Migrants in the UK: An Overview

28th January 2016
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Rob McNeil

This briefing provides an overview of the number, population share, geographic distribution and citizenship of migrants in the UK.

Key points

  • Between 1993 and 2014 the foreign-born population in the UK more than doubled from 3.8 million to around 8.3 million. During the same period, the number of foreign citizens increased from nearly 2 million to more than 5 million. 
  • London has the greatest number of migrants (3.0 million foreign-born people in 2014) among all regions with comparable data in the UK.
  • In 2014, the UK population was 13.1% foreign-born (up from 7% in 1993) and 8.5% foreign citizens (up from 4% in 1993).
  • Foreign-born people constituted 39% of Inner London’s population in 2013 (the highest share among all regions with comparable data).
  • India is the most common country of birth among the foreign-born, but Poland tops the list of foreign citizens in the UK.

Understanding the evidence

This briefing defines the migrant population as the foreign-born population in the UK. Wherever relevant and indicated, the briefing also provides figures for foreign citizens residing in the UK, as well as for recent migrants – defined as foreign-born people who have been living in the UK for five years or less. Definitions have a significant impact on the analysis of the number of migrants in the UK and there is significant overlap between those who belong to the foreign-born group and those who belong to the foreign-citizen group.

The briefing includes all migrants, irrespective of their age and employment status. All data in this briefing are taken from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) using the fourth quarter of each year. For information about the limitations of the LFS, see the ‘evidence gaps and limitations’ section at the end of this briefing. 

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The stock of the migrant population almost doubled from 1993 to 2014

The size of the foreign-born population in the UK increased from about 3.8 million in 1993 to over 8.3 million in 2014 (see Figure 1). During the same period the number of foreign citizens increased from nearly 2 million to more than 5 million.

The number of foreign-born people in the UK increased in almost every year, although there were slight decreases in 1996, 2007 and 2010, while  the number of foreign-born increased again from 2011 (fourth quarter data). Over the whole time period analysed (1993 to 2014) the highest growth in the foreign-born population occurred between 2005 and 2008. This period coincides with the significant inflow of East European migrants following EU enlargement in 2004.

Although the numbers of both female and male migrants have increased over time, women have constituted a small majority of the UK’s migrant population stock since at least 1993. In 2014, 54% of the foreign-born population were women.

Looking at the distribution of foreign-born by age, including children (those aged 0-15), youth (aged 15-25), adults (aged 26-60 for men and 26-64 for men), and retired (aged 61+ for women, and aged 64+ for men), the vast majority of male foreign-born are adults (71%), while 8.5% are children, 11% are youth, and 10% are retired. Similarly, the vast majority of female are adults (67%), 8% are children, 9% youth, and 15.1% are retired.

Figure 1

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London has the largest number of migrants among all regions of the UK 

Table 1 presents the distribution of the foreign-born population across England’s government office regions (GORs), Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. There is significant variation in the geographic distribution of migrants in the UK. In 2014, about half of the UK’s foreign-born population were in London (36.9%) and the South East (13.6%). Wales, the North East and Northern Ireland have a low share of the UK’s total foreign-born population, 2.3%, 1.6% and 1.5% respectively. In comparison, the UK-born population is more evenly distributed. In 2014, only 9.6% of the UK-born population lived in London.

Table 1 - Distribution of foreign-born population, 2014

South East13.3%
West Midlands7.6%
North West7.6%
East Midlands5.8%
Yorkshire & the Humber5.7%
South West5.2%
North East1.6%
Northern Ireland1.5%

Source: Labour Force Survey, Q4

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Table 2 shows the number of foreign-born people in different UK regions over time. The LFS provides information at the regional level for 20 regions (see Table 1), as defined by the UK Office for National Statistics.

In 2014 about 1.3 million foreign-born people were living in Inner London and nearly 1.7 million were living in Outer London. The smallest number of foreign-born individuals was found in “Tyne and Wear” and in the ‘Rest of North East’ region of England. The largest percentage increases during the 1995 and 2014 periods occurred in Tyne and Wear, Rest of Scotland, Merseyside and Northern Ireland.. This is not surprising given the small number of migrants these regions had in 1995. Between 1995 and 2014 Inner London and West Midlands Metropolitan County experienced the lowest percentage increase in the number of migrants (up 68 and 64% respectively).

Table 2 - Number of foreign-born by region

Region199520002005200920141995-2014 % change
Tyne and Wear24,00031,00050,00071,00066,000168%
Rest of North East29,00033,00038,00058,00066,000122%
Greater Manchester166,000142,000216,000297,000353,000113%
Rest of North West103,000105,000135,000166,000195,00090%
South Yorkshire49,00037,00063,00086,000105,000114%
West Yorkshire140,000154,000197,000209,000256,00083%
Rest of Yorkshire & Humberside56,00045,00064,00097,000119,000112%
East Midlands203,000194,000286,000365,000485,000139%
West Midlands Metropolitan County262,000285,000326,000392,000455,00074%
Rest of West Midlands94,00086,00094,000156,000184,00095%
East of England309,000346,000457,000569,000686,000122%
Inner London816,000964,0001,187,0001,165,0001,374,00068%
Outer London828,0001,022,0001,159,0001,452,0001,716,000107%
South East514,000597,000721,000903,0001,109,000116%
South West210,000214,000276,000343,000434,000107%
Rest of Scotland97,000110,000141,000208,000238,000144%
Northern Ireland53,00081,00070,000101,000129,000143%
Total4,129,0004,625,0005,735,0006,952,000 8,371,000103%

Source: Labour Force Survey, Quarter 4

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The UK population was 13.1% foreign-born and 8.5% non-British citizens in 2014

The share of foreign-born people in the UK’s total population increased by over 50% between 1993 and 2014, i.e. from 7 to nearly 13.1% (see Figure 2). During the same period, the share of foreign citizens rose from 3.6 to 8.5%, while that of recent migrants increased from 1.4 to 2.7%. There was a significant percentage increase in the share of foreign-born people in the UK’s total population during the 2004-2008 period.

Figure 2

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The share of migrants in the population varies significantly across regions but has been increasing in all regions over time 

The share of migrants in the population varies significantly across regions (see Figure 3). In 2014 the number of foreign-born people relative to total population was greatest in Inner London (39%) and Outer London (33%). The region with the third highest proportion of migrants was South East where 13% of the population was foreign-born. ‘Rest of North East’ was home to the population with the smallest proportion of foreign-born people. While the concentration of foreign-born individuals varies across the UK, since 1995 the share of foreign-born people in the UK population has increased in every region.

Figure 3

Inner and Outer London also remain the areas with the highest share of migrants in the total population when focusing on foreign citizens (see Figure 4). Foreign citizens made up 27 and 21% of the population respectively in Inner and Outer London.

The share of recent migrants in the population varies from 1.2% in the ‘Strathclyde” and ‘Rest of West Midlands’ to 5.9% in Outer London and 9.6% in Inner London.

Figure 4

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India is the most common country of birth among the foreign-born, but Poland tops list of foreign citizens in the UK 

India, Poland, and Pakistan  are the top three countries of birth for the foreign-born (Table 3) accounting respectively for 9.2, 9.1 and 6.0% of the total, followed by Ireland and  Germany. India and Poland remain the top two countries of citizenship of foreign citizens, with Poles being the biggest group, accounting for about 15% of the total.

Table 3 - Top ten sender countries of migrants by country of birth and nationality, UK 2013

Country of birthPercentage share
Country of citizenship
Percentage share
Ireland4.4Italy 3.6
South Africa2.5Romania3.5
United States 2.0Germany2.7

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Those born in India constitute the biggest group among the foreign-born population in London

India is the country of birth for 9.3% of all foreign-born persons living in London (Figure 5). Other Asian countries such as Pakistan (4.3%), Bangladesh (3.1%), and Sri Lanka (2.3%) are also in the top-ten countries of birth of migrants in London. Poland, Romania, Ireland, and Italy and are the four European countries in the top ten. With the exception of Italy, Romania and Jamaica, the remaining top-ten countries of birth for migrants in London are also top-ten countries at the UK level.

Figure 5

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Evidence gaps and limitations

The LFS is a continuous survey of around 60,000 households each quarter. Although the LFS contains spatial information at a regional level, the standard release of LFS data set does not contain local authority identifiers. It is therefore not possible to use the standard LFS to analyse trends and characteristics of migration across local areas. The Annual Population Survey (APS) available since 2004 is more suitable for this purpose.

The LFS has some limitations for estimating the dynamics of migrants in the UK. First, it does not measure the scale of irregular migration. Second, it does not provide information on asylum seekers. Third, the LFS excludes those who do not live in households, such as those in hotels, caravan parks and other communal establishments. The LFS is therefore likely to underestimate the UK population of recent migrants.

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Further reading

  • 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.

With thanks to Martin Ruhs and George Leeson for comments and suggestions in an earlier version of this briefing.

Press contact

If you would like to make a press enquiry, please contact:
Rob McNeil
+ 44 (0)1865 274568
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