Net migration on the rise - are "euro refugees" the cause?

30 August 2013


Net migration is the difference between the number of people arriving and the number of people leaving the country. Immigration has outstripped emigration for the last 20 years but, according to the latest data, the recent narrowing of the gap is now showing signs of reversal. 

For a government wanting to reduce net migration, there are two options: deter new arrivals, and encourage more departures. The Conservatives have committed to cutting net migration to below 100,000 a year by the time of the next general election in 2015. 

A headline in today's Times (£) told one side of the story: "Immigration rises as thousands flee recession in Med for work in Britain". However, the main body of the article offered a more nuanced analysis of the statistics, namely that the increase in immigration from certain EU countries has been compounded by the fact that fewer people are emigrating.

Net migration up

This graph shows what's happened to net migration in the last few years. The size of the gap between the purple and blue lines is the difference between immigration and emigration. After years of contraction (which corresponds to a fall in net migration), the most recent data shows the lines diverging (the increase in net migration that's been reported).

What's telling is that while immigration has fallen or remained constant, fewer people are now emigrating. 

More people arriving from the EU

While immigration has been on a downward trend - and, more recently, has stalled - there's still been an increase in the number of people arriving from EU countries. Government data shows that the UK is seeing more immigrants from countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece. This has compensated for the drop in the number of immigrants both from other countries in Europe and from outside the EU.

The Daily Mail has described this as an influx of "euro refugees", arguing that high unemployment in these countries is forcing people to seek work in the UK. 

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) monitors the number of overseas nationals in part by keeping track of new National Insurance (NI) registrations. An NI number is usually required by anyone looking to work or claim benefits. 

Under EU 'freedom of movement' law, there are no restrictions on the number of EU citizens who can come to live here. As the DWP notes, the countries that have seen the largest percentage increase in new NI registrations are those with the highest unemployment rates. 

Compared to the year previously, in March 2013 there were 50% more NI registrations for citizens of Spain, 44% for Greece and 43% for Portugal. During this time period, all of these countries had an unemployment rate significantly above the EU average. By contrast, the UK's unemployment rate has been well below the EU average.

The increase in NI registrations for these Mediterranean countries has occurred at the same time as there's been a notable decrease in the number of non-Europeans applying for NI numbers. In fact, if we compare years, the number of EU nationals arriving in the UK has decreased. However, this fall is almost entirely accounted for by fewer Eastern Europeans coming to the UK (reduced migration from the so-called A8 countries).

Fewer people leaving the UK

While immigration has remained more or less stagnant, in the year to December 2012 fewer people left the UK than in any year in the previous decade. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) describes this as a "statistically significant decrease": 321,000 emigrants left the UK in the year ending 2012, 30,000 fewer than the previous year.

In other words, it's the drop off in the number of departures that's behind the increase in net migration. Spaniards, Greeks and Portugese might be arriving in the UK in greater numbers, but it seems like the UK is also becoming more attractive to those who are already here.

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