Geographical Distribution and Characteristics of Long-Term International Migration Flows to the UK
This briefing focuses on long-term international migrants coming to the UK. It examines their characteristics, where they go after they arrive in the UK, and trends over time.
- Data on migration inflows to the UK suggest that 89% of incoming migrants go to England. This share has remained stable over time.
- For those migrants going to England, London remains the most popular destination (32% of the total in 2011), but the share of incoming migrants going to London has decreased from the peak of the late 1990s (48% in 1998).
- Close to 86% of migrants coming to the UK in 2011 were between ages 15 and 44, a share that has increased over time. Migrants between 25 and 44 years of age represent about half of migrant inflows during the last decade.
- The majority of migrants coming to the UK are male (54% in 2011). This contrasts with the early 1990s, when females dominated migration to the UK.
- The majority of incoming migrants are single (67% in 2011) and this share has been increasing over time.
- About 27% of migrants entering the UK stated their usual occupation prior to migration as professional or managerial. The share of migrants who report being a student as their usual occupation has been on the rise (39% in 2011).
Understanding the evidence
This briefing focuses on the characteristics of the flow of migrants coming to the UK in a given period, not the characteristics of the stock of all migrants already in the UK. The briefing on 'Migrants in the UK: An Overview' discusses the characteristics of the stock of migrants in the UK.
All the data used in this briefing are based on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Long-Term International Migration (LTIM) Estimates. These estimates are mostly constructed using data from the International Passenger Survey (IPS), but also incorporate information from other sources such as the Labour Force Survey (LFS), Home Office data on asylum seekers and their dependants and data from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency on international migration.
To accurately understand and interpret LTIM data, it is important to be clear about its underlying definitions and limitations. ONS uses the current international standard definition of a long-term international migrant— a person moving to another country for at least one year—to produce LITM estimates: (see “evidence gaps and limitations” below for further discussion).
Figure 1 reports the share of migrants to the UK by country of destination for the year 2011. The majority of recent migrants report England as a final destination (89%). About 7% go to Scotland, 2% go to Wales and 2% to Northern Ireland. These shares have remained stable over time. The shares are roughly proportional to the share of population in each of these regions.
As shown in Figure 2, London has been the most popular destination for incoming migrants to England at least since 1991 (32% of the total in 2011). There has been, however, a noticeable decrease in the share of migrants going to London when compared with the peak in the late 1990s (48% in 1998). Meanwhile, there has been a slight increase in the share of incoming migrants going to other regions of England such as the North East and the North West. The current shares for these regions, however, remain small at about 5% and 11%, respectively.
Incoming migrants are increasingly male and single, and tend to concentrate in the 15 to 44 years of age range
As shown in Figure 3, close to 86% of the migrants coming to the UK during the last decade are between ages 15 and 44. The largest share is for those between 25 and 44 years of age, which represent close to half of the migrants coming to the UK during the last decade. On the other hand, the share of migrants under 15 years of age has decreased steadily and it is currently less than one third of what it was in 1991. The share of those who are 45 years of age or older has remained relatively constant over time. The 25 to 44 age group typically consists of individuals in their most productive years; see our briefing on 'The Fiscal Impact of Immigration to the UK' for a discussion of the influence of age distribution on fiscal impacts.
The gender split of migrants to the UK provides another interesting pattern. As shown in Figure 4, during 1991- 1993 females dominated migration to the UK. This gender gap was reversed (to more males than females) and reached a peak in 2000. The gap has decreased somewhat since then, but it is still the case that males represent the majority of incoming migrants in the UK (in 2011, 54% of all incoming migrants were male).
As shown in Figure 5, the majority of recent migrants to the UK are single (67% in 2011). In fact, the proportion of migrants who are single shows a positive trend over time. Only about one third of recent migrants coming to the UK are married and less than 5% are divorced or widowed. The shares of incoming male and female migrants who were single were significantly different in 1991. Close to 61% of male migrants were single compared to only 46% of females (using data on those aged 15 and over). The latest estimates for 2011 show that this gap has been significantly reduced over time (in 2011, 65% of female migrants coming to the UK were single compared to 68% of males).
About one-third of migrants coming to the UK say they were previously in professional or managerial occupations
The IPS asks respondents about their usual occupation prior to migrating to the UK. It is of course possible, and in many cases likely, for a migrant to change occupations as he or she changes countries. Therefore, the discussion of LTIM estimates does not necessarily reflect the distribution of occupations of migrants in the UK, but rather reflects the background of incoming migrants. The LFS is a better alternative for exploring the current occupation of migrants in the UK (see our briefing on 'Migrants in the UK Labour Market: An Overview').
About 27% of all migrants coming to the UK say they were in professional or managerial occupations. This category includes managers, administrators and migrants with technological and professional qualifications. The share represented by this type of migrant increased until 2000 and has been mostly decreasing since then.
The share of incoming migrants previously in clerical and manual occupations now stands at about 19% of the total (2011 estimate). Finally, the share of migrants who were students before migrating to the UK has a long-term positive trend and these currently account for about 39% of the total incoming migrants. Having been a student before coming to the UK does not indicate that the migrant will also be a student in the UK.
Evidence gaps and limitations
There are several problems with using the IPS data to identify the destination of long-term international migrants within the UK. First, the IPS asks migrants about their intended destination. Therefore, migrants are just providing information about the first location at which they plan to establish themselves. Staying at this location in the long- term depends, among other things, on the possibility of finding a job and affordable housing. Moreover, many migrants may not have a final destination in mind, but just a temporary stop while they search for a job. The IPS most likely overestimates London as a migrant destination, given that a large portion of the incoming migrants are sampled at airports in London. In addition, migrants may mention London as their intended destination based on their limited knowledge of other cities in the UK.
Given that the IPS depends on migrants’ plans in order to estimate their destinations in the UK, the ONS also makes use of other information in order to estimate the final geographical distribution of migrants coming to the UK. Among the other potential sources of information, the LFS stands out as particularly useful. Using the LFS, the ONS adjusts the results about the geographical distribution of incoming migrants. The result is a distribution with the same number of total migrants (inflow), but with a geographical allocation based on LFS data.
The IPS is not an extensive survey, but it does collect some relevant data in terms of the characteristics of incoming migrants. Yet there is a limitation in this regard, as the IPS does not sample those passengers who cross the land border between Ireland (Republic) and Northern Ireland (UK). Therefore, to describe the characteristics of migrants to Northern Ireland it is necessary to use family doctor registration data. Final LTIM estimates combine these two sources of data.
Thanks to Ann Singleton for helpful comments and suggestions in an earlier version of this briefing.
- Office for National Statistics. “Differences between Provisional and Final Estimates of Long-Term International Migration.” Office for National Statistics, London, 2009.
- Migration Observatory briefing Migrants in the UK: An Overview
- Migration Observatory briefing The Fiscal Impact of Immigration to the UK
- Migration Observatory briefing Migrants in the UK Labour Market: An Overview