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The Immigrant Population

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The Immigrant Population

Randall Hansen

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The United Kingdom became a country of immigration after the Second World War. During the first post war years immigration from the former colonies prevailed. Later, the number of immigrants from other world regions increased, especially from the European Union. These developments have shaped the composition of the country’s immigrant population.

The Prince of Wales with representatives of the Jain community during a reception at the Victoria & Albert museum, London: The United Kingdom became a country of immigration after the Second World War. During the first post war years immigration from the former colonies prevailed.

Although immigrants are often popularly thought of as minority ethnic populations, for statistical purposes, they are more narrowly described here as current residents born outside of the UK. In 2011, 7.5 million of the people usually resident in the UK had been born overseas (up from 4.9 million in 2001), which represented 13 percent of the overall population (up from 8.3 percent in 2001). The largest increase in the postwar decades occurred in the decade from 2001 to 2011 (2.6 million people), the second largest from 1991 to 2001 (1.1 million people). In contrast, the next largest increase occurred in the period 1961-1971, when 600,000 people were added to the population through immigration. As in past censuses, the main source country in 2011 was India (694,000). The second-largest source country was Poland (579,000, up from 58,000 in 2001); the third-largest Pakistan (482,000); and the fourth-largest Ireland (407,000). The most striking feature of recent migration to the UK is its white, European, and Christian character. The large-scale arrival of Eastern Europeans provoked widespread opposition, suggesting that numbers, rather than race as such, drive anti-migrant sentiment.

It is estimated that migrants contribute a net gain to the UK’s economy—EU migrants are said to have contributed between 2001 and 2011 to the fiscal system 34 percent more than they took out—though critics of immigration dispute these figures. The medical and health sector is particularly dependent on immigrants, with 26 percent of the doctors and 14 percent of clinical staff being non-British. Other sectors of notable immigrant concentration for which statistics are available are apparel manufacturing (41.5 percent), industrial plant operations (41.4 percent, including occupations such as packers, bottlers, canners, etc.), and food preparation (28.4 percent).


Figure 1 shows total international migration into and out of the UK between 1995 and 2013. Following past patterns, employed migrants who come to the UK from more developed countries are more likely to leave again, whereas those from elsewhere are more likely to stay. British citizens are the largest group of emigrants, with Australia and Spain being the most popular destinations for long-term migrants (short-term migrants tend to move to other EU countries). Net outflows of British citizens have increased from 17,000 in 1994 to over 126,000 in 2006 before dropping back. Between 2007 and 2012, net emigration of British citizens averaged 66,000 per annum. At the same time, net inflows of non-British citizens increased from 127,000 in 1995 to 218,000 in 2006. Between 2007 and 2012, the annual net immigration of non-British citizens averaged 115,400.

Figure 1: International migration into and out of the UK, 1995 to 2013 (in Thousands) (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Because of the Labour government’s decision to allow newly acceded EU member state citizens access to the UK labor market in 2004 (rather than invoking, as most countries did, legal waiting periods), much migration to the UK in the late 2000s was European. Between 2004 and 2012, total net A8 migration amounted to 423,000 people. Whereas annual net EU immigration had averaged 61,000 from 1991 to 2003, the 2004-2012 average was 170,000. The migration numbers can be further summarized in terms of foreign labor inflows. Foreign labor immigration has seen an enormous increase since the 2004 accession of ten countries to the EU and the granting of labor market access to the Eastern and Central European A8 countries. The best estimates put the total number of A8 migrant arrivals in the UK between 2004 and 2011 at 730,000 , and most evidence—such as the Workers Registration Scheme (which ran from 2004 to 2011)—suggests that A8 nationals were predominantly lower skilled. By contrast, 89 percent of worker permit approvals under the old work permit system were for managerial, professional, or technical positions, and the new Tier 2 visas are limited to skilled categories


Grants of settlement, which record persons given leave to remain in the UK indefinitely (permanent residency), provide another useful summary of immigration trends. Figure 2 shows acceptances for settlement under all programs from 1960 to 2013. The large increase in 2005 is the result of a clearing of backlogs, and settlement granted under the Family ILR Exercise announced in 2003, which allowed some asylum-seeking families that had lodged their asylum application before 2 October 2000, to stay (23,000 main applicants have been awarded grants in this manner). Between 2005 and 2011, grants of settlement averaged 170,000 per year.

Figure 2: Numer of persons accepted for settlement per year, 1960-2013 (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Settlement can be granted on arrival, but it also increasingly reflects adjustments to the status of those originally admitted under other programs. Figure 3 shows grants by type. Since 2008, the largest category has been that of employment-related grants, with settlement granted after five years of employment with a work permit (which had been increased from a minimum of four years in 2006). Asylum-related grants have grown in both absolute and relative terms, comprising 26 percent of grants in 2001, and 38 percent of grants in 2005. Since 2005, asylum-related grants dropped off sharply (from 67,810 in 2005 to some 13,000 in 2011). Family formation and reunion grants have seen the largest decline, comprising 52 percent of grants in 2001 and 21 percent in 2005. However, in general employment-related and family formation grants have remained high, with some fluctuation from year to year. The uptick in the “Other” category in 2010 was due to an increase in grants made on a discretionary basis as a result of measures implemented to clear a backlog of applications.

Figure 3: Grants of Settlement by category of grant, 1997-2013 (in thousands) (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/



  1. Office for National Statistics (2012).

  2. Cohen (2013).

  3. Rienzo (2013).

  4. Vargas-Silva/Carlos (2014a).

  5. That is, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

  6. Vargas-Silva/Carlos (2014b).

  7. Salt (2012).

  8. Home Office/The National Archives (2012).


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Dr. Randall Hansen is Full Professor at the Canada Research Chair in Immigration and Governance, and Director of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. E-Mail Link: