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Romanians and Bulgarians coming to the UK in 2014: Influx or exaggeration?

30 Dec 2014

On 1 January 2014 the UK – and all other EU countries – were legally required to end any ‘transitional’ controls that had been placed on Romanian and Bulgarian migrants’ access to the labour market after the two countries joined the EU in 2007. This meant giving nationals of these two countries (often referred to as the A2 countries) the same rights as people from other EU member states.

The end of these transitional controls led to flurry of speculation about how many A2 migrants would come to the UK, which formed a significant part of media coverage dealing with UK migration issues in 2013 (see our analysis). But now, a year after labour market controls on A2 migrants came to an end, what do we know about what has actually happened?

The number of migrants from the A2 countries living in the UK appears to have continued to grow steadily since these countries joined the EU. This continued in 2014 but not dramatically: most of the growth in the A2 population took place in the 7 years before transitional labour market controls were lifted.

Figure 1 shows Migration Observatory estimates from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) of the Romanian and Bulgarian population of the UK in July-September (Q3) from 2006 to 2014 (Q3 has been used as the Q4 data for 2014 is not yet available). It shows the entire A2 population, the working-age A2 population, and the A2 working-age population that is actually in work.

Figure 1

The overall population of A2 migrants in the UK in Q3 2012 was 160,000; this increased by 45,000 to 205,000 by Q3 2013 and then increased by 47,000 to 252,000 in Q3 2014. By way of comparison, the A2 population grew by 163,000 between 2007 and 2013 – the years during which transitional controls were in place.

In other words, LFS data suggest that the A2-born population in the UK grew by a similar number before and after the end of transitional labour market controls. When the Q4 2014 data is made available in early 2015 it will allow us to get a more complete picture of 2014, but the existing data suggest it is more likely to show continued steady growth rather than the ‘significant spike’ some predicted.

Over the course of 2014, other data sources have also provided insights into the changes in the A2 population of the UK. These suggest a slightly larger increase in A2 migration in 2014.

According to the International Passenger Survey (IPS) the estimated level of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria in the 12 months to June 2014 – the most up-to-date figure we have at this stage – stood at 32,000. This is a significant increase on the same period the previous year, when the figure stood at 18,000. It should be noted that the smaller numbers shown in these IPS data do not represent a contradiction of the LFS estimates shown in Table 1 above – the data are collected in different ways and capture different information.

Another trend that has been recently reported in the press is a significant increase in the number of National Insurance Numbers (NINos) allocated to Romanian and Bulgarian-born people in 2014. This number increased from 29,000 in the year ending September 2013 to 135,000 in the same period this year. This is an increase of 107,000, or 373%.

However, it is important to recognise that while the increase in NINo registrations is extremely sharp, it is not, in itself, evidence of a significant increase in the Romanian and Bulgarian-born populations of the UK after January 2014. Many of the people who were allocated these numbers were in the UK before the end of the transitional labour market controls. The evidence suggests that many migrants from these two countries either had problems registering for NINos before January 2014, or may have been in the UK and working without having applied for a NINo, or not working.

So while these three different sets of data (LFS, IPS and NINos) provide us with three different numbers, they all suggest one thing. The A2 population of the UK has grown during 2014 as a result of additional immigration. The LFS estimates that it now exceeds 250,000.

What is less clear, however, is to what extent the transitional labour market controls that were put in place in 2007 actually prevented people from joining the UK labour market. As previous Migration Observatory analysis has suggested, transitional controls also had limited impacts on A2 migrants’ access to benefits.

Measuring migration that has NOT happened is, of course, considerably more difficult than measuring migration that HAS happened, so understanding how much migration was prevented by the transitional controls is challenging. UK controls are just one factor that may shape the flows. For example, it seems likely that migration flows from new EU accession states were also affected by how older EU members acted relative to one another. In 2004, the UK was one of only a small number of EU countries that did not impose transitional controls on A8 migrants. This (along with other factors including language, incomes and the flexibility of the labour market in the UK) is believed to have increased the UK’s attractiveness to migrants from A8 countries, relative to other EU countries that did impose controls.

Migration of Romanians and Bulgarians to the UK since 2007 may well have been higher if the UK had not joined other EU countries in introducing transitional controls. But the transitional controls were not the only factor in play, and their lifting in 2014 was not the watershed that many assumed.

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