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Why Did Migrants Come to the UK in 2023? Insights and Statistics

Most recent data from the UK government provides clear and stark insights into the immigration trends for the year 2023. Note that this is an updated version of a previous piece discussing data from June 2021 to June 2022.

For more information regarding immigration to the UK, including personalised advice and support with your immigration case, speak to one of our legal advisers today. Call us on 0333 305 9375, or contact us online.

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Overview of Immigration to the UK in 2023

Much like the years preceding it, 2023 was a fairly atypical year for international migration.

With COVID-19 becoming an increasingly minor concern, people across the globe were starting to embrace restriction-free travel once again. This is evidenced in the statistics released by the Home Office for the year ending December 2023, which showed an overall 20% rise in entry clearance visas being granted compared to 2022.

Over half of these visas granted were from Visitor visas alone, which clearly demonstrates the ongoing popularity of the UK as a tourist destination, even if numbers are not quite as high as they were pre-pandemic.

2023 was also unique in that a brand-new form of visitor clearance was rolled out for the first time in the UK. The Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) proof of entry clearance was only made mandatory for Qatari nationals in 2023, although more and more countries are planned to be added to the list, eventually bringing the ETA to be in line with the United States’ ESTA programme for visa-exempt nationals.

Finally, the overall rise in net migration in 2023 also coincides with the current Conservative government’s efforts to “clamp down” on migration numbers, whether that be through official or undocumented routes. 2023 and the start of 2024 introduced a swathe of new restrictions and measures to bring these numbers down, although it is still too soon to definitely conclude how much of an impact this will have on numbers, if at all.

In this piece, we take a look at statistics from the Home Office and the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to investigate the driving forces that brought migrants to the UK in 2023, and what data in 2024 might look like based on these figures.

Key Figures at a Glance

According to statistics released by the Home Office and the ONS, in 2023, there were:

  • 3.4 million UK visas issued in total
  • 1.96 million Visitor visas issued 
  • 616,000 Work visas issued (including dependents)
  • 606,000 Study visas issued (including dependents)
  • 81,000 Family visas issued 
  • 102,000 individuals who came to the UK through “safe and legal (humanitarian)” routes 
  • 62,000 individuals granted refugee status or another kind of protection 

Work Visas 

Health and Care Workers

Migration for Work visa routes in 2023 was dominated by the Health and Care Worker visa.

Of the 337,240 work visas granted to main applicants in 2023, a large majority of them (146,477) were for the Health and Care Worker visa route – an approximate 91% increase from 2022. A further 203,452 visas were granted to dependents on this same route. 

This sharp increase can be attributed to the roles of care workers and home carers being made eligible for the Health and Care Worker route in early 2022. This change was put in place by the government to help bolster the UK’s workforce in the care sector after the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted key skills shortages. As a result, it resulted in a large influx of foreign applicants filling UK vacancies for these roles.

To put the figures into perspective, the second-most common profession under the Health and Care visa in 2023, nurses, accounted for 22,336 of applicants under this route, compared to 89,236 home carers and care workers.

The prevalence of care workers in this visa category is of particular interest in light of the most recent changes made to the immigration rules by the UK government. As of March 2024, care workers and senior care workers are no longer able to bring dependents with them to the UK when applying for a Health and Care Worker visa. As these plans were first unveiled in December of 2023, it may be safe to assume a direct correlation between the 2023 statistics for this visa and the restrictions subsequently placed on it for 2024 applicants.

This is one of many measures the government has put in place to “clamp down” on net migration numbers, despite reports that the job vacancy rate in the care sector is still around 6% higher than the national average, according to Skills for Care.

As previously stated, these measures are still relatively new at the time of writing and more time will need to be given before properly evaluating the tangible effect they will have on net migration numbers in the coming months.

Other Work Routes

Aside from the changing trends of the Health and Care Worker visa, there are very few notable changes from 2022’s data to note.

Other skilled routes under the Worker category (such as the Skilled Worker visa and Senior or Specialist Worker visa) saw a slight fall of 6% in application numbers in 2023. This suggests that the post-pandemic boom in applications is starting to plateau somewhat, with numbers still being far higher than they were on average before 2020.

Other visa categories such as temporary work and investor, business development and talent largely saw trends continuing from 2023, with no significant increases or decreases in application numbers.

Contact us today if you require assistance with your UK immigration case.

Study Visas

Study visas were the second-most common form of entry clearance granted in 2023, after work visas.

Unlike work visas, study visa applications saw a slight decline of 5% from 2022, but remained at a relatively high level compared to pre-pandemic statistics. It should be noted that the year ending June 2023 saw the highest spike of visa applications in this category, with 498,626 visas being issued. The number has fallen gradually since then.

As expected, a significant majority (90%) of study visas issued in the UK were for higher education institutions such as universities. Data from previous years have already demonstrated how students aged 18 and over have embraced restriction-free travel in the wake of the pandemic, which has predictably led to a spike in international student movement across the globe.

It’s worth noting, however, that similar to the government’s efforts to curb Health and Care Worker visa application numbers, the study visa category has also undergone notable recent changes. As of January 2024, international students in the UK can no longer bring dependents with them unless they are enrolled in certain research-based postgraduate courses.

In 2023, approximately 23.9% of all visas granted in the study category were for dependents of main applicants. It is worth noting that this is a smaller proportion than the 45.3% figure in the work visa category, though the government has stated their intention to continue with their plans to reduce net migration numbers while still “protecting the economic benefits that students can bring to the UK”.

Family Visas

2023 had the highest number of Family visas issued in the UK on record.

A total of 81,203 were successfully granted during this year, which represented a 72% increase from 2022.

The reason for this spike in applications may once again be attributed to the after-effects of COVID-19. In particular, the Home Office states that a clearance of build-up of applications from 2022 may have contributed to a significant number more to be approved in 2023.

This can be evidenced in Home Office data, where the number of Family visas granted was actually higher than the overall number of Family visa applications received in 2023, which is highly unusual in UK immigration.

Aside from this notable spike, the remainder of statistics relating to Family visas in 2023 were relatively unremarkable. Similar to previous years, three-quarters of visas issued in this category were for spouses or partners, with the remainder being issued to children or other dependents. 

There were also 17,169 permits issued under the EU Settlement Scheme – significantly less than the peak of 54,973 in the year ending December 2021. This decline is expected, considering that the official deadline for this scheme was in 2021.

Safe and Legal (Humanitarian) Routes

This category of UK immigration encompasses visa schemes that allow certain groups to travel to, or settle in, the UK for humanitarian reasons.

These include the three Ukraine Scheme visas, the BNO visa, Resettlement schemes, and Family Reunion visas for refugees.

The total number of visas issued under these routes in 2023 was 102,283, which is a significant decrease from 299,623 in 2022. 

This decline in the number of applications in this category is largely due to the corresponding decrease in applications for the Ukrainian Scheme visas, which made up the majority of applications in this category for both 2022 and 2023. 

A total of 50,520 Ukrainian Scheme visas were issued in 2023, which is around a quarter of the total number issued in 2022 (232,135). As these visas were only first introduced in 2022 as a response to the conflict in Ukraine, it is expected that the highest demand for these visas would have been in 2022 shortly after these routes opened. As a result, the lower demand for these routes going into the second year of their operation is not unusual.

The second-most popular route in the Safe and Legal (Humanitarian) category was BNO visas, with a total of 37,603 issued. This is the lowest annual figure for this visa type so far, which has been steadily decreasing since its introduction in 2021. The third-most popular route was Resettlement and Relocation visas, with 4,396 visas issued in 2023.

Due to most of the visas in this category being introduced as a response to specific world events, it is unlikely that we will see much more of an increase of people applying through these routes in the future. To add to this, two of the three Ukrainian Scheme visas have, or are set to, close in 2024, further limiting the possibility of larger application numbers to come.

Asylum Seekers and Protection

More individuals were offered refugee status or another type of protection in 2023 than any other year on record. Overall, this amounted to 62,336 successful grants.

However, this is not due to an increase of asylum applications being received in 2023 (the overall number of asylum applications received actually decreased by around 17% overall from 2022 to 2023). Rather, the Home Office has cited a number of factors responsible for this increase, including the following:

  • An increase in the number of asylum decision makers employed by the Home Office
  • Overall simplified guidance
  • Shorter focused interviews
  • Streamlining initiatives such as the Streamlined Asylum Process, which, among other things, provides guidance on how to approve asylum claims without having to conduct a substantive interview

Also worth noting is that although more individuals were granted status in the UK in 2023, the overall percentage of applications that were successfully approved has decreased. Approximately 67% of all applications in 2023 were grants, compared to 76% in 2022.

The most popular countries that asylum seekers originated from in 2023 were Afghanistan, Iran and India. Notably, the number of Albanian asylum seekers decreased by around 79% in 2023, bringing Albania down from the most common origin country for asylum seekers in the UK to the eighth-most common across the two years.

Concluding Thoughts

Although the data for 2023 has provided a few notable and exceptional firsts in the history of UK immigration, it may be that 2024’s data may also be even more noteworthy, considering the numerous permanent changes that have been brought into effect into some of the UK’s most popular immigration routes.

These include the minimum salary/income threshold increases for the Skilled Worker visa and Family visas, and the removal of the ability of most students and care workers to bring dependents to the UK. 

These changes, as well as potential changes coming to the Graduate visa scheme later this year, may set off some long-lasting effects in immigration to the UK. Potentially, this may mean reduced net migration numbers if the current UK government’s initiatives prove successful, but other factors such as the post-pandemic boom of migration numbers should also be factored in when considering the whole picture.

It’s likely that the full effect of the year’s new immigration policies won’t come to light until 2025 at the latest (especially considering the phased increase to the Family visa minimum income requirement, which will reach its final maximum threshold in 2025). However, data from the Home Office will continue to be released on a quarterly basis throughout 2024, so it will be possible to monitor the progression of the effect of these new rules before a more complete picture can be gathered.

How Can IAS Help?

In light of the changes that have been made to the UK immigration system in 2024, and the possibility of more to come in the future, it has never been more important to ensure that you have all the help and support you need for your own personal immigration journey.

IAS can help. 

We are a team of dedicated, professional immigration lawyers working in the UK and abroad. We provide a range of services that can help you navigate the ever-changing landscape of UK immigration, including a full application service to help guide you through the process of applying for visas, to fast-track services if you need to complete an application to a strict deadline.

We also offer asylum and refugee support if you or your family need to apply for refugee status in the UK.

For more information about our services and what we could do for you, call us on 0333 305 9375, or contact us online for immediate help.

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