According to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), net migration to the UK (the balance between those arriving for long-term stays and those leaving the country) has dipped considerably during the past year, falling from 242,000 to 183,000 in the year to March 2012. The main reason for the decline has been a fall in foreign student numbers, but the number of unsuccessful settlement fiancee, partner and marriage visa applications has also increased since the threshold requirement was introduced on 9 July 2012. The government aim to see this trend continue until the annual total runs into tens rather than hundreds of thousands. The ONS also stated this trend was despite an upsurge in Chinese students, currently the country’s largest overseas market. The official statistics also revealed that inward migration to the UK fell by 42,000 to 536,000, while the number of non-EU nationals settling fell from 317,000 to 296,000.
Commenting on the figures, Immigration Minister Mark Harper stated the coalition was bringing UK immigration “back under control”. He reiterated that government policy was well on track to bring net migration below 100,000 by the end of the current Parliament. Despite the fall, the UK was continuing to attract the brightest immigrants, as the figures revealed “a small increase in the number of sponsored student visa applications for the university sector”.
Despite much of the focus being on foreign students, these figures also include UK marriage visas. The new financial requirements introduced on 9 July 2012 have made it harder for many to apply for UK marriage, fiancee and unmarried partner visas. The settlement visa process has been the subject of much debate recently as it is believed the complicated nature of the application has put many genuine couples off. This complexity has led to a higher refusal rate.
One group which campaigns for much closer immigration controls, Migration Watch, also welcomed the figures. Their chairman, Sir Andrew Green, said: “We can now see the first effects of the government’s measures to reduce immigration. There is a distance to go but they are on the right track.”
Despite the optimism from the government and Migration Watch, BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw was more cautious in his analysis. Although the figures revealed the lowest inward migration since 2004, he suggested there was still some way for the government to go before they had any chance of meeting their ideal immigration totals by 2015.
This net migration target has caused division within the coalition. Liberal Democrats, as well as some Tories, including Boris Johnson, believe that the wrong message could be sent to foreign students, hindering the economic recovery.
Sarah Mulley, of the Institute of Public Policy Research, commented that in order to achieve the government target of reducing net migration, the student visa system would need to be overhauled to prevent abuse. But this would have a similar effect on genuine student applications. “The irony is that the impacts on net migration will only be short-lived because most students stay only for a short time. Reduced immigration today means reduced emigration in a year or two’s time, which could see net migration rise again”.
The ONS report was released on the same day as John Vine, the Chief Inspector of Borders, intimated that thousands of foreign students may have been allowed to stay in the UK illegally, simply because UK Border Agency staff had failed to check out tip-offs about them. He underlined the fact that the backlog of cases under investigation had built up to 153,000 at one point.
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