How migration to the UK has affected the country’s population

By Amer Zaman

on December 8, 2022

Read Time: 7 Minutes

Migration has played a profound part in the story of the UK, and this much is borne out in the statistics. As of the year ending June 2021, people born outside of the UK were estimated to account for around 14.5% of the country’s population – the equivalent of approximately 9.6 million people.

Debates about migration to the UK – and its impact – seem be as standard a part of British culture as references to the weather. But what is the reality about migration to our shores, and what does that reality tell us about this proud nation?  

Immigration has been an ever-greater influence on UK population statistics

Whatever the myths about migration to the UK, at least one thing is very clear from the data: it has been an increasingly prominent driver of the growth in UK population numbers since the 1990s.

As outlined by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there are four components to population change: births, deaths, immigration, and emigration. Births and immigration serve to drive up population figures, whereas deaths and emigration push them down.

Until the 1990s, the principal driver of UK population growth was “natural change”, this term referring to the difference between the numbers of live births and deaths. For example, in 2020 – a year defined by the COVID-19 crisis – the UK’s combination of 681,560 live births and 689,629 deaths gave it a natural change figure of negative 8,069. This was reflected in that year’s age-standardised mortality rate – a measure that takes into account changes in a population’s size and age structure over time – being 1,062.5, which was the highest since 2008.

From the ‘90s onwards, however, net migration has gradually become the main source of UK population growth. The UK’s foreign-born population was approximately 5.3 million in 2004, but this had reached more than 9.5 million by 2021. This drove up the share of foreign-born people in the UK population from 9% in 2004 to 14% in 2021. Although there has long been a perception that the UK’s European Union (EU) membership – until Brexit occurred in 2020 – played a major role in immigration-fuelled population growth, and the numbers of EU migrants did indeed go up at a faster rate than those of non-EU migrants for most of the 2000s and 2010s, most of the foreign-born UK population are actually from outside the EU. As of 2021, it was estimated that only about 36% of migrants were born in the EU.

How has migration to the UK changed since Brexit?

It has been widely thought that much of the motivation for many people’s votes for the UK to leave the European Union (EU) in the 2016 referendum centred on a wish to lower levels of migration to the UK.

However, while ONS data indicates that there has been a 72% drop in European migration to the UK since the referendum, this has been counteracted by the 95% increase in non-EU immigration during the same timeframe.

The task of determining how Brexit has impacted migration to the UK is complicated by the UK’s departure from the EU having coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. In the year ending December 2020, for instance, modelled estimates indicate that about 33,000 more people moved to the UK than left the country, which was a significant drop from prior years – the year ending March 2015, for example, having seen levels reach a peak of 331,000.

Those numbers, however, are thought to have been greatly impacted by the severe restrictions on international travel during that time due to COVID-19 rules. Furthermore, changes in methodology mean the latest estimates are not directly comparable to those from before the coronavirus outbreak. With the ending of EU free movement rules on 1st January 2021, the UK adopted a new ‘points-based’ immigration system. The House of Commons Library said in September 2022 that there was not yet enough data available to judge with confidence how this change has affected the numbers of people migrating to the UK. It pointed out that COVID-19 related disruption meant there had been little time to observe the impact of the new system in “normal”, non-pandemic conditions.

What role is migration expected to play in future UK population growth?

As of the middle of 2020, the UK population was estimated to be 67.1 million – an increase of approximately 284,000, or 0.4%, since mid-2019. ONS projections indicate that the UK population could reach approximately 70 million to 75 million by 2043.

Whether the ultimate figure lies closer to the lower or higher end of that range will be largely due to net migration trends over the coming years. The principal ONS projection assumes that net migration will level off at about 190,000 a year, which would bring the UK population from 66.4 million in 2018 to 72.4 million in 2043 – an 8% increase.

It is expected that in the years immediately ahead, net migration will account for most population growth in the UK. Indeed, the ONS’s 2018-based population projections indicate that the UK population would barely change in a scenario in which there was no net migration at all, going from 2018’s 66.4 million figure to 66.3 million in 2043.

In reality, it is anticipated that positive net migration will occur, which will have the effect of pushing up overall UK population numbers. Indeed, in the ONS’s principal projection, the cumulative net inflow of migrants post-2018 will make up 73% of total population growth by 2028, and 84% by 2043. This is before the indirect impact that future migration has on births and deaths is considered. When this is factored into the calculation, the total contribution that migration is expected to make to total population growth – direct as well as indirect – goes up slightly, to 79% by 2028 and 86% by 2043.

How has the UK benefitted from immigration?

The changes in the UK’s immigration system post-Brexit – and the impacts these have had – have helped shine a light once again on the many positive contributions migrants make to the UK. These have included, but have by no means been restricted to, their part in the UK’s economic and cultural success story.

Much of the conversation about migration in 2022, for instance, has centred on many employers’ difficulties attempting to find suitably qualified candidates for their vacancies, amid reports of the UK now having more jobs than there are workers to fill them.

Although the UK’s immigration system since leaving the EU has helped make it easier for many non-EU nationals to move to and work in the UK – salary thresholds and skills requirements having been reduced for work visas – there has been a sharp decline in the EU migrant workforce in industries, such as agriculture and hospitality, that previously relied heavily on the EU’s freedom of movement rules. The UK hospitality sector, for instance, has seen a 25% fall in EU workers.

With regard to the economic impacts of migration to the UK, recent Government data indicates that nationals from the European Economic Area (EEA) – which includes member states of both the EU and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) – pay more in income taxes and National Insurance contributions (NICs) than they receive in tax credits and child benefit. The net contribution to the UK tax and benefits system by individuals with citizenship of EEA states or Switzerland was £22.4 billion, as of 2018/19.  

In addition, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has forecast that higher net migration helps reduce the pressure on government debt over time. It is thought that this is largely because incoming migrants are likelier to be of working age than the population in general, and therefore likelier to be working and contributing to the UK’s public finances.

But as we stated above, the positive contribution that migrants make to the UK is not limited to the economic one, or even to the role they play in public services, such as staffing for the National Health Service (NHS). That’s because migrants have also largely shaped the broader cultural story of the UK, and will continue to do so for generations to come.

How can our specialists in immigration law help you move to the UK?

Here at Cranbrook Legal in central London, we have a team of professional and friendly experts in immigration law, who can assist you with your personal or business-related immigration needs, including in relation to any proposed relocation to the UK.

We are accustomed to catering to a wide range of immigration-related circumstances and needs, including project-managing applications for visas, sponsor licences, and indefinite leave to remain status – even British citizenship. Even more importantly, we have an excellent success rate across all these categories, and can provide our service for a pre-agreed fixed fee to help you budget.

If you believe our credentials and experience could help you secure your desired immigration status in the UK, please do not wait any longer to arrange your free consultation with us; you can do so by calling 0208 215 0053, or by completing and submitting our straightforward online contact form.

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