International Migration: The UK Compared with other OECD Countries
This briefing uses data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to compare international migration to and from the UK with migration to other OECD countries.
This briefing will be updated when new data becomes available
- International comparisons of migration data are challenging. The OECD’s “permanent-type legal migration” includes migrants with settlement rights and migrants with temporary but renewable residence permits that can lead to settlement.
- The UK had 397,900 permanent-type incoming migrants in 2009, more than double the average for OECD European countries with comparable data.
- The UK was above OECD average in the share of inflows in the work category in 2009, but below OECD average in the share of inflows in the family reunion category.
- The temporary worker decline in 2009 was more marked in the UK (30%) than in the OECD as a whole (16%).
- The UK was one of only four OECD countries receiving over 30,000 requests for asylum in 2009. However, asylum requests per capita in the UK remained low compared to other OECD countries.
- The UK held the second position in the OECD (just behind the USA) in number of international tertiary-level students in 2008.
- The UK is a top-ten source country of migrants to OECD countries (133,000 migrants in 2009).
Understanding the Evidence
The OECD is an international economic organisation of 34 countries, most of which are developed countries.
The data in this report are from the OECD 2011 International Migration Outlook. Most of the data are from the individual contributions of national correspondents appointed by the OECD Secretariat. In order to provide a comparison of migration inflows in different countries it is necessary to standardise the country-specific estimates.
The OECD’s “permanent-type legal migration” includes migrants with settlement rights (i.e. permission to stay permanently), as well as migrants on temporary but renewable residence permits that can lead to settlement (permanent residence). Therefore, the term “permanent” does not indicate that the migrants enter the country with the right of permanent residence. The OECD definition excludes temporary migrants whose temporary residence permits cannot be renewed or only renewed under limited circumstances. The OECD’s definition of a permanent migrant also excludes international students, even if they stay for more than a year in the host country.
The OECD also provides a measure of the inflow of temporary workers to OECD countries. This measure includes very different types of workers and classification varies across countries (see the Evidence gaps and limitations section below for further discussion). Temporary workers include trainees, working holidaymakers, intra-company transfers, seasonal workers and a heterogeneous category called “other temporary workers”.
The UK had 397,900 permanent-type incoming migrants in 2009, more than double the average for OECD European countries with comparable data
Permanent-type international migration movements to OECD countries with comparable data (i.e. those with standardised statistics) were close to 4.3 million migrants in 2009, down from 4.6 million in 2008. The decline was close to 7%, equivalent to 315,100 migrants. This is the second consecutive annual decline in permanent-type migration inflows to OECD countries. It is likely that some of this decline was due to the recent economic recession, which peaked in late 2008.
OECD countries did not experience an even decline in permanent-type immigration. As shown in Figure 1, sixteen countries experienced falling inflows in 2009. From those sixteen countries, eleven experienced declines on immigration of over 10%. The declines were greatest in the Czech Republic and Ireland (46% and 42% decline, respectively). However, these two countries have a relative small flow of permanent-type immigration (about 39,000 each in 2009). From the countries with significant permanent-type immigration flows (i.e. over 300,000), Italy and Spain experienced the biggest decreases in immigration (25% and 18%, respectively). These two countries also experienced significant decreases in 2008.
Some countries, including the UK, experienced increases in permanent-type immigration in 2009. The largest percentage increases were that of Mexico and the UK (58% and 14%, respectively). However, Mexico receives a relatively small number of permanent-type migrants (about 24,000), making the UK the leader in permanent-type immigration increase among the major migrant receiving countries. The UK had an inflow of 397,900 permanent-type incoming migrants, more than double the average of the OECD countries with standardised statistics.
The USA was the leader among OECD countries in terms of absolute inflows of permanent-type migrants in 2009, being the only country with an inflow of over 1 million migrants. The USA has had the highest permanent-type migration inflows since the OECD started reporting these statistics in 2003. The UK occupied the second place in 2009. This corresponds to an increase from the fourth placed that it occupied in 2007 and 2008. The UK also occupied the second place in these statistics from 2003 to 2006. Possible explanations for the fall in the ranking of the UK during 2007 and 2008 include the appearance of Spain for the first time in the permanent-type immigration estimates and the entrance of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU with the resulting emergence of previously irregular migrants from these countries in Italy’s official statistics. Therefore, the change in the UK’s rankings in 2007 and 2008 may not represent a relative decrease in permanent-type international migration with respect to other countries during those years.
The UK was above OECD average in the share of inflows in the work category in 2009, but below OECD average in the share of inflows in the family reunion category
Figure 2 reports the share of permanent-type migration entries by category for 2009. The OECD reports estimates of six entry categories: work, family, free movement, humanitarian, accompanying family of workers and other.
Until 2008 there had been an increase in free movement migration to OECD countries as a result of the EU enlargements of 2004 and 2007. However, there was a significant decrease in this type of movement in the OECD in 2009 and these flows decreased by over 230,000 (about 22%). This category accounted for 20% of the entries in OCED countries in 2009. Free movement accounted for about 19% of the entries in the UK in 2009.
The most popular immigration category for the OECD in 2009 was family reunion accounting for about 40% of all inflows (1,660,913 migrants). This category was not as important for the UK and only accounted for about 15% of all permanent-type inflows (61,165 migrants) in 2009.
On the other hand, the most relevant OECD permanent-type immigration category for the UK was work. This category accounted for about 36% of all permanent-type immigration flows to the UK in 2009 (about 142,448 migrants). Work was less important for the OECD as a whole and accounted for just 20% of all inflows in 2009.
An important share of temporary worker migration is between OECD countries. For instance, a significant portion of the USA admissions may reflect daily commuting over the Mexican border. Definitions of temporary workers and the categories included also vary across countries. Hence, it is necessary to interpret temporary worker estimates with caution. See the Evidence gaps and limitations section for further discussion.
The inflow of temporary foreign workers into OECD countries in 2009 (1.9 million) was significantly higher than the inflow of permanent-type labour migrants (about 1.5 million). However, temporary worker migration to the OECD countries declined in 2009 (by about 16%). This is the second consecutive decline in temporary migration, but the decline in 2008 was less significant (about 1%).
Fifteen of the twenty-one countries with comparable data experienced a decrease in temporary migration in 2009. Norway, Belgium and Spain experienced a decrease in temporary migration of over 50% (64%, 84% and 93%, respectively). Meanwhile, Mexico led the increases in temporary migration with an increase of 32% to go along with the increase in permanent-type migration of 58% discussed above.
The UK occupied the fifth place in terms of the number of temporary workers in 2009 (about 136,000), but the temporary worker decline in the UK was more marked (about 30% decline from the 194,000 temporary worker inflow of 2008) than the OECD one. This decline is also likely to be the consequence of the global financial crisis. The UK accounted for close to 7% of the temporary worker inflows in the OECD in 2009. As shown in Figure 3, temporary worker flows to the UK have been declining since 2005.
The UK was one of only four OECD countries receiving over 30,000 requests for asylum in 2009. However, asylum requests per capita in the UK remained low compared to other OECD countries
The number of asylum seekers in OECD countries remained constant in 2009 at close to 362,900. The main countries of origin of asylum seekers in the OECD were Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. The leader in asylum seeker claims in 2009 was France (42,210), followed by the USA (38,080) and Canada (33,970). The number of asylum seeker claims in the UK was 30,680. The UK was one of only four OECD countries receiving over 30,000 requests for asylum in 2009. The main countries of origin of asylum seekers in the UK during 2009 were Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Iran.
Norway and Sweden dominate in asylum requests per capita at about 3,638 and 2,630 requests per million population. The UK received about 496 asylum requests per million population in 2009, occupying the fourteenth place among the thirty-three OECD countries with comparable statistics.
The UK held the second position in the OECD in number of international tertiary-level students in 2008
Comparing the number of international students across countries is challenging because some countries collect data on foreign students (students that do not hold the citizenship of the country in which they are studying), others collect data on students who completed their prior education in a different country and others on non-resident students (those who have migrated for the purpose of taking up studies). The data for the UK refers to non-resident students, but this is compared with countries which use different definitions. See the briefing on 'Non-European Student Migration to the UK' for a discussion of the difficulties in estimating student migrant numbers in the UK.
The number of tertiary-level international students in OECD countries, increased by 5% in 2008 to reach 2,349,190. The USA was the leader in international students in tertiary education with 624,470 students. The UK occupied the second place in the number of international students in tertiary education in 2008 with 341,790 international students. This represents a decrease of 3% from the 2007 value. However, the number international students in the UK increased by an average of 3% for the 2004-2008 period.
It is challenging to estimate the proportion of graduating international students who remain in the country after they complete their studies. The OECD estimates the “stay rate” as the ratio of those who have changed status to those who have not renewed their student permits. The stay rate is estimated on the basis of permit data; therefore, it does not include EEA citizens for European countries.
The “stay rate” was about 25% for the UK. This ranges in the middle of the scale compared with Austria and Spain at the lower end (stay rates of 17% and 19%, respectively) and France and Canada at the higher end (stay rates of 32% and 33%).
As reported in Figure 4, the top countries of origin in terms of inflows to OECD countries in 2009 were China, Romania, India and Poland. These four countries accounted for over 20 percent of immigration to OECD countries. Several developed country members of the OECD, such as Germany, the UK and the USA are also among the top-ten sources of migrants to other OECD countries.
The UK occupied the 8th place as a source country and it accounted for close to 2.6% of total migrant inflows to OECD countries in 2009. The UK was the country of origin for close to 133,000 migrants to other OECD countries in 2009. This represents an 8% decrease from the 2007 level (144,000) and a 20% decrease from the 2005 level (160,000). From the top-ten country sources of migrants to the UK in 2009 four are OECD members (Poland, Australia, USA and France).
Evidence gaps and limitations
The OECD permanent-type migration data are an imperfect measure, since they include individuals already in the country who have changed status (e.g. from student to permanent resident). Moreover, the year of reference for immigration tends to be the year of approval of the residence permit application, not the year of entry into the country. Therefore, while this briefing discusses permanent-type migration flows, it is not an exact measure of annual migration inflows.
For several countries, the OECD categorizes migrants in some categories (e.g. intra-company transfers) as permanent migrants because they have settlement rights or renewable residence permits. Therefore, the same migration movements may be classified as temporary or permanent depending on the country. The data on temporary workers published by the OECD is also incomplete as it is difficult to capture all these short-term movements in official statistics (e.g. cross-border service providers) and only reflect general trends.
The data on inflows to the OECD from specific regions and countries are based on statistics that are not completely comparable, with different coverage of temporary migration and combine changes in stocks with flow data.
- OECD. International Migration Outlook. Paris: OECD, 2011.
- Salt, J. “International Migration and the United Kingdom, 2010.” Report of the United Kingdom SOPEMI correspondent to the OECD, Migration Research Unit, University College London, 2011.
Thanks to Philip Martin and Ron Skeldon for helpful comments and suggestions in an earlier version of this briefing.