LONDON — Theresa May has been urged to apologise after it emerged that the number of foreign students overstaying their visas is vastly lower than official figures.
Conservative and Labour politicians condemned May’s policy of including student numbers in migration figures, after officials were found to be massively overestimating how many international students stayed in the country after their degree.
The latest ONS migration statistics showed that only 4,600 students remained in the country illegally, far less than the almost 100,000 previously estimated.
The prime minister insisted on including international students in immigration statistics during her time as home secretary and has continued this despite disagreement from Chancellor Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said: “This debacle happened on Theresa May’s watch at the Home Office. I spent five years in coalition battling her department’s bogus figures on this issue but she responded by erecting a wall of visa restrictions on an entirely false basis.
“Cabinet Brexiteers fought a referendum campaign on a flawed prospectus, scapegoating foreign students who weren’t even here, and demonising EU citizens who are now leaving the country voluntarily.”
On Thursday the Home Office commissioned a report into the social and economic impact of international students, to discover how they actually affect the UK.
The Conservatives have included a commitment to bring immigration down to “tens of thousands” in their manifestos at the 2010, 2015 and 2017 general elections, but have never got near meeting it.
Former Conservative cabinet minister Nicky Morgan told the Guardian newspaper that “the reasons given for including students in the net migration numbers don’t really ring true.”
Labour’s shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: “I think there’s long been a consensus on the Labour side, but also among most Tories that think about these issues, that you shouldn’t have students in migration targets. The one person that wasn’t convinced was Theresa May and I think these figures show that she’s wrong.”
The immigration statistics also revealed that many EU citizens have left since the Brexit vote, with Cable calling it a “Brexodus” of people.
122,000 EU citizens left in the past year, an increase on the 33,000 figure before, which is the highest number for a decade.
Cable said: “These figures show a deeply worrying Brexodus of EU citizens who have made the UK their home. This is largely a result of the failure of Theresa May’s government to guarantee EU citizens’ right to stay.”
Overall, the net migration figure is 246,000, which is 81,000 less than recorded in 2016.
Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at King’s College London said: “These statistics confirm that Brexit is having a significant impact on migration flows, even before we have left the EU or any changes are made to law or policy.”
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