Aug 27, 7:47 AM EDT

UK immigration at record high as topic is hotly debated


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LONDON (AP) -- Britain gained almost 330,000 people through migration in the year to March 31, official figures showed Thursday. It's the highest figure on record and a headache for the Conservative government amid a political storm about immigration.

The Office for National Statistics said 636,000 people arrived during the 12 months and 307,000 left. The net total surpasses the previous high of 320,000 in 2005. Eight million of Britain's 64 million people were born outside the country.

Prime Minister David Cameron has long promised to reduce net migration below 100,000. Critics say the goal is unachievable, since members of the 28 European Union countries have the right to live in other member states. Roughly half the net migration from to the U.K. in the year came from within the EU.

Immigration Minister James Brokenshire said the figures should be a "wake-up call" for the EU. He the record flow of people across Europe was "not sustainable and risks the future economic development of other EU member states."

Immigration has climbed up the political agenda this summer as migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia attempt to reach Europe in unprecedented numbers. Several thousand have gathered near the French side of the Channel Tunnel, aiming to reach Britain.

Although British media attention has focused on the Calais migrants, the vast majority of immigrants come to study or work rather than as refugees. There were 25,771 asylum applications in the year to March, up 10 percent from a year earlier.

The Institute of Directors, an employers' group, said government attempts to curb immigration were harming Britain's reputation as an open economy.

"Scrabbling around to find measures to hit a bizarre and unachievable migration target is no way to give British businesses the stable environment they need," said Institute director Simon Walker.

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