What You Never Knew About U.K. Immigration

Few issues fire Britons up more than immigration. What are the facts?

Passport control at Gatwick Airport

Border Force check the passports of passengers arriving at Gatwick Airport near London.

Photographer: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Immigration is big news in the U.K. At the moment, the country's focus is on thousands of would-be migrants struggling to enter from France. And in national elections last May, the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party scored the third-most votes behind the winning Conservatives and its main challenger, Labour.

Prime Minister David Cameron is working to reduce immigration and social benefits to migrants ahead of a 2017 referendum on whether to stay in the European Union. “You can go round factories in the country where half of the people in the factory have come from Poland, Lithuania or Latvia,” he said in October 2013. “You can’t blame them. They have got to work hard.”

He’s touching a chord: More than half the British public wants large reductions in immigration. But what are the facts?  

The foreign-born make up almost 16 percent of the labor force of 31 million.

Of the foreign workers, 60 percent were born outside the EU. Sixteen percent are from western Europe and 15 percent are from eastern Europe. The two poorest EU countries, Romania and Bulgaria, accounted for 3.8 percent of workers.

In fact, the British public overestimates the share of immigrants in the population: Respondents to a poll by Ipsos MORI earlier this year guessed it was 21 percent. The actual figure is 13 percent, according to the U.K. Office of National Statistics. 

Who They Are, Where They Go

Immigration has risen significantly in the last 20 years, spiking most recently after a decade of stability.

The U.K. isn’t the largest EU port of call for migrants.

And despite all the talk about “Polish plumbers” and UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s call to leave the EU to “regain control” over the country’s borders, most people vying to settle in Britain come from outside the trading bloc.  The top two arriving nationalities are Chinese and Indian. 

What They Do

Foreign arrivals come mostly to work or study and about two-thirds of those moving for employment already have job offers when they arrive, even as politicians decry “benefit tourism.” In researcher NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey, taken in 2013 and published in June 2014, 24 percent of respondents said they believed welfare was the most common motive for migration when that was listed as one of the choices. 

While legal foreign residents are eligible for social welfare, 93 percent of the 5.3 million people claiming aid, such as jobseekers’ allowance and disability benefits, have British nationality.

Three EU nationalities are among the top 10 benefit claimants of foreign birth.

How They’re Perceived 

Seventy-six percent of Romanians and Bulgarians who arrived in the U.K. last year came for work. That compares with 61 percent of people from the original 15 EU members and 67 percent of people from the eight eastern European countries that joined the bloc in 2004. 

Popular perceptions are different:  In a report analyzing language used by 19 British national newspapers in the two years preceding the lifting of a seven-year ban on employment, Oxford University’s Migration Observatory said that words used to describe Romanians frequently evoked crime and anti-social behavior, especially in the tabloid press. 

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