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EuroMillions? Census shows fewer EU citizens in England and Wales than expected

02 Nov 2022

England and Wales’ population of EU passport holders was 3.9 million on Census day 2021–smaller than the 5.5 million EU citizen applications to the EU settlement scheme (EUSS) in England and Wales. This suggests that many EU citizens who applied to the post-Brexit EUSS scheme had left the UK by March 2021, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said today.  

The new data capture a snapshot of the population of England and Wales on Census day last year – March 21, 2021. They show that there were 3.6 million people born in EU countries and that 3.9 million held EU passports, including 365,000 Irish citizens (who do not need to apply for EUSS) and some EU citizen children born in the UK. Alongside them were 6.4 million non-EU born migrants. The number of non-EU passport holders was lower, at 2 million, because non-EU migrants have high rates of naturalisation as UK citizens.  

Since the EU Settlement Scheme opened in late 2018, it has received more than 6 million applications. Of these, 5.5 million were from EU citizens in England and Wales. As the Migration Observatory has previously argued, however, double counting and emigration were always likely to mean that the true number of EU citizen residents was much lower. The new Census data suggest that perhaps as many as one million EU citizens in England and Wales who had applied to the post-Brexit EU Settlement Scheme were no longer in the UK (see Notes to Editors for details).  

Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said: “One of the main reasons the number of EU citizens living in the UK on Census day is smaller than the number of applicants to the EU Settlement Scheme is that people who had previously lived in the UK had left. One of the big unknowns is how many have returned over the past year and a half, or might still do so in future.” 

People with status under the EU Settlement Scheme who leave the UK can lose either their pathway to permanent status or their residence rights, depending on how long they are away.  

The Census also gives data on the foreign-born population – a more common measure of the migrant population, as it captures those who have naturalised as British citizens too. In March 2021, an estimated 3.6 million EU-born and 6.4 million non-EU born migrants lived in England and Wales. The non-UK born made up 16.8% of the population of England and Wales in 2021. This was up 3.4 percentage points, from 13.4% in 2011. This is a slower rate of growth in the migrant share of the population from the previous decade from 2001 to 2011, when it increased by 4.5 percentage points, from 8.9% to 13.4%.  

Sumption added: “Today’s data show that the migrant population in England and Wales grew more slowly on average during the 2010s than during the 2000s. The Census was conducted a year into the pandemic, so it’s likely that some of this slower growth results from people leaving during that year. Lower EU migration after the 2016 referendum is also likely to have played a role.” 

Over the coming weeks and months, the Migration Observatory will dig deeper into the Census data and provide nuanced analysis of the regional and local figures and other developments revealed. For questions or requests for bespoke analysis contact Robert McNeil using the details below.  




Notes for editors:  

Comparing EUSS and Census estimates for England and Wales:  

  • The Home Office does not provide data on the precise number of EU citizen individual applicants in England and Wales. It provides the number of applications in England and Wales, and the number of applicants in the UK as a whole. By June 2022, 5.5 million individual EU citizens applicants had applied to the EUSS across the UK. About 91% of applications (including repeat applications) have been in England and Wales. If roughly 91% of applicants are also in England and Wales, this would mean that around 4.9 million EU citizen applicants were in England and Wales.  
  • EUSS figures are most comparable with data on EU passport holders rather than the EU born. Irish passport holders are excluded from the calculation because they do not have to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme.  
  • The deadline to apply was the end of June 2021, i.e., 3 months after the Census date, but EUSS applicants had to be resident in the UK before the end of December 2020 to qualify.  
  • For more background on the comparison between EUSS and Census data, see the Migration Observatory’s analysis for the UK in a Changing Europe: https://ukandeu.ac.uk/euss-census-migration   

Background on Census estimates and their quality: 

  • ONS estimates that the Census had a 97% response rate, making it the most accurate measure of the migrant population available. The estimates published today have been adjusted to account for those who did not respond and produce an estimate of the whole population of England and Wales.  
  • The Census uses passports held as a proxy for citizenship. Some people do not hold passports, although online questionnaire guidance invited respondents to including “any other travel documents, such as ID cards, that show citizenship of a particular country or countries”, as well as expired passports that the person is entitled to renew. 
  • The 2011 and 2001 Census estimates reported above for the EU populations include all countries that are part of the EU as of 2021, regardless of when they joined the EU.   

The Migration Observatory’s analysis has been made possible by support from the Trust for London and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, The Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Barrow Cadbury Trust.  

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