EU made up much higher share of net migration after 2010 than official figures suggested

Published 16 April 2021 / By COMPAS Communications

Back to Articles

New estimates of UK migration from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have added an average of 93,000 per year to EU net migration from the year ending March 2012 to the year ending March 2020, while figures for non-EU migrants have been reduced by 54,000, the Migration Observatory at COMPAS said today. 

Today’s report gives a first glimpse of a new approach the ONS is developing to improve migration statistics by using data from administrative record such as taxes and benefits. The new, more accurate figures replace data from the unreliable International Passenger Survey, which was the main source of immigration and emigration numbers until recently.

The new report estimates that total net migration of foreign citizens was only slightly higher than previous estimates suggested—43,000 or 15% higher over the 9-year period from the year ending March 2012 to the year ending March 2020These figures do not cover the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to a precipitous decline in migration from the EUProvisional figures also published today suggest total net migration in the second quarter of 2020 was negative.

However, EU migration makes up a much larger share of the total in the new figures. Using the new method, ONS estimates that net EU migration averaged 216,000 from during the 9-year period ending in March 2020. This is 93,000 or 76% higher than previous survey-based figures (which had themselves already been revised upwards previously).

By contrast, the new method produces lower figures for non-EU net migration, which the Migration Observatory has said for some time was being overestimated. Non-EU net migration during the same period is 54,000 or 31% lower in the new figures compared the old, survey-based estimates.

Over the whole 9-year period, EU countries made up an estimated 64% of total non-UK net migration according to the new data. This is up from just 42% in the old, survey-based figures.

MadeleinSumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at COMPAS said: “This report should really boost our confidence that UK migration statistics are getting more accurate and more useful for informing the public debateAfter all, data like these can have a real impact on how people think about policy. After 2010, for example, tight restrictions on non-EU migrants were significantly based on the premise that most net migration was from outside of the EU. Today’s figures suggest that the real picture was quite different.” 

In the year ending March 2012, which was when many of the coalition-era restrictions on non-EU migration were being introduced, the old survey based estimates suggested that only 29% of net migration of foreign citizens was from the EU. (That was later revised up to 37%). The new figures revise that up to 68%.

The Migration Observatory has argued previously that the migration debate should not place too much emphasis on any single indicator of migration, but instead should take into account many different sources of information.

Another ONS report also published today provides early estimates of what migration patterns might have been in the first half of 2020, calculating that there may have been a net outflow of 50,000 people (all nationalities) in the second quarter of the year. These estimates only cover the first few months of the pandemic, but they suggest that initial estimates of a huge decline in the migrant population (of around 1 million people or more) were too high.

Sumption added: “The pandemic dramatically disrupted migration patterns in the UK and there has been a lot of speculation about a mass exodus of migrants from the UK. There’s now a fair amount of evidence to suggest that emigration was lower than early data suggested. But what we saw in 2020 was still pretty extraordinary – after years of substantial net migration from EU countries to the UK, the trend appears to have gone into reverse.