Europe News

As EU vote looms, immigration rise piles pressure on Cameron

LONDON (Reuters) - Net migration to Britain from the European Union rose nearly 9 percent in the year to September 2015, official data showed on Thursday, putting pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron in the run-up to a vote on membership of the European Union.

A sign shows the distance to different cities, including London, from the cargo port of Zeebrugge, February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

EU rules on freedom of movement mean citizens are free to live and work anywhere in the 28-nation bloc, so eurosceptic opponents of Cameron argue Britain is powerless to control immigration unless it votes to leave the EU on June 23.

Cameron is urging a vote to stay, armed with a package of measures he agreed with fellow EU leaders this month that, among other things, will enable Britain to reduce certain welfare payments for which immigrants are eligible.

The net number of EU migrants coming to Britain in the year to September, excluding returning Britons, was 172,000, up 14,000 from a year earlier.

The net number of non-EU migrants also rose slightly, to 191,000 from 188,000 a year earlier, indicating steps taken by the government to curb migration from outside the bloc, such as higher minimum earnings requirements, have had limited success.

“Immigration to the UK still remains too high,” interior minister Theresa May, who supports the campaign to remain in the EU, said on arrival at a ministers’ meeting in Brussels.

“The deal the Prime Minister agreed last Friday with the European Union will clamp down on abuse of free movement, it will reduce the pull factor of our welfare system, and make it easier for us to deport people who are abusing our generosity,” she said, adding that there was still more to do be done.

Critics say the concession achieved by Cameron will do nothing to reduce the numbers.

The data showed overall net migration to Britain rose 31,000 to 323,000 in the year to September 2015. That was driven by a fall in the level of emigration, while immigration had remained largely steady, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

It noted the total below a record high of 336,000 reached in the year to June 2015.

The figure is still embarrassing for Cameron, who in 2010 promised to reduce the annual level to below 100,000.

“The prime minister has lost control of our borders and lost the trust of the British people on migration,” said Steven Woolfe, migration spokesman for the anti-EU UK Independence Party.

“Unless we vote to leave the EU, Britain will be forever borderless. Our schools and our hospitals cannot cope with the number of people entering the country. We must take back control of our borders.”

In figures that were seized on by the ‘Out’ campaign, the ONS said there had been a “statistically significant” rise in the number of Romanian and Bulgarian citizens coming to Britain, up 15,000 to 55,000, with 87 percent coming for work.

Citizens of those two countries now account for 21 percent of EU immigration to Britain, the ONS said.

The ONS said of the 165,000 EU citizens who came to Britain for work-related reasons, 58 percent had a job to go to and the rest came looking for work.

There were also more than 38,000 asylum applications, a 20 percent rise on the previous year, with the biggest numbers coming from Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan and Syria.

Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Mark Trevelyan