Net Migration to and from the UK

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 They only run to 2015, so are a few years out of date.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).

Fig.1 Flow of EU Citizens in and out of the UK


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.

Fig 2. Emigration figures of EU citizens from the UK.


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.

Fig 3. Running sum of migration of EU citizens from the UK
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.

Fig. 4 Flows of Non EU citizens to and from the UK.


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.

Fig 5. Immigration of non EU citizens.


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.

Fig. 6 Running sum of non EU Immigrants.



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.


  1. Donald Manchester -

    Good article. And the positive view of EU immigration was reflecting in the referendum capmpaigning and result. Around half the leave campaigners used Switzerland ( which has FoM ) in their arguments to win debates on the benefits of not being an EU member. These included Leadsom, Hannan, the Durkin movie and even Nigel Farage. So if this is reflective of the population then in round numbers you’d expect 48% plus half other 52% to be relaxed about keeping FoM for a total of 74% favourable.
    It shows how out of touch the Conservative PM is and also the writers of the 2017 Labour manifesto in wanting to abolish it.
    Since then we’ve had the 2 child rule, and the end of the first year benefits advantage to EU work+benefit claimants coming here from lower income countries. I think the public are even more relaxed now as it’s harder to come here to take the mick out of the welfare system.
    Let’s keep it.

  2. Charles Adams -

    Immigration is definitely a net positive. The issue is that the gains are not shared fairly. The wealthy benefit disproportionately. My view would be to create policy where those on below median income benefit more on a percentage basis.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Agree completely. There is a perception that immigration is fundamentally to blame for a host of issues which are actually caused by Austerity agenda in the UK a standard divide and conquer right-wing strategy.

      The movement of wealth to the top 5% or even 0.1% has been a disgrace.

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