Net migration into the UK has become a very politicised topic. It is worth however looking dispassionately at the numbers over the past 50 years or so. The numbers are taken from the ONS and available here. They only run to 2015, so are a few years out of date. Immigration patterns have changed considerably since Brexit, in that the number of EU citizens coming to the UK had dropped significantly and the number of non EU citizens up sharply. Nevertheless the numbers are worth looking at as they show long term trends.
Net Migration of EU Citizens to and from the UK
I currently live in the North East of England and have fond memories of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet which tracked the adventures of a gang of Geordie workers in Germany. Emigration seemed to be a far greater problem than immigration in the ’80s.
At the time of writing the UK is still in the EU and this analysis amalgamates UK and EU citizens. Fig. 1 shows the flow of EU citizens (including UK citizens) in and out of the UK. Clearly for large parts of the time the flow was negative. It is only in the past few years where the net numbers are positive (apart from a few isolated years).
The net migration flows can be seen more clearly in Fig. 2. There are clearly far more years where emigration outweighs immigration. There are only brief periods of net immigration, most dramatically at the very end of the chart, peaking at 143k. The highest Emigration peak of over 100k in 1983 coincidences exactly with the first series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.
In Fig. 3 the running sum is plotted, that is the total number of EU citizens which have left the UK since 1975. Over this time period it is clear that far more EU citizens have left the UK rather than arrived, peaking at around 1.2M in the 2015-10 period.
Non EU Migration.
The Non EU migration figures again taken from the ONS site, paint a very different figure.
Fig. 4 shows the immigration and emigration figures. Unlike the EU figures immigration always exceeds emigration.
In Fig. 5 the net migration figures are shown. The plot has been drawn such that positive numbers indicate immigration. The peak year at around 270k was 2006.
The running sum is plotted in Fig. 6. Because of the monotonically positive nature of the figures the numbers add up and the total numbers since 1975 are a net inflow of 4.7M.
The question as to whether immigration is positive or negative is a political question. My own view is that immigration is overwhelmingly positive. However for those who see it as a problem, it is very clear that it is not EU citizens that are the issue, rather non-EU citizens. It is not the issue that some politicians including the PM seem to think it is.
Stopping freedom of movement is likely to reduce the number of EU citizens coming to the UK, indeed this is already visible in the data. It is likely also to reduce the number of UK citizens moving abroad. Should Brexit happen and there is a significant downturn in the UK economy the work options will be more limited that those in the 1980s and it will far more difficult to work in Germany for example.
The ONS data however does not include destination data and the split between EU and non-EU27 migration has not been analysed. Should new trade agreements be signed with countries outside the EU, they may include easier Freedom of Movement, opening opportunities with other countries. It is difficult however to see how that would compensate for the lack of FoM within the EU.