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The Migration Observatory and the Decade of Migration

03 Feb 2014

In February 2014 Oxford University’s Centre on Migration Policy and Society (COMPAS) – the Migration Observatory’s parent organisation – held a major conference celebrating a decade since its foundation.

The Decade of Migration Conference, and its supporting documents, considers a decade of extraordinary change in global migration issues, which has had profound consequences for the UK. Central to the conference and its accompanying materials is an analysis of COMPAS’ contribution to migration scholarship over this the last decade.

One significant contribution was the launch of the Migration Observatory in 2011. The Observatory, through dissemination of research evidence, data and analysis, has brought an important independent contribution to the policy, public and media debates about migration and integration issues relating to the UK.

This document provides a short history of the inception, development, achievements and impact of the Migration Observatory.

  1. 2009 - Inception

    The intention to establish an authoritative, web based portal to data and analysis on migration was first proposed in 2002 in Oxford University’s successful bid to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for core funding to establish an inter-disciplinary migration research centre, COMPAS. The proposal was taken forward in COMPAS’s second term, in discussions from late 2008, as a means to ensure that all those with an interest in migration could access accurate data and analysis in a usable form.

    There was a recognition that official data sets were difficult to access and complex to interpret, meaning that public, policy and media debates did not always reflect the available evidence from official data or academic research.  Polarised debates lacked a reliable, accessible independent source of data and analysis and the new project was conceived to fill that gap.  It would contribute to the dual mandate of COMPAS to conduct research that would be relevant and accessible to the full range of potential non-academic research users in civil society, Government and the media, while at the same time meeting the highest international standards of academic excellence. It was anticipated that the website, drawing on expertise from across the university, would also be of value for researchers, providing material which would be a resource for analysis and generate new lines of academic inquiry.

    The work of COMPAS senior economist, Dr Martin Ruhs, as specialist advisor on the 2008 House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s report into the Economic Impact of Immigration and as a member of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) had also highlighted the need for dispassionate analysis of the evidence on immigration, and for a clear articulation of what is and is not known about the subject. The House of Lords’ report put into sharp relief in particular the weakness of the evidence base behind many perceptions on the economic benefits and costs of immigration.

    COMPAS undertook a consultation exercise with potential users of the website to establish whether they were able to access key data and analysis on the topics relevant to their work and in a form that they needed. This found that there was a distinct need for a one-stop-shop to provide up to date and reliable materials on a wide range of topics for parliamentarians, officials, employers, journalists, the voluntary sector and the wider public.

    Dr Ruhs was appointed to lead a new project – with support from a project board of COMPAS Director Professor Michael Keith and Deputy Director Sarah Spencer. This led, in the summer of 2009, to the submission of a proposal for MIDAS – Migration Information, Data and Analysis at Oxford (Download PDF).

    The aim was to establish a website that would provide access to data, briefings and a news service and, through authoritative analysis and dialogue with data providers, contribute to improvements in the collection, presentation and analysis of official data.

    The MIDAS proposal makes clear that key feature of the project would be its independence – its role would include: “highlighting the limits of available data and contradictions between data from different sources, while carefully avoiding entering political debate…” and  “…presenting and analysing the available data in a transparent and impartial way without stating, as many of the existing data sources often do, that particular developments are ‘good’ or ‘bad'”.

    This objective was clarified further and enshrined in a legal agreement with a core funder that prohibited any activities to “carry on propaganda or otherwise attempt to influence any legislation…” (see PDF above, page 38). The decision was made, later in the year, to rename the revised project the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

    The proposal was submitted to three potential funders, Unbound Philanthropy, the Barrow Cadbury Trust and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. Those funders, concerned to see a less polarised debate on migration and migrants in the UK, agreed to support the project for its first three years.

  1. 2010 - Development

    As a first step, an assessment of key migration data sources, and the gaps that needed filling, was undertaken in the early part of 2010.

    Staff were recruited to complement Dr Ruhs’ skills as an economist specialising in labour migration issues. Initial academic team members included Dr Scott Blinder, a political scientist based in Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations, and Dr Carlos Vargas-Silva, a quantitative economist based in Oxford’s Department of International Development. Web developer Finbar Mulholland was employed to design the website.

    An expert advisory board was also established comprised of academics, representatives of governmental bodies including the Office for National Statistics, and civil society organisations. The role of the board was to oversee the Observatory’s outputs and approach, to ensure independence and the very highest standards of academic rigour.

    The site was divided into four sections:

    • Briefings: overviews of key migration issues, supported with data, analysis and explanations of the nature of the evidence and its limitations.
    • News and commentary: Analysis of migration issues in the news and newsworthy elements of migration research, press releases and a space for links to media coverage featuring the Migration Observatory.
    • Data and resources: Key charts, maps, tables and other data – including as facility to create your own charts based on specific data sets.
    • Policy primers: In depth expert discussions considering the complexities, challenges and trade-offs associated with particular migration issues. The primers included submissions from Migration Observatory staff and other experts in migration issues from COMPAS and from other Oxford University centers and departments.

    Dr Ruhs, Dr Blinder and Dr Vargas Silva then set about the task of writing and commissioning nearly 30 briefings and more than 10 policy primers, collating large quantities of data from authoritative data sets, and submitting all materials to an exhaustive peer review process.

    Late 2010 saw the recruitment of media specialist Rob McNeil, who worked to develop a consistent style across Migration Observatory materials and prepare the public launch of the project. He developed a launch video and a series of video interviews with authors of the Migration Observatory’s policy primers, and started a programme of outreach to stakeholders, ranging from policy makers to journalists and civil society groups with a range of views on immigration.

  1. 2011 - Launch

    Early 2011 saw the establishment of a media advisory board to scrutinise the independence and balance of the Observatory’s media outputs. The first meeting featured representatives from the Sunday Telegraph, Financial Times, The Economist, Daily Mail, Guardian, Economic and Social Research Council and other parts of Oxford University.

    In March 2011 the launch of the Migration Observatory was held in London at Millbank Tower. The event featured keynote speeches from the then Immigration Minister, the Rt Hon Damian Green MP, Labour Peer Baroness King of Bow, and COMPAS director, Professor Michael Keith.

    The launch of the Observatory as a new contribution to discourse on migration attracted media interest, including coverage by the BBC’s Today Programme and the launch of its first report, the ‘Top Ten Problems in the Evidence Base for Public Debate and Policy-Making on Immigration in the UK‘ was also covered extensively.

    A series of other high-profile contributions to the debate – ranging from an analysis of the official impact assessments on policies to reduce net migration to an analysis of public opinion about immigration in the UK – quickly helped to establish the Migration Observatory as an expert voice in the debates in the UK.

    2011 also saw the start of the Migration Observatory’s external evaluation process, designed to assess whether it was successfully delivering on its objectives of providing independent and strictly evidence-based data and analysis. Independent evaluation company Firetail began this process in early 2011, undertaking an initial evaluation (Report PDF) which would serve as the baseline against which progress would be measured over the following two years.

  1. 2012 - Consolidation and expansion

    The impacts of steps to reduce net migration were one key focus on debates throughout 2012. By November of that year, Office for National Statistics (ONS) data was showing significant declines in net migration, while the uneven impacts of some of the policy changes across demographic groups and communities, employers, employees and people from abroad became apparent through Migration Observatory analysis and generated significant media interest.

    A new member of the team, William Allen, joined to work with Dr Blinder and Mr McNeil on a major quantitative analysis of media coverage of migrants and migration issues in British newspapers, funded by Oxford University’s John Fell Fund.

    In September 2012 the Migration Observatory published a major report looking at the potential use of immigration policy to stabilise the UK’s population at or under 70 million, ahead of a parliamentary debate on that subject. The report was designed to present policy makers and the wider public with a clear understanding of the opportunities, limitations, ramification and trade-offs involved in using immigration policy to limit the size of the UK’s population.

    In 2012 two of the Observatory’s core funders, Unbound Philanthropy and the Barrow Cadbury Trust, made a commitment to a second phase of funding. The Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund provided a legacy grant but ceased operating in 2013 and thus ceased to be a core funder of the project.

  1. 2013 - New leadership and development

    2013 began with a change of leadership at the Migration Observatory. Dr Martin Ruhs took up a position as university lecturer in political economy at Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education but remained on the Observatory’s project board, along with Professor Bridget Anderson, who had replaced Dr Sarah Spencer. Dr Scott Blinder succeeded Dr Ruhs as the Observatory’s director.

    By January 2013, UK media and policy debates about migration had begun to focus closely on the potential migration consequences of the end of transitional labour market controls on migrants from Romania and Bulgaria. These debates had prompted a demand for estimates of the number of people who would come to the UK from these countries when controls ended in 2014. Dr Blinder’s first public intervention as Director of the Observatory was to publish pieces in the Migration Observatory and the Guardian explaining why there was no statistically sound methodology to estimate the number of people who might come to the UK.

    However, it was a Migration Observatory briefing on the ethnic consequences of immigration undertaken by Oxford’s professor of demography, Professor David Coleman, that provided the Migration Observatory with its biggest media hit of the year. The report discussed the ethnic composition of the UK and the implications of migration for that over time.

    2013 also saw the completion of the Migration Observatory’s second external evaluation (Final report PDF) by independent consultants Firetail.

    Publication of the long awaited 2011 census provided a welcome new opportunity for regional analysis, undertaken throughout 2013. Overseen by Dr Carlos Vargas Silva, this was undertaken by a new team member, Anna Krausova. This project, which was supported by an ESRC Knowledge Exchange grant, provided clear data on the changes to the populations of regions and local areas of the UK that had resulted from migration between 2001 and 2011. In particular, a series of regional profiles illustrated the scale of population growth in specific communities, and the role of the changing size and composition of their migrant populations.

    The Migration Observatory also released a set of materials – funded by the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Future of the UK and Scotland programme – considering the implications of migration issues for the Scottish independence debate ahead of the referendum on independence.

    During 2013 the Observatory was asked to make written and verbal submissions to the Government’s Public Administration Select Committee and written submissions to the Home Affairs Select Committee.

    The year concluded with a new core funder – the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation – deciding to contribute support for the Migration Observatory’s work until the end of 2016. The year end also saw a further commentary on migration estimates from Romania and Bulgaria. This piece warned that it would be premature to reach even preliminary conclusions about the number of migrants coming to Britain from these countries until late May 2014 when official data will begin to appear.

  1. 2014 and beyond

    2014 began with the launch of a major report based on the first comprehensive survey of Scottish public opinion on immigration, which provided all sides in the Scottish independence debate with food for thought.

    The report uncovered important differences in opinion about immigration in Scotland to the rest of the UK – with Scots notably less supportive of reductions to immigration than residents in England. It also showed, however, that these differences are less profound than they are often characterised, and in particular that a majority of people in Scotland are supportive of reduced immigration. The report also showed that there is majority support for Holyrood rather than the UK government controlling immigration policy for Scotland.

    Further work expected over the year includes a new media monitoring report, the completion of the 2011 census project, with materials looking at Wales and Northern Ireland, and further evidence and analysis to inform debates relating to the Scottish independence referendum in September. Looking further forward, the growing salience of migration as an issue suggests that it is likely to be a key focus of public debate through 2015 and beyond. In line with its founding aims, the Migration Observatory will contribute independent expert analysis of the key issues in these debates, informed by authoritative evidence, without taking any partisan approach to the proposals of any parties to those debates.

    Since its launch on 30 March 2011, the Migration Observatory website has enjoyed steady yearly growth in traffic (with seasonal declines during summer and winter holiday periods), as well as continued growth in social media.

    The Migration Observatory has been successful at generating news coverage as well, receiving over 360 press mentions in the first three years of operation. The full range of British newspapers feature Migration Observatory research, from broadsheets to tabloids to local papers. Broadcast coverage has also been strong, with BBC radio coverage predominating. Our research is also frequently used by online bloggers and editorials, and occasionally features in news magazines and in international press worldwide.

    Finally, although press coverage has helped to raise the profile of the Migration Observatory, the most consistently popular content comes from our briefings, especially on topics of broad public interest. These briefings receive steady traffic each month, and continue to be cited in news reports.

Press Contact

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

Rob McNeil

+ 44 (0)7500 970081

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This Migration Observatory is kindly supported by the following organisations.

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