New figures show mixed results in the U.K. government’s efforts to tighten entry requirements for foreign workers and students, as immigration heats up as an election issue here. The 2009 statistics show fewer foreign workers are coming to the U.K., though the number of student visas issued to non-Europeans continues to rise.
The country has seen a dramatic increase in immigrants since the late 1990s, primarily Eastern Europeans and other foreigners seeking employment during the boom times. As jobs became scarce during the recession and U.K. citizens became increasingly uneasy about losing opportunities to foreigners, pressure has grown on the government to limit immigration.
Meanwhile, there has been pressure to tighten scrutiny of student visas, in part due to numerous incidents involving terrorism suspects who entered the country with student paperwork.
In response, the government two years ago began introducing new visa rules for non-European workers and students. Immigration specialists say the new rules—which include stiffer financial and qualification requirements—are making it tougher for some people to come to the U.K., or stay. In 2009, the number of visas issued to non-European workers and their families declined 21% from a year earlier, to 93,690, according to the Office of National Statistics. Most Europeans are free to seek work in the U.K. without a visa. Meanwhile, the number of student visas issued to non-Europeans increased 31% to 273,610. The U.K. issued two million visas in 2009, including family members and visitors, up 2% from a year earlier.
Polls show many voters want to see fewer immigrants.
Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said the decline in work visas “is a result” of the new visa system, rather than the economic downturn. The government hails the new system as the most significant changes to the U.K.’s immigration rules since World War II. The change, they say, protects British workers by allowing flexibility to prioritize entry for migrants for jobs that are difficult to fill.
However, some say the economic downturn is having a bigger impact than new policies, and point to the large increase in people leaving the country while arrivals have remained relatively steady.
The opposition Conservative Party argues that the government has lost control of the borders, putting pressure on jobs and public services. It pledges to cap the number of work visas issued, if it is voted into power in the spring election.
The net number of migrants coming into the U.K. has increased significantly to more than 200,000 in some years, up from fewer than 50,000 in 1997 when the current Labour government came into power, according to the Office for National Statistics. That equates to more than two million immigrants—a significant portion due to the inflow following the 2004 enlargement of the European Union to include countries such as Poland.