How UK compares to 70 other countries attracting economic migrants: Expert insights

The UK is a magnet for migrants, not only from Europe but from the rest of the world. As testament to this, Polish delicatessens, Turkish barber shops and Asian grocery stories are flourishing across towns and cities; hospital staff hired by the National Health Service include many doctors and nurses from India, South Africa and China.

But Britain has signalled that it is no longer welcoming people from other parts of the world with open arms, with the #Brexit vote an indication that Brits are tired of being served in coffee shops and at supermarket tills by Serbs, Albanians and Hungarians.

This isn’t a British phenomenon; Donald Trump undoubtedly attracted support from many when he promised to build a wall between the US and Mexico and make it harder for Muslims to enter the country. In this assessment of global migration patterns, Jan Semmelroggen notes that 71 countries have net migration.

This includes wealthier nations such as the UK, Australia and Germany but also features some unlikely countries, like Botswana and South Sudan. South Africa is not on that list, with more people leaving than arriving.

Emigration is a sign of positive sentiment towards a country, with many wealthier people moving their assets and businesses to their new homes. Economically robust countries attract migrants, says Semmelroggen, adding that a “hard Brexit” might have the effect of cutting migration numbers by putting the UK economy under pressure. – Jackie Cameron

By Jan Semmelroggen*

Ever since David Cameron pledged to significantly reduce net migration back in 2010, the term has featured prominently within British political and media debates. The Vote Leave campaign made net migration a central theme in the 2016 referendum on Britain’s EU membership, and migration continues to be one of the most contentious issues in British politics.

In basic terms, net migration is the difference between the number of people arriving to and leaving from an area within a given period of time. On a national scale, it is the balance of immigration and emigration. So if the net migration value is positive it means more people have immigrated to a country than emigrated. Conversely, if the value is negative, more people would have emigrated than immigrated.

The latest figures for the UK estimate that net migration in 2015 was +327 000, with roughly twice as many people arriving from abroad than leaving.

The current government’s policy is to reduce net migration below 100,000. But the Office for Budget Responsibility projected in March 2016 that the net migration rate will be 185 000 in 2021. The UK is the only country in Europe with an official maximum net migration target.

Net migration in the UK is monitored by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), which uses the international standard designation of long-term migrant (LTM) to classify immigrants and emigrants in the UK.

LTM’s are defined as people who resettle in a new country for a period of at least a year. The number of LTM’s arriving and leaving Britain is calculated through the International Passenger Survey, which has been used since 1961 to collect data from travellers arriving and leaving the UK.

The ONS crosschecks its net migration figures with data from the national census. After the last census in 2011, the ONS published adjusted figures for the period 2001 to 2011 that showed overall net migration in that decade was significantly higher than its statistics had initially suggested.

For example, in 2008 the ONS estimated net migration at 163 000, while the revised figure using the 2011 census data estimated it was actually 229 000.

Long-term international migration to the UK, 2006 to 2016.
Office for National Statistics

How Britain compares

On a global scale, 71 countries will have positive net migration in 2016, according to data collated by the CIA in the US. This includes economically advanced counties such as the US, Australia, Germany and the UK but also low income countries such as Botswana and South Sudan.

Relative to its population, per capita net migration to the UK in 2015 was 6.1 people per 1,000 inhabitants, which places it behind a number of other northern European countries.


So while the UK’s net migration rate does not stand out internationally, the debate about this number is markedly more heated than in other developed countries.

Most European countries, even those with previously restrictive immigration polices such as Germany and France, have gradually recognised that immigration is an essential tool to address an ageing working population. Both countries have subsequently implemented more liberal immigration policies, particularly in regards to skilled labour migration.

Due to strong public pressure, British immigration policies have been presented, for the most part, as a way to prevent demographic growth. Plans to reduce net migration by current and previous Conservative governments are presented as a strategy to stop the population from reaching supposed unsustainable levels that could lead to housing shortages or increase hospital waiting times.

Who is coming in and out

Drilling down into the overall net migration figures, they encompass four broad legal categories of migrants. First, British nationals, moving out and back into the country. Second, citizens of the European Economic Area (EEA), who have made up almost half of net migration to the UK since 2002. The UK government cannot legally place any limitations on these two groups.

This leaves the third group – non-EEA nationals – as the only ones that the government can currently restrict. The vast majority of non-EEA arrivals in 2015 were either students (204 000) and skilled professionals on work visas (166 000).

While students provide substantial financial contributions to British universities, skilled professionals fill vital gaps in the UK labour market. From a purely economic standpoint, it makes little sense to limit the migration of students and skilled workers – yet significant restrictions have been placed on both visa categories in recent years.

The fourth category is asylum seekers as well as people (spouses, children, parents) joining family members already settled in the UK. There were 44 000 asylum seekers and 38 000 people joining family members respectively in the year to March 2016. But these two groups are legally protected from immigration restrictions by international human rights norms that the UK adheres to.

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