Immigration to the UK

Migration to the UK has been a major topic of debate both before and following the EU Referendum. This article seeks to explore the facts behind the rhetoric.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) 1 is the UK’s largest independent producer of official statistics and is the recognised national statistical institute for the UK.

Visual.ONS 2 is a website exploring new approaches to making ONS statistics accessible and relevant to a wide public audience. The site supports the UK Statistic Authority’s publicly stated intention of “making data, statistics and analysis more accessible, engaging and easier to understand“.

They have produced a number of articles 3 4 5 related to migration to the UK.

As an example the following interactive chart (Try it out!), from the Visual.ONS website, shows the total migration data plotted for the years from 1964 up to the end of 2015

The chart shows total UK migration figures (both from EU and non-EU countries) and is based on ONS data available from

Long-Term International Migration into and out of the UK by citizenship, 1964 to 2015

For each year between 1964 and 1979 more people left the UK than arrived, slightly more people arrived than left through the mid 80’s, but overall the net migration figures are hardly significant until around 1994.

In 1992, the leaders of the 12 member countries signed the Maastricht Treaty aka the Treaty on European Union. This was signed by John Major (Conservative) on behalf of the UK. Following the ratification process the Treaty came into effect on 1 November 1993.

After implementation of the treaty, people in the 12 member countries became European Citizens with the right to move, work and live in any other member country.

Correspondingly, net migration figures started increasing from 1994 onward.

Both immigration and emigration numbers have increased since 1998, with immigration exceeding emigration by more than 100,000 in every year since 1998.

Tony Blair (Labour) held power from 1997 through to 2007 and there may be an argument that he was responsible for the upsurge in immigration that continues to this day. During his tenure, the Labour government put migration at the centre of its legislative program and one possibly controversial decision was to allow nationals from the new member countries from Eastern Europe joining the EU, to work in the UK following the 2004 enlargement of the European Union when 10 countries joined.

While many of the existing member countries including Germany and France put restrictions in place to limit the potential impact of a sudden mass migration from the new member countries. The UK had no such restrictions in place. From 2011 there are no longer any restrictions on the free movement of citizens from these member states to any EU country.

The legacy of Tony Blair and his immigration policy is discussed in an interesting article from the Migration Policy Institute 6

The effects of this policy is likely to have contributed to the subsequent concerns held by the public. An article by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, has an interesting briefing that provides an overview of attitudes toward immigration in the UK 7

In 2015, an estimated 630,000 people came to live in the UK and 297,000 people left the UK giving a total +ve net migration of 333,000 people.

  • …of people arriving, 44% (277,000) were non EU citizens, 43% (270,000) were EU citizens and 13% were British citizens.
  • …of people leaving, 30% (89,000) were non-EU citizens, 29% (85,000) were EU citizens, and 41% (123,000) were British citizens.

From ONS data, the most common reason for migrating to the UK in 2015 was for ‘work-related’ reasons. In 2015, 294,0009 people from outside the UK migrated to the UK for ‘work-related’ reasons. Of these, 61% (178,000) were from EU citizens, 24% (72,000) were non-EU citizens and the rest (44,000) were British citizens.

As of 2016, estimates from the ONS 8 shows that of the usually resident population in the UK, around 1 in 7 (14%) were born abroad and 1 in 11 (9%) had non-British nationality.

The increase in non-UK born residents was driven by statistically significant increases in both EU and non-EU born residents; the statistically significant increase in the non-British population was driven by EU nationals alone (the number of non-EU nationals in the population has remained stable).

Poland is the most common non-UK country of birth (an estimated 911,000 residents) and Polish the most common non-British nationality in the UK. In 2016 the number of Polish nationals resident in the UK reached 1 million.

Estimates of the resident population of the UK by country of birth and nationality, 2016 are shown in the following table

Other References

EU immigration to the UK

EU citizens living in the UK

Brits abroad: how many people from the UK live in other EU countries?