Number of East European expats in UK could be seriously underestimated

by Ray Clancy on April 28, 2016

It is well known that the UK is popular with expats from other European countries, especially Poland and Romania but new research suggest even more have migrated than previously thought.

Indeed, net migration from the EU may have been significantly undercounted and could be 50,000 a year more than published figures, according to a new analysis from independent think tank Migration Watch.

The research was prompted by the large and continuing discrepancy between the number of National Insurance Numbers (NINOs) issued to Eastern Europeans and the official immigration figures.


A NINO is required to work legally in the UK or to draw benefits. Acquiring a NINO involves a visit to a job centre and a short interview so there is no doubt that the applicants have arrived in Britain.

The report points out that if they stay for a year or more they count as immigrants. Some will depart after only a few months but, even allowing for such short term visits, there is still a large unexplained gap and this suggests that there has been an undercount in the official immigration figures.

The analysis then compares the increase in the official figures for the population of migrants born in Eastern Europe and living in the UK with the official immigration figures. It found that, over the last five years, this population increased by 50,000 a year more than the net migration figures. There could also be higher immigration from Romania and Bulgaria.

If EU net migration is indeed 50,000 higher than the official figures it would bring it to 220,000 and make it the largest source of migration to the UK.

Meanwhile, a separate report suggests that it is not possible to estimate the economic impact if the UK votes to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum in June. A new analysis from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford says that confident predictions about the economic effects of migration after Brexit should be treated with caution.

The fundamental question of what treaty agreements or migration policies would follow Brexit will not be resolved before the referendum, preventing any clarity about how EU migration flows would be affected by a vote to leave.

While EU exit could mean tighter controls on the migration of EU citizens, some non-EU countries such as Norway and Switzerland have implemented free movement in return for access to the EUís single market, it points out.

“Some Brexit scenarios involve much tighter immigration policies for EU citizens, while other scenarios would bring no change to immigration policies at all. It’s not possible to resolve this question before the referendum, since post-Brexit policies would depend not just on the UK government’s decisions, but also on potentially lengthy negotiations with the EU,” said senior researcher Carlos Vargas-Silva.

“Even if Brexit ushered in new policies that significantly reduced EU migration to the UK, the economic impacts of this reduction would remain uncertain. The new commentary notes that previous analysis of the impacts of EU migration suggest that the economic impacts have been small on average, but unevenly spread across industries,” he explained.

The report also points out that reliance on EU migrant workers has grown in certain parts of the UK economy, notably in the accommodation and food service industry and in occupations like cleaning and food processing. “How employers in these fields might respond to tighter immigration policies would depend on their circumstances, such as the ease with which they could mechanise the work or pass on higher costs to consumers,” said Vargas-Silva.

“While the overall economic impacts of potential reductions in EU migration are likely to be relatively small, ending free movement would be more disruptive in some industries than in others. Some businesses now rely heavily on EU migrant workers, and it’s difficult to predict how they would adjust to a scenario of lower EU migration,” he added.

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