This blog looks at the big six questions facing the next government on migration and asylum policy.

The surprise general election has been called at a crucial inflexion point for migration policy. After years of unpredictability – due to the pandemic, and the post-Brexit points-based system, and new humanitarian routes for Ukrainians, Hong Kongers and Afghans – patterns of immigration appear to be undergoing another major shift. The government has recently rushed through a ‘five-point plan’ to bring down net migration, while its policy to relocate people to Rwanda remains untested. For whoever wins the next election, there will be a set of critical questions for ministers to answer.

Managing immigration after the election will require a clear understanding of recent trends. After a period of exceptionally high net migration following the pandemic, numbers are now coming down. The latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics last week suggested a fall of 10 per cent from a peak of 764,000 in 2022 to 685,000 in 2023.

Moreover, the latest data indicate a far sharper fall in 2024. There was a three-quarters reduction in Health and Care visas granted to main applicants in the first four months of the year compared to the same period the year before. And according to software company Enroly there has been a 63 per cent drop in deposits from international post-graduate student applicants for this September relative to September 2023 – possibly down to new restrictions in their ability to bring dependants. Even without any more policy changes after the election, net migration may therefore be significantly lower by the end of the year.

By contrast, the numbers of people arriving in the UK irregularly by small boat have continued at pace: there have been 10,448 small boat arrivals so far, compared with 7,610 and 9,607 over the same time period in 2023 and 2022 respectively. While these numbers are relatively small and do not make a big difference to overall net migration, there is little sign that anything the government has done so far has had any impact in deterring people from crossing the Channel.

These trends point to a series of decisions the government will need to take early on in the next Parliament. We explore six of the most critical.

1. What should be the future of the social care route?

As part of its five- point plan, the current government has acted to restrict the ability of care workers on the Health and Care route from bringing their dependants. As noted above, numbers have fallen sharply – but this took place before the policy change and is likely down to other factors, including the introduction of tougher compliance and safeguarding checks by the Home Office. The long-term trajectory of care visas is still unclear – the new dependant restrictions could make it far harder to recruit overseas workers, but if international labour supply is high enough then there could be a rebound in numbers.

Either way, the government has yet to grasp the nettle and tackle the underlying issue of poor wages and conditions in the social care sector. Without addressing this, the government will be caught between two stools: on the one hand, ongoing severe shortages in social care; and on the other, a reliance on recruiting overseas workers, many of whom are at high risk of exploitation. The government will need to decide whether to prioritise these short-term solutions or long-term investment in the social care system.

2. Should the government try to attract or reduce the number of international students?

International students have become a focal point of the debate over migration in recent months, as the government has become caught between its twin objectives of boosting education exports – including its target of hosting 600,000 international students annually by 2030 – and reducing net migration levels. Its new policy preventing most students from bringing dependants may already be leading to a sharp fall later this year.

This could put the pressure on the government to decide a future plan – should it try to actively recover student numbers or should it double down in an attempt to further supress migration levels? Further falls risk imperilling university finances, which have become increasingly reliant on international students in recent years.

A case in point is the recent debate over the graduate route, which allows international students to stay and work in the UK for two years after finishing their course. Some politicians have called for the route to be scrapped, but a recent review by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommended that it stayed, noting that some institutions would be at risk of financial collapse if there were further restrictions.

3. What should be the purpose of the Immigration Salary List?

Another key plank of the government’s five- point plan has been to increase the general salary threshold for Skilled Worker visas to £38,700, while at the same time reforming the Shortage Occupation List (now known as the Immigration Salary List or ISL). Under the new system, migrant workers sponsored for jobs on the ISL may be paid 20 per cent below the general salary threshold – ie £30,960. (They must also be paid at least as high as the median salary for that particular job.) (i)

The MAC carried out a rapid review of the ISL in light of the new policy, but given the tight timescale the review was incomplete and did not consider a number of occupations. Some jobs – notably chefs – have been sponsored heavily under the Skilled Worker system and are in effect priced out by the new general salary threshold, but have not been considered for the ISL. It is unclear whether the government has considered the implications for exposed sectors, such as hospitality.

Moreover, the MAC itself has said that to conduct a full review of the ISL it needs a clear direction from the government as to its “benefits and longer-term purpose”. There is a question over whether the list should be focused only on jobs which are in shortage or whether it should fit into a broader economic purpose – for instance, to support a future industrial strategy. Moreover, there is a debate over whether identified shortages should be more directly linked to wider government plans to support skills and training. Given the limits of the recent rapid review, the future of the ISL will need to be addressed quickly by the government after July 4.

4. Should the minimum income requirement for partner visas continue to increase?

One of the other parts of the government’s five- point immigration plan is the rise in the minimum income required for UK citizens or settled persons to bring their partner to the UK on a family visa. The minimum income requirement has already increased from £18,600 to £29,000 per year – and is set to increase further to £34,500 and then £38,700 by early 2025.

This is a dramatic increase in the threshold which most employees would not meet based on their earnings. The impact on net migration is likely to be low, given family migration makes up a relatively small share of the overall figures, and some people might still be eligible to enter instead on the ‘fall-back’ option of the longer 10-year route to settlement. But the human impact on families could be significant – some will be forced to live apart, while others will face larger fees and insecurity on the 10-year route, as IPPR has previously documented.

There will therefore be an important question for the Home Office after the election: should it continue to forge ahead with the increase in the minimum income requirement? Or should it hold off or reverse these changes, perhaps referring the to the MAC for independent assessment?

Turning to asylum, the Home Office will face an urgent in-tray in the aftermath of the election, as IPPR set out last year.

5. Should the government process the asylum claims in the current backlog?

Turning to asylum, the Home Office will face an urgent in-tray in the aftermath of the election, as IPPR set out last year.

Perhaps the most immediate question will be how to handle the growing number of claimants in the asylum backlog. Despite clearing much of the ‘legacy’ backlog of older claims at by the end of last year, the Home Office has been prevaricating over how to deal with claims made by people arriving irregularly since 7 March 2023.

This cohort comes into scope of the Illegal Migration Act, which in principle prevents them from being granted leave. But as the key ‘duty to remove’ has not yet been commenced, this issue should be surmountable, even without primary legislation (ii). And a decision needs to be made soon as numbers increase – as of April 14, an estimated 92,000 people had made claims on or after 7 March 2023, the bulk of whom are effectively in limbo. (iii)

To some extent, the decision will depend on the plan to relocate people to Rwanda, a policy on which the two main parties are sharply divided. But even if flights do take off to Rwanda, they are unlikely to do so at scale, which means that – regardless of the Rwanda policy – the Home Office will need to decide how to deal with the vast majority recent applicants in the backlog. Without processing these claims – and with no sign that the numbers coming in small boats are slowing – the risk is that the government faces mounting costs as more and more people need to be accommodated indefinitely.

6. What should be done to deal with the backlogs in the wider asylum system?

Aside from the caseload of initial asylum decisions, there is a growing backlog of asylum appeals. This is the result of the Home Office’s effort last year to clear the ‘legacy’ backlog of older asylum claims, leading to a big rise in initial decisions. In recent quarters, there has been a particular surge in refusals, many of which are expected to be appealed.

According to the latest figures, there has been a sharp increase in asylum receipts at the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) – rising from 3,886 in the third quarter of last year to 12,526 in the last quarter.

Answering the questions set out here will be one of the first tests on immigration and asylum policy for the next government.

The Home Office might be tempted to think this is not its responsibility and leave it to the Ministry of Justice. But the Home Office will continue to accommodate many of those in the appeals process, so without a concerted effort to tackle the backlog, costs will continue to mount.

Moreover, as claims work their way through the system, the Home Office will need to manage the growing number of refused claimants who are ‘appeal rights exhausted’.

The government will therefore face another key question after the election: should it focus solely on the initial decision-making backlog as it has done up till now, or should it aim to tackle the wider backlogs in the system, including the mounting appeals backlog?

Whoever takes on the role of Home Secretary after the upcoming general election will have a huge task ahead of them – from addressing the rise in small boat crossings to managing low morale among Home Office staff. But as we have set out, some of the thorniest challenges will require a firm direction from ministers early on. Answering the questions set out here will be one of the first tests on immigration and asylum policy for the next government.


(i) Health and Care jobs and certain healthcare/education jobs for which national pay scales are used are subject to lower salary thresholds.

(ii) For instance, section 30(4) of the Illegal Migration Act allows the secretary of state in most circumstances to grant limited leave to enter or remain for people arriving irregularly, provided the duty to remove has not yet come into force.

(iii) This is based on the number of claims made on or after 7 March 2023 combined with an estimate of the ratio of main applicants to dependants (using figures from available 2023 Q2 – 2024 Q1).