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Migrants in the UK: An Overview

21 Feb 2017

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

  1. Key Points
    • Between 1993 and 2015 the foreign-born population in the UK more than doubled from 3.8 million to around 8.7 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 (3.2 million foreign-born people in 2015) among all regions with comparable data in the UK.
    • In 2015, the UK population was 13.5% foreign-born (up from 7% in 1993) and 8.9% foreign citizens (up from 4% in 1993).
    • Foreign-born people constituted 41% of Inner London’s population in 2015 (the highest share among all regions with comparable data).
    • Poland is the most common country of birth and the most common country of nationality.
  1. 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. However having a foreign country of birth does not necessarily imply foreign citizenship and vice versa.

    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.

The stock of the migrant population more than doubled from 1993 to 2015

The size of the foreign-born population in the UK increased from about 3.8 million in 1993 to over 8.7 million in 2015 (see Figure 1). During the same period the number of foreign citizens increased from nearly 2 million to more than 5.7 million.

The number of foreign-born people in the UK increased in almost every year, although there were some slight decreases in 1996, 2007, 2010 and 2013,. Over the whole time period analysed (1993 to 2015) 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 since at least 1993. In 2015, 52% 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 26-64), and retired (aged 64+), the vast majority of foreign-born people are adults (70.9%), while 9.4% are children, 9.9% are youth, and 11% are retired. The shares of age-groups are generally the same across foreign born males and females, though there are slightly bigger shares of foreign born males that are children and youth (just under 20% of foreign born males), and a slightly greater share of retirees amongst females (12.1% of foreign born females, as compared with 9.7% for males).

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 2015, about half of the UK’s foreign-born population were in London (36.8%) and the South East (12.8%). Wales, the North East and Northern Ireland have a low share of the UK’s total foreign-born population, 2.2%, 1.6% and 1.4% respectively. By comparison, the UK-born population is more evenly distributed throughout the UK. In 2015, only 9.7% of the UK-born population lived in London.

Table 1 – Distribution of foreign-born population, 2015

South East12.8
West Midlands7.9
North West7.9
East Midlands5.7
South West5.1
North East1.6
Northern Ireland1.4

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 2015 about 1.4 million foreign-born people were living in Inner London and nearly 1.8 million were living in Outer London. The smallest number of foreign-born individuals were in Tyne and Wear and in the “Rest of North East” region of England. However these regions also experienced the largest percentage increases of their migrant populations, between 1995 and 2015. This is not surprising given the small number of migrants these regions had initially. Between 1995 and 2015 Inner London, West Midlands Metropolitan County and the “Rest of North West” region experienced the lowest percentage increases in the number of migrants (up 88, 96 and 93% respectively).

Table 2 – Number of foreign-born by region

Region199520002005201020151995-2015 % change
Tyne and Wear2400031000500006100068000200
Rest of North East2900033000380005600087000212
Greater Manchester166000142000216000294000390000147
Rest of North West10300010500013500016700018400093
South Yorkshire4900037000630008700099000122
West Yorkshire140000154000197000216000263000102
Rest of Yorkshire & Humberside56000450006400092000125000181
East Midlands203000194000286000401000497000165
West Midlands Metropolitan County26200028500032600037700048700096
Rest of West Midlands940008600094000158000200000118
East of England309000346000457000565000746000165
Inner London81600096400011870001160000141000088
Outer London8280001022000115900014800001787000131
South East5140005970007210009320001108000122
South West210000214000276000348000446000129
Rest of Scotland97000110000141000207000237000163
Northern Ireland530008100070000103000125000159

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The UK population was 13.5% foreign-born and 8.9% non-British citizens in 2015

The share of foreign-born people in the UK’s total population increased by more than half between 1993 and 2015, i.e. from 7% to nearly 13.5% (see Figure 2). During the same period, the share of foreign citizens in the UK’s population rose from 3.6% to 8.9%, while that of recent migrants increased from 1.3% to 3.2%. There was a significant percentage increase in the share of foreign-born people in the UK’s total population between 2004-2008.

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 2015 the number of foreign-born people relative to total population was greatest in Inner London (41%) and Outer London (35%). The region with the third highest proportion of migrants was West Midlands Met. County, where 17% of the population was foreign-born. The“Rest of North East” region was home to the population with the smallest proportion of foreign-born people. Although the concentration of foreign-born individuals varies across UK regions, since 1995 the share of foreign-born people in has increased in every region’s population.

Figure 3

Inner and Outer London also remain the areas with the highest shares of migrants in the total population when focusing on foreign citizens (see Figure 4). Making up 27% (in Inner London) and 21% (in Outer London) of their respective populations.

London is the most important destination for most recent migrations, where they make up 9.9% and 6.8% of Inner and Outer London’s population respectively. By contrast other regions attract fewer, such as the “Rest of the West Midlands” where recent migrants only make up 1.4% of the regional population.

Figure 4

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Poland is the most common country of birth and country of nationality

Poland, India and Pakistan are the main three foreign countries of birth (Table 3) accounting respectively for 9.5%, 9.0% and 5.9% of the UK’s foreign born population , followed by Ireland(4.5%) and Germany(3.3%). Polish and Indian citizenship are also the main foreign nationalities in the UK, with Poles being the largest group, accounting for 15.7% of foreign citizens.

Table 3 – Top ten sender countries of migrants by country of birth and nationality, UK 2015

Country of birthPercentage shareCountry of citizenshipPercentage share
South Africa2.2France3.1

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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 9.1% of all foreign-born persons living in London (Figure 5). Other South Asian countries;Pakistan (4.0%) and Bangladesh (3.1%) are also amongst the top-ten countries of birth of migrants in London. Europeans also represent a large proportion of foreign-born people in London, with Poland, Ireland, Italy, France and Romania, all amongst the top-ten countries of birth in London. London’s ten main foreign countries of birth are the roughly same as those for the UK at large, with the exception of the greater proportion the Jamaican and French-born population make up in London.

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.

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