration has formed a central part of the Brexit debate. EU citizens have the right to live and work in any of the bloc’s 28 states and opponents of membership say only an exit would give British authorities control over arrivals. The referendum takes place on June 23.

Welfare Curbs

Net migration hit its record in the 12 months to the end of March 2015, reaching 336,000. Cameron says new curbs on welfare payments for EU migrants will help the government achieve its goal of cutting the figure to under 100,000.

“The answer to reducing immigration is not to leave the EU,” Cameron’s spokesman, Dan York Smith, told reporters in London. “The prime minister’s view is very clearly that weakening the economy and destroying jobs by getting rid of access to the world’s biggest market is not the answer.”

With the “Leave” campaign failing to make headway in the referendum campaign on the economy, it needs to “put the pedal down” on immigration, the issue that’s of most importance to Brexit voters, said Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent. 

“Euroskeptic voters are not mobilized by intellectual Euroskeptic arguments, they are mobilized, to be blunt, by populist, instinctive, emotional buttons,” he told journalists at a briefing in London. “Somebody in Vote Leave, I would suggest, needs to make a final decision around whether they’re willing to press those buttons.”

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