A review of the latest statistics: how likely is it that UK net migration will reach 100,000 by 2015?

By Louise Duthie

On Friday 27 February the Office of National Statistics (ONS) released their Migration Statistics Quarterly Report which brings together statistics from the ONS, Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions to monitor net migration. This report is used by central and local government as well as the health sector for planning and resource allocation. The latest report resulted in a great deal of media attention. Once again the British Government was brought into disrepute over its migration policies. Migration is a hot topic in the UK with many wanting to see efforts made to reduce the number of people who are allowed entry into the country. With the next general election coming up in 2015 it is likely that the Government’s policies on migration are going to become an even more hotly debated topic that will be used by many to gain popularity with British voters.

A prime example of this was the pledge that David Cameron made following the last general election to reduce the rate of net migration to under 100,000 by 2015. This pledge has been popular with many, but as the ONS report shows, it hasn’t proved to be as easy to implement as first expected. I have always had a problem with this particular migration policy. As someone who is very pro-migration I am bound to think that reducing numbers of people entering the UK is a bad thing, but I could never see how this target could be achieved when there is no way of controlling migration from countries within the EU or, more significantly, the number of people who decide to emigrate from the UK. I was therefore not surprised to read in the report that net migration has in fact increased, with a large proportion of immigrants coming from countries within the EU.

When the ONS report was first released, the media jumped at the opportunity to criticise the Government; not only had net migration not decreased, the numbers had shown a significant increase by 58,000 and a total that was over double their planned target of 100,000. So what does the report actually show? Well, 532,000 people migrated to the UK in the year ending September 2013, this was paired with 320,000 people emigrating, resulting in a net flow of 212,000 people. To truly understand what these figures mean you need to look at the report in more detail. Then we can see the impact the government has had with its recent changes in policy and establish just how likely it is that they are going to be able to reach the golden target of 100,000 people or less.

The report showed that the biggest motive for migration was for work or study (3/4 immigration and 2/3 emigration according to the ONS report) which is no real surprise as this has consistently remained the biggest push and pull factor for migration all over the globe and is unlikely to change. Changes in the flow of people migrating for these reasons will have a significant effect on the overall figures. The interesting part comes when you look at where people are coming from. Migration from the EU showed a statistically significant increase rising from 89,000 in September 2012 to 129,000 by the end of September 2013. The report explains that it uses a number of different sources to measure the impact of net migration. One of these indicators is the number of National Insurance Applications. On the face of it this would seem like a good way of measuring the number of migrants working in the UK, especially as it allows us to see where each of these applicants originated from. However, National Insurance applications represent both long and short term workers: someone may only be here for a few months but may still be able to work in that time, but this would not be enough for these short term migrants to be counted in net migration statistics. As these numbers only represent applications for National Insurance, it does not necessarily mean that once a number was allocated to someone that that person then started working.

Nonetheless that does not mean that these numbers should be ignored: they can still give us a great deal of information. When looking at the statistics showing where migrants originated, the biggest surprise to me was the fact that the highest proportion of people applying from an EU country did not originate from expected locations such as Bulgaria, Poland and Romania but in fact were coming from Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. In the past year the UK economy has shown significant signs of recovery which everyone hopes will continue. This will undoubtedly cause the UK to become increasingly appealing to potential migrants in Europe – especially in the areas worst hit by the recession, such as Greece, Italy and Spain. As our economy continues to strengthen and conditions improve, the UK is likely to become a hotspot for European migration – particularly if economic recovery is either non-existent, or happening at a much slower rate, in other countries across Europe.

Let’s not forget the impact of emigration on net migration figures. For me this seemed to be the second biggest flaw in the Government’s plans to reduce net migration. Of the 320,000 people emigrating from the UK by September 2013, 138,000 were British citizens. How can the Government possibly control the numbers of British citizens leaving the UK? It seems that no matter how good a job the Government does at introducing new policies and controls on immigration it could still be undone by not having enough people leave the UK to offset this. British people make up the majority of the emigration figures. For these numbers to increase it would mean practically pushing people out the door. As the British economy improves and becomes more appealing to outsiders, it is also going to mean that a large proportion of people who may have considered emigrating in the past will now not do so as they feel that the UK would be a better option for them, especially in terms of job prospects. For the same reason, a large number of British citizens who have been working abroad will begin to return to the UK.

All that being said, when you look at the report’s figures relating to the immigration of people from countries outside of the EU a different picture is painted. Migration from outside of the EU showed a significant reduction from 269,000 at the end of September 2012 to 244,000 by the end of September 2013. The statistics have also seen a significant reduction in immigration from New Commonwealth countries (groups of Commonwealth countries from the Africa, India, Asia, Oceania and the Caribbean regions) with a particularly sharp fall in the number of these citizens who are coming to the UK to study which is at its lowest since 2002 at only 34,000. Sponsored study visas have seen the biggest reduction overall. If someone wants to come to the UK for any other reason other than to work or study they are unlikely to be able to do so. This is demonstrated by the number of people who were able to enter the UK for family reasons which saw a reduction of 18% to 33,690. These reductions are consistent with the rules governing visas relating to work, study and family which were introduced in 2010 when the Coalition Government first came into power.

It would seem that where it is possible to control numbers the Government is actually making an impact on reducing immigration. But overall the government is fighting a losing battle as they have no – or very little – control over who enters from within the EU. I do believe that it is important to maintain the freedom of movement from within the EU, but it seems ludicrous to have such a tight target to work towards with no way of controlling who can enter the country. I also find it interesting that it seems that fewer British people are leaving the UK: it is all very well for the Government to reduce the numbers entering the UK but they have no control over how many people leave. If the number of people leaving decreases then any changes made to net migration figures as a result of immigration restrictions will be hidden, making them redundant. With just over a year to go until the next election, is it likely that the Government is going to be able to reduce net migration by over 50% to reach the golden target of 100,000? It seems unlikely, but the next 14 months will definitely be an interesting time as we wait to see what they decide to pull out of their box of tricks next.

Louise holds an MA in Migration Studies and a BA (Hons) in Geography from the University of Sussex. Louise currently works for a local charity helping vulnerable groups in the community. Her primary interests lie in the motives for migration, integration and the impact migration has on the community. Louise hopes that she will be able to continue her charity work in the future to benefit vulnerable migrants and to aid their acceptance in society.

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