When It Comes to Migration, There Are No Winners in the Numbers Game

05/04/2013 09:28 | Updated 04 June 2013

Speculation about migration from Romania and Bulgaria has barely been out of the news since the start of 2013. The countdown to midnight was shortly followed by a media countdown of 365 days to the lifting of interim restrictions on the right of citizens of the two countries to live and work in the UK. Like previous press coverage on migration, the focus has been on numbers.

In January, the pressure group Migration Watch predicted a post-2014 flow of around 50,000 people from the two countries each year. At around the same time, the Daily Telegraph referred to work we at NIESR were conducting, which is now published, and to speculation that we would produce a figure. Our report includes no such predictions. We were not asked to produce one and never intended to. This is why:

Migration behaviour is unpredictable
As we know from the 2004 experience, when the UK allowed free movement of workers for the previous round of new EU Member States, forecasting migration is inherently very difficult. As previous NIESR research has shown, even sophisticated econometric models - let alone Migration Watch's guesstimates - are likely to be highly inaccurate. Meanwhile, estimates based on survey evidence alone are worthless; surveys about migration intentions of Bulgarians and Romanians do exist, but they simply measure an interest or potential willingness to migrate. Whether they remain a dream or become reality depends on a complex mixture of economic and social factors; they should not be used as a basis for policy making in the UK any more than France should prepare for a English middle class invasion of Provence.

The UK is not a favoured destination for Romanians and Bulgarians, with Spain, Italy and Germany more attractive to prospective migrants. However, there is still considerable uncertainty, since migration is highly dependent on economic, political and social factors in sending and potential host countries. Of all the factors behind migration decisions, economic ones are possibly the most unpredictable, yet for prospective Eastern European migrants they are most important - they are attracted by the opportunities to work.

Some migration from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK has already happened
The UK's doors are not opening in 2014 for the first time for Bulgarians and Romanians. Significant migration from the two countries has already happened but they haven't been able to work where they choose. They have been largely confined to shortage sectors including hospitality, cleaning services, construction and trade, and to self-employment. These existing migrants may stay put once restrictions are lifted, but may change jobs. Another possibility is that some migrants currently in the UK may move elsewhere within the EU once restrictions are lifted across the EU in 2014.

If not numbers - what should migration debates focus on?
The focus of our report is on the potential impact of migration on demand for services. Those who plan service provision properly do not use overall population estimates - they look at the characteristics of populations. All evidence on current and future migration from Eastern Europe shows consistently that migrants are young and healthy, they come to the UK to work and not as so called 'benefit tourists', as a recent article by NIESR director Jonathan Portes makes clear. Neither are they health or housing tourists, tending to under-use services such as health and social housing. Whether they make demands or not depends crucially on whether they settle in the UK and it's much too early to judge this. But settlement of migrants doesn't just bring costs, it brings benefits to the UK, in the form of skills and tax revenue. When it comes to schools, it seems they improve performance rather than drain resources and reduce standards. We shouldn't forget the vital work which migrants carry out - in our health and social care services, building our houses and caring for our children. If we continue the numbers game we'll lose sight of the reality, which is that migrants put in more than they take out and are more of an asset than a drain.