Migrants in the UK: An Overview

17th December 2013
Next update
17/12/2014
Press contact
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 2012 the foreign-born population in the UK more than doubled from 3.8 million to around 7.7 million. During the same period, the number of foreign citizens in the UK increased from nearly 2 million to 4.9 million.
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  • London has the greatest number of migrants (2.8 million foreign-born people in 2012) among all regions with comparable data in the UK.
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  • In 2012, the UK population was 11.4% foreign-born (up from 7% in 1993) and 7.2% foreign citizens (up from 4% in 1993).
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  • Foreign-born people constituted 40% of Inner London’s population in 2012 (the highest share among all regions with comparable data).
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  • India is the most common country of birth among the foreign-born, but Poland tops the list of foreign citizens in the UK.
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Understanding the evidence

In most cases this briefing defines the migrant population as the foreign-born population in the UK. Wherever relevant and indicated, the briefing also provides data on 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 overlapping between those who belong to the foreign-born group and those who belong to the foreign citizens group (see our briefing "Who Counts as a Migrant: Definitions and their Consequences").

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. Unlike other data sources (e.g. Census) the LFS provides annual data on the number and characteristics of migrants in the UK.

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The stock of the migrant population more than doubled from 1993 to 2012

The size of the foreign-born population in the UK increased from about 3.8 million in 1993 to over 7.8 million in 2012 (see Figure 1). During the same period the number of foreign citizens increased from nearly 2 million to 4.9 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 2012) the highest growth in the foreign-born population occurred between 2005 and 2006, with the stock of migrants increasing by about 900,000 (15%). 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 the majority of the UK’s migrant population stock since at least 1993. In 2012, 54% of the foreign-born population were women.

Figure 1

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

Figure 2 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 2012, about half of the UK’s foreign-born population were in London (36.6%) and the South East (12.8%). Northern Ireland, the North East and Wales have a low share of the UK’s total foreign-born population, 1.7%, 1.7% and 2.1% respectively. In comparison, the UK-born population is more evenly distributed. In 2012, only 7.8% of the whole UK-born population lived in London.

Figure 2

Table 1 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 2012 about 1.2 million foreign-born people were living in Inner London and nearly 1.5 million were living in Outer London. The smallest number of foreign-born individuals was found in the ‘Rest of North East’ region of England. The largest percentage increases during the 1995 and 2012 periods occurred in Tyne and Wear, South Yorkshire and Northern Ireland. This is not surprising given the small number of migrants these regions had in 1995. Between 1995 and 2012 Rest of North East experienced the lowest percentage increase in the number of migrants (up 38%). Wales and Strathclyde experienced a much larger increase in the migrant population (more than 114%).

For the year 2011 the recent UK Census provides more precise information on the number of foreign-born individuals in each region of the UK. Visit the Migration Observatory 2011 Census project page for more details.

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Table 1 - Number of foreign-born by region

Region199520002005200920121995-2012 % change
Tyne and Wear 24,422 30,838 49,640 70,87076,583214%
Rest of North East 29,469 33,39937,765  57,95555,998  90%
Greater Manchester 165,990 141,808 215,707 296,982313,711  89%
Merseyside 34,696 30,025 61,184 55,40163,732  84%
Rest of North West 102,607 104,538 134,609 165,536141,358  38%
South Yorkshire 49,156 37,228 63,364 85,717134,301173%
West Yorkshire 140,064 153,822 196,834 209,174247,479  77%
Rest of Yorkshire & Humberside 56,247 44,805 63,766 97,269106,075  89%
East Midlands 202,744 193,857 286,317 365,375438,624116%
West Midlands Metropolitan County 261,892 285,397 325,933 392,264444,041  70%
Rest of West Midlands 94,405 85,792 93,760 155,675153,111  62%
East of England 308,707 346,073 457,406 568,777659,771114%
Inner London 815,991 963,874 1,186,956 1,165,0981,267,751  55%
Outer London 827,593 1,021,995 1,158,511 1,451,7021,553,290  88%
South East 513,862 597,303 720,505 903,033983,336  91%
South West 210,170 214,237 276,352 342,533414,174  97%
Wales 80,399 84,034 107,396 136,792165,296106%
Strathclyde 59,781 65,494 87,147 123,121128,068114%
Rest of Scotland 97,460 109,905 141,258 207,845230,467136% 
Northern Ireland 53,083 80,925 70,376 101,051134,377153% 
Total 4,128,738 4,625,349 5,734,786 6,952,1707,711,543 87%

Source: Labour Force Survey, Quarter 4

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The UK population was 11.4% foreign-born and 7.2% non-British citizen in 2012

The share of foreign-born people in the UK’s total population increased by over 50% between 1993 and 2012, i.e. from 7 to nearly 11.4% (see Figure 3). During the same period, the share of foreign citizens rose from 3.6 to 7.2%, while that of recent migrants increased from 1.4 to 2.9%. 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 3

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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 4). In 2012 the number of foreign-born people relative to total population was greatest in Inner London (40%) and Outer London (32%). The region with the third highest proportion of migrants was West Midlands Metropolitan County where 17% 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 4

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 5). Foreign citizens made up 24 and 19% of the population respectively in Inner and Outer London.

The share of recent migrants in the population varies from 0.6% in the ‘Rest of North East’ to 7.1% in Outer London and 9.2% in Inner London.

Figure 5

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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 2) accounting respectively for 9.1, 8.7 and 5.8% 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 14.9% of the total.

Table 2 - Top ten sender countries of migrants by country of birth and nationality, UK 2012

Country of birthShare of all foreign born
Country of citizenship
Share of all foreign citizens
India9.1Poland14.9
Poland8.7India7.3
Pakistan5.8Ireland6.9
Ireland5.1Pakistan3.6
Germany3.8United States3.2
United States3.0Lithuania2.9
South Africa2.7France2.8
Bangladesh2.7Germany2.4
Nigeria2.4Italy2.4
Kenya1.9Nigeria2.3

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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 9.6% of all foreign-born persons living in London (Figure 6). Other Asian countries such as Pakistan (4.5%), Bangladesh (3.9%), and Sri Lanka (2.8%) are also in the top-ten countries of birth of migrants in London. Poland, and  Ireland are the only two European countries in the top ten. With the exception of Sri Lanka and Jamaica, the remaining top-ten countries of birth for migrants in London are also top-ten countries at the UK level.

Figure 6

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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 2011 Census provides the best information on the number of migrants in each region, but it is only available for a single year.

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.

Related material

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
+ 44 (0)7500 970081
robert.mcneil@compas.ox.ac.uk