Migrants in the Census: How to find them, and what to do with them

Published 19 November 2013 / By Anna Krausova, Research Officer, Migration Observatory

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census logoAs census data relating to migration continues to pour out, it is clear that it is an invaluable source of information about the nature of migration in the UK. Yet despite its unique nature, just like any other data source, it can only tell us so much. So what can the 2011 Census tell us about migration in the UK? And, perhaps even more importantly for the Migration Observatory census project, which bits are worth focusing on and what’s the best way of presenting them?

As of November 2013, data relating to migration have been released for all parts of the UK, although with different levels of detail. As detailed in Carlos Vargas-Silva’s post from June 12th, the Migration Observatory’s Census project includes briefings, charts, maps and other resources summarizing census data related to migration. These focus mainly on the country of birth variable, although other measures such as passports held, year of arrival, main spoken language and English proficiency are also analysed.

As new data releases are rolled out, the number of potential variables to study in relation to migration increases at a pace almost difficult to keep up with. The myriad of available data now includes not just country of birth or passports held, but also for example those variables by age, sex, year and age of arrival and economic activity. Moreover, other variables, such as English proficiency, have been interestingly correlated with others, such as reported health. At the same time, the level of geographical detail at which this data is available is increasing rapidly.

Where is the data?
While there is thus a growing trove of data available online, it is not always easy to find. This highlights the Observatory’s role not just in analysing the census data, but also effectively disseminating it to a diverse audience. Our census profiles, focusing on regions of England, and on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, have been our main mode of circulating census data to interested parties and the larger public. This allows for the presentation of census data at the local authority level as well as for tracing some of the differences in the nature of migration between the different parts of the UK. Apart from securing media coverage, we have taken part in a series of workshops, attended by both NGOs and the local government, among others. The fourth such event in which COMPAS, including the Migration Observatory, is participating is scheduled to take place next week in Birmingham, in particular about migration and health.

What do we do with it?
But this also presents a number of challenges. Which variables and relationships should we focus on? What geographical level is the most interesting? And perhaps most importantly, how can we present the selected elements of the census data in a clear but also interesting way? Certainly, the challenges encountered at workshops have given us invaluable feedback; our charts, for example, have undergone a number of transformations to reflect this. Although it seemed hard at times to judge whether blank faces are a sign of lack of understanding on the one hand and boredom on the other, or a general reaction to statistics, these workshops proved invaluable at gauging what kinds of information and what kinds of visualizations are the most interesting and the most clear to a variety of non-academic consumers of census data.

diagramPart of the challenge specific to focusing on the regional nature of the migration-related census data is often the lack of detailed knowledge of the different areas of the UK and thus the local context in which the numbers presented are situated. As such, the regional workshops are also the perfect opportunity to receive feedback on interesting local issues that would otherwise get lost in the process of analysing and compiling the numbers of non-UK born residents in each local area.

At the second census workshop I took part in, on May 15th in Sheffield, this became clear. ‘Why are the German-born among the 5 most populous non-UK born groups in the region?’, I was asked. ‘What can you tell us about these residents?’ Very little, it seemed at the time, apart from their number. Of course, focusing on some of the main countries of birth in the different regions of the country, it has been possible to paint a more detailed picture of the different foreign-born groups since then. It is now possible to see that in fact, 81% of German-born residents in Yorkshire and the Humber arrived in the country before 2001. With a little research, it also became apparent that most probably, although the census data does not tell us about this, many in the German-born group will be children of British military personnel stationed in Germany at the time of their birth, and were in fact UK citizens at birth. But it is experiences like these that allow us to evaluate which pieces of information from the many aspects of the census data to consider including.

The census workshops have been a great way to get the census data out there, but also, as outlined above, an important learning experience. So far, we have published 7 regional census profiles for England, and there are 5 still to come, including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Beyond these, we are now in a better position to think about which other aspects of the census data to focus on. Some of the candidate variables include the economic activity of migrants, as well as the differences in reported health depending on proficiency in English. Yet these are just a couple of examples of the variety and depth of the census data relating to migration, and there is much more to come.