03/01/2014 08:15 GMT | Updated 05/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Migration in Context: UK Arrivals AND Departures

In an earlier article, my colleague Professor Rob Ackrill and I summarised the findings of a wide range of research on the impacts of migration. Reactions to this article suggested there was widespread confusion around the extent and context of recent migration. This is understandable - migrant populations are inherently difficult to measure. Furthermore, the available data are often absent or misused in the media coverage (for example, some of the press coverage of the recent European Commission report (i) - refuted in this official European Commission blog). We aim here to provide some further context, to inform the debate around lifting of the transitional controls for migrants from Bulgaria and Romania in January 2014.

It is important to remember that migrants are a small minority globally. Most people are not, and may never be, international migrants. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that international migrants comprised 3.2% of the world's population in 2013. Although the UK is an important destination, accounting for just over 3% of global migration (7.8 million migrants), the USA has received more than 20% of the global total. Indeed, the number of international migrants resident in the UK is similar to the United Arab Emirates, which has a total population less than one-sixth that of the UK.

Emigration (residents leaving for international destinations) tends to be absent from public debates. Ignoring this dimension distorts the overall picture. The UK has one of the highest rates of emigration in Europe, with 6.5% of individuals born in the UK living in other OECD countries in 2013, equivalent to 3.5 million people - compared to a European average of 5%. Putting this in context, only 0.5% of individuals born in North America had emigrated to another OECD country (ii).

Indeed, annual emigration from the UK has sometimes matched or even exceeded immigration. Although the population of England and Wales (iii) has increased every year since 1991, over the two-year period 1991 to 1993, there was a net outflow of more than 19,000 people. The rise in the total population was driven entirely by natural change (the balance between births and deaths).

Net migration (immigration less emigration) increased through the late 1990s and early 2000s, peaking in the period 2004 to 2005 at just over 300,000; 71.4% of that year's growth in population. This high-point followed the EU accession of eight Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs). Since then, there have been falls in both the absolute numbers of migrants and the relative contribution of migration to UK population growth. The latest estimate, for the period 2011 to 2012, was a net migration of 157,800 additional residents, 39.8% of total population growth in that year, with natural change contributing the majority of population growth (iv). This reinforces the exceptional nature of the UK experience in 2004-05. Since then, rather than experiencing a consistently high inflow of workers, numbers have declined steadily.

But what impact did this exceptional but brief period of high migration have on the population? According to the 2011 Census, migrants remain a minority in almost all local authority areas, with residents born outside the UK accounting for 13.3% of the population of England and Wales. Migrants from countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 accounted for 2% of the total resident population, equivalent to 1.1 million individuals out of a total population of 56 million. Non-EU migrants, particularly individuals from the Indian sub-continent, continue to account for the largest share of the total migrant population.

As multiple studies continue to demonstrate, most migrants from CEEC countries come to the UK to work, rather than to join existing family and community networks. One consequence of this is that recent CEEC migrants have settled in areas that have had little previous experience of migration. Boston in Lincolnshire is a clear example, with its high demand for labour in the food-processing and agricultural sectors attracting comparatively large numbers of CEEC nationals within a short time period. According to the 2011 Census, Boston is now the local authority with the highest proportion of its resident population born in a new EU member state: at 10.6%, having previously had a very small number of residents born outside the UK. That said, precisely because Boston had previously received so few migrants, its total population of non-UK born residents, at 15.2% of all residents, is only marginally higher than the national average (of 14.8%) (v).

The pace of population change experienced in 2004-2005 will have contributed to some of the challenges experienced by local public service providers reported in the media. The evidence demonstrates that between declining immigration from the 2004 and 2007 EU entrants, continuing emigration, and demographic changes such as the recent baby boom, the facts about migration have moved on considerably. Unfortunately, the public debate has not.

Chris Lawton is Senior Research Fellow in the Economic Strategy Research Bureau, Division of Economics, Nottingham Business School.

Rob Ackrill is Professor of European Economics and Policy and Jean Monnet Chair in European Economic Studies, Division of Economics, Nottingham Business School.


(i) ICF/GHK and Milieu Law and Policy Consulting, on behalf of the European Commission DG on Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, October 2013. 'A fact finding analysis on the impact on the Member States' social security systems of the entitlements of non-active intra-EU migrants to special non-contributory cash benefits and healthcare granted on the basis of residence.' European Commission. URL: (ii) OECD, October 2013. 'World Migration in Figures: A joint contribution by UN-DESA and OECD to the United Nations High-Level Dialogue on Migration and Development, 3-4 October 2013.' Paris: OECD. URL:

(iii) Note that the ONS components of change published with the Mid-Year Population Estimates do not include data for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

(iv) ONS Crown Copyright, June 2013. 'Mid-1991 to Mid-2012 Population Estimates: components of population change in England and Wales; estimated resident population.' London: TSO. URL: (v) ONS Crown Copyright, December 2012. '2011 Census: Key Statistics for Local Authorities in England and Wales.' Table: KS204EW; Country of birth, local authorities in England and Wales. London: TSO.