Tourist bus in Edinburgh

Home / publications / briefings /

Geographical Distribution and Characteristics of International Migration Flows to Scotland

18 Sep 2013

This briefing focuses on immigrants coming to Scotland from overseas destinations. It examines where they go in Scotland as well as their characteristics.

  1. Key Points
    • From mid-year 2011 to mid-year 2012, 62% of all overseas immigrants to Scotland came to Edinburgh, Glasgow, or Aberdeen.
    • The other 29 Scottish council areas each attracted less than 5% of overseas immigrants in 2011-12.
    • The majority (61%) of international immigrants to Scotland in 2011-12 were aged between 16 and 34.
    • In 2011, an estimated 19,000 immigrants to Scotland from overseas destinations were female and 19,000 were male.
  1. Understanding the Evidence

    This briefing focuses on the characteristics of the immigrants arriving in Scotland during a given time period—not on the characteristics of the existing stock of migrants already in the country. The data used in this briefing are based on Office for National Statistics (ONS) Long Term International Migration (LTIM) estimates. These estimates are largely based on the International Passenger Survey (IPS), as well as incorporating information from other sources including the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and Home Office data on asylum seekers. Furthermore, the National Records of Scotland (NRS) uses information from the National Health Service Central Register (NHSCR) and the Community Health Index (CHI) to estimate how these figures are distributed across geographic and age groups in Scotland.

    To accurately interpret and understand LTIM data, it is important to be clear about their underlying assumptions and limitations. The ONS uses the current United Nations standard definition of a long-term international migrant—a person moving to another country for at least one year—to generate LTIM estimates. For further discussion, see ‘Evidence gaps and limitations’ at the end of this briefing.

    Back to top

Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen were the most common destinations for overseas migrants entering Scotland in 2011-2012

Figure 1 reports the ten Scottish council areas which experienced the largest number of incoming overseas migrants in 2011-12, as estimated by the NRS. 9,298 (26%) went to Edinburgh, while 9,549 (24%) went to Glasgow. Meanwhile, about 4,414 (12%) arrived in Aberdeen. Together these three cities accounted for 62% of the incoming migrants.

Figure 1

Figure 2 puts these numbers into historical perspective by charting the share of incoming international migrants to each destination since mid-2006. Edinburgh and Glasgow have remained the most popular destination for overseas migrants since 2006-2007, with both councils experiencing increases in their shares from 2006 to 2011. Meanwhile, Aberdeen City saw its share of incoming migrants stay roughly the same at 12%.

Figure 2

Return to top

When put in terms of the overall share of immigrants, each of the other 29 councils individually attract about 5% or less of the number of annual immigrants to Scotland. For data from all 32 Scottish councils, see Table 1 below for immigration estimates from 2006-2007 to 2011-2012, the period available from NRS data.

Table 1 – Immigration for all Scottish local councils, 2006-07 to 2011-12

Council name2006-072007-082008-092009-102010-112011-12
Aberdeen City441345735535564550524414
Argyll & Bute445367419467358309
Dumfries & Galloway410444366364343244
Dundee City151817511830212921511567
East Ayrshire140176108146111112
East Dunbartonshire186108187145162107
East Lothian312468420426416413
East Renfrewshire11011014218613679
Edinburgh, City of846984301006411476107169298
Eilean Siar836672685744
Glasgow City789385189541994998558549
North Ayrshire222229210229207149
North Lanarkshire966900848750600524
Orkney Islands454145616238
Perth & Kinross170819892025206915471403
Scottish Borders533580491383357383
Shetland Islands6380140999791
South Ayrshire267284267317298242
South Lanarkshire606604680661540458
West Dunbartonshire183124187192142109
West Lothian1038993900922839743

Return to top

Immigrants to Scotland since 1991 have been most likely to be young and male

Figure 3 shows the age distribution of overseas migrants entering Scotland since mid-2004. NRS changed the way it estimated the age distribution of migrants from 2004-05 onwards, making data prior to mid-2004 inconsistent with current measures. It illustrates how migrants aged between 16-24 and 25-34 have consistently made up the largest shares since mid-2004. Meanwhile, the estimated share of incoming migrants aged 16-24 declined from 39% in 2010-11 to 26% in 2011-12, while the share of those aged 35-44 increased from 9% in 2010-11 to 12% in 2011-12. The NRS changed the way it estimated the age and sex of immigrants and emigrants from 2011-12, which means direct comparisons using 2011-12 data should be avoided (NRS, 2013).

Figure 3

Return to top

Figure 4 uses IPS data to estimate the number of female immigrants to Scotland for each year since 1991. Data for individual years are subject to fluctuation due to the small sample size of the survey, and are published with margins of error which give a range of likely values for the proportions. These margins are shown as dashed lines. In 2011, an estimated 19,000 immigrants from overseas destinations were female, which was the same estimate for male emigrants. From 1991 to 2000, the number of female overseas immigrants averaged 7,000 annually, while an average of 11,000 per year were male. Meanwhile, from 2001 to 2011, the average estimate of female emigrants increased to 16,000 per year, with an average of 17,000 per year being male. This may suggest that overseas migration flows to Scotland are becoming more equal in terms of sex. However, it is important to note that the margins of error, as shown on the chart, demonstrate considerable uncertainty around these figures (see ‘Evidence gaps and limitations’ below).

Figure 4

Return to top

Evidence gaps and limitations

Using IPS data to identify the destinations of overseas migrants has several limitations. Because the survey asks respondents to name their intended destination, it captures the first place where migrants are planning to establish themselves and may miss longer-term moves. Other factors, including employment prospects and cost of living, will impact whether an immigrant actually stays at this location in the long-term. Some migrants’ first destination may be intended as a temporary stop while looking for work elsewhere. This method is likely to overestimate the number of people staying in London: a large proportion of the sample is taken at London-based airports, and some survey respondents may answer London when asked their destination even if they are not intending to remain in London. Thus, actual figures of people intending to travel onwards to Scotland may be different. To help address these limitations, the ONS uses other sources of data such as the LFS to ascertain the final geographic distribution of migrants and adjust the IPS results. These are reported as LTIM estimates.

However, these results are not broken down further for sub-national regions within Scotland. To estimate where overseas immigrants go to in Scotland, NRS distributes the total national LTIM estimate for Scotland across the 32 Scottish council areas and age groups using doctor registration data held in the NHSCR and CHI.

Finally, as results from a survey, IPS data are actually estimates of the ‘real’ number of incoming and outgoing international migrants. The margin of error surrounding a figure, or ‘confidence interval’, gives a sense of the range in which one can be confident that the true value lies. This is important to recognise when interpreting survey results, especially when observing large reported increases or decreases in consecutive years: the actual values may differ. In the case of data about the sex of incoming international migrants, we report the confidence intervals around each ONS figure.


Related material


William Allen

Download Briefing

Press Contact

If you would like to make a press enquiry, please contact:

Rob McNeil

+ 44 (0)7500 970081

 Contact Us 


This Migration Observatory is kindly supported by the following organisations.

  • University of Oxford logo
  • COMPAS logo
  • Esmee Fairbairn logo
  • Barrow Cadbury Trust logo
  • Paul Hamlyn Foundation logo