Net migration statistics behind the headlines

Published 24 November 2015 / By Madeleine Sumption

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This Thursday, the Office of National Statistics and the Home Office will release the next batch of migration statistics. Anyone who follows UK immigration will be familiar with the regular quarterly ritual that starts at 9:30am on a Thursday at the end of February, May, August and November.

What’s in the migration statistics?

There are two main sets of statistics that are released on the same day from different sources. One is the Office of National Statistics’ migration statistics. These show estimates of immigration and emigration and are the numbers used to generate the net migration figures. They will be updated to show information up to the year ending June 2015.

The media headlines generally focus on the overall figure for net migration, which last quarter hit the highest level recorded, 330,000. This headline figure has attracted particular scrutiny in recent years, in large part because of the government’s so-far unsuccessful attempts to reduce net migration “from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands.”

Another figure that attracts attention is the breakdown of net migration by nationality, particularly by EU or non-EU origin. With the upcoming referendum on EU membership, the rising contribution of EU citizens to net migration has had particular political significance. It has also led to claims that EU migration is the reason the government has not met its target. (This is not the case: both EU and non-EU net migration are well above the 100,000 level).

The second set of data is the Home Office’s quarterly ‘immigration statistics,’ which include information on Home Office activities, including the numbers of visas issued, grants of citizenship and settlement, and asylum applicants, among many other things. These statistics will become available for the third quarter of 2015.

A couple of things to look out for in Thursday’s release

Beyond the headlines there are many other pieces of data that tell us a huge amount about the UK’s immigration system. Here are a few examples of things that will be updated on Thursday.

Emigration of non-EU citizens. The number of non-EU citizens leaving the country has been falling—from a high of 112,000 in the year ending March 2012 to 88,000 in the year ending March 2015. There are different reasons this could be and it’s hard to pin down exactly why, but one reason is likely to be the falling numbers of non-EU citizens who came to the UK a few years ago (from 2011 to 2013). Whether this trend continues or reverses will have a small but meaningful impact on overall net migration.

Entry visas granted to investors. The number of non-EU citizens receiving visas as investors plummeted in the first quarter of 2015 after the government raised the amount that applicants had to invest from £1 million to £2 million. After a couple of years of growth and rush of applications before the threshold increased (471 investor visas were issued in the last quarter of 2014), only 44 investors received visas in the second quarter of 2015. It will be interesting to see whether the quarterly numbers now start to recover.

Asylum applications data for the third quarter of 2015. The number of asylum claims in the UK has increased steadily over the past four years, from 17,900 main applicants in 2010 to 25,000 in 2014. This increase has been much smaller than in other EU countries. Thursdays statistics will show to what extent UK numbers increased during the summer and whether the nationalities of the people applying have changed. Data already available from Eurostat for July and August suggest that growth in asylum applications to the UK may have accelerated in the third quarter.