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Government focus on net-migration misses the bigger picture

26 May 2011

The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford today argues that by focussing too much on long-term net migration – which was today shown to be continuing its sharp rise since December 2008 – the Government risks ignoring a suite of vital information that tells us much more about how migration and immigration are changing the UK.

The quarterly migration figures released today by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show us that:

  • Net migration is now estimated to have risen to 242,000 for the year to September 2010. The biggest single cause of this is a decline in emigration.
  • Migration for study has increased by 30 per cent – from 185,000 to 241,000 – for the year to September 2010 compared to the same period the previous year.
  • Long-term net migration of citizens of the Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 (the A8 countries) has increased from -12,000 in the year to September 2009 to +43,000 in the year to September 2010 as a result of an increase in immigration and a decrease in emigration.

Because of current government policy the figure for long-term net migration is at centre of the UK’s migration policy debate.

Long-term net migration measures the difference between immigration and emigration of people who move to or from the UK for at least one year. A key Conservative Party election promise was to reduce the UK’s net migration to the “tens of thousands”, and the coalition’s immigration policy changes have reflected this objective.

However, in a new commentary released today entitled Net Weight, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford argues that the level of net migration alone is an inadequate indicator of the changes to the scale of migration and the migrant population in the UK. Instead the Observatory recommends a more comprehensive approach. This would need to include indicators looking at data covering at least four key areas:

  • The stock (number) of migrants in the UK,
  • Long-term immigration flows,
  • Long-term net migration flows
  • Short-term migration flows

Dr Martin Ruhs, Director of the Migration Observatory, said: “There are some very basic problems with focusing policy debates so closely on long-term net migration data. For one thing, reducing long-term net migration doesn’t automatically mean that you are also reducing the growth in the country’s total migrant population – it is perfectly possible that a decline in long-term migration could be accompanied by an increase in short-term migration which may lead to flat, or even faster, growth in the migrant population.”

“Also, net migration ignores the level of immigration and churn in the population, so if 1,000,000 people emigrate and 1,000,001 immigrate you will have the same level of net migration as you would if one person emigrates and two immigrate”.

The commentary also points out that focusing on long-term net migration only may mislead as it combines British, EU, and non-EU migration into a single figure. It argues that closer attention should be paid to whether changes in overall net-migration are driven by the movement of British, EU and/or non-EU citizens.

Dr Ruhs added: “Net migration plays an important part in understanding the broader picture of how migration changes the UK, but it is only one element, and we need to consider a more complete picture to allow the best policies to be developed.”


For further information contact:

Rob McNeil,

Senior Media Analyst, The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

e: robert.mcneil@compas.ox.ac.uk; tel:  01865 274568; Mob: 07500 970081

Notes for Editors:

  • Based at the ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford, the Migration Observatory provides independent, authoritative, evidence-based analysis of data on migration and migrants in the UK, to inform media, public and policy debates, and to generate high quality research on international migration and public policy issues. The Observatory’s analysis involves experts from a wide range of disciplines and departments at the University of Oxford.
  • The Migration Observatory is funded by: Unbound Philanthropy; the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and the Barrow Cadbury Trust.
  • The Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford conducts high quality research in order to develop theory and knowledge, inform policy-making and public debate, and engage users of research within the field of migration. For further detail see the COMPAS website: www.compas.ox.ac.uk/.
  • COMPAS is core funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) www.esrc.ac.uk/

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