Emigration and immigration

Emigration from the UK

As a nation of seafarers and adventurers the UK has a history of emigration from the time of the Tudors and Stuarts. Emigrating to the new colonies in the Americas and elsewhere became part of British life. People left seeking new opportunities, hoping to make a fortune, fleeing religious persecution. Even today more British people live abroad than other nationalities.

From the 17th century there were child emigration schemes, sending thousands of children to British colonies. This movement was particularly strong in the last part of the 19th century when the large numbers of pauper children put a strain on the Poor Law.
In 1940, under the threat of bombardment in WW2, about 14,000 children were evacuated, privately or via the Children’s Overseas Reception Board, to Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand. Evacuation stopped in September 1940 when a ship carrying children was torpedoed.

In the last half of the 19th century and up to the start of WW1 millions of British citizens left, mainly to North America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

In the 1950s and 1960s people left in great numbers for Australia – the ‘£10 Poms’ – attracted by subsidised travel and settlement to leave austerity Britain.

From the 1960s to 1980s the UK lost more people to emigration than it gained from immigration. A strong pound and rising house prices encouraged people to buy property abroad. Favoured destinations were Australia, New Zealand, USA, Spain, France. Through the 1990s and into the 21st century British people continued to move to work or retire in the EU, though the economic crisis since 2008 has seen fewer people retire there.

Freedom to study, work, reside in other member states is one of the key tenets of the EU. Relatively few UK citizens study in other EU countries but many work and live there. It is estimated that 2.2 million UK citizens live and work in other EU member states of whom over one million are in Spain and 400,000 claim the UK state pension.

In 2014, figures covering 2010 were put forward in response to a parliamentary question in the House of Lords. Compared to the 2.3 million EU citizens in the UK, including people who came from Poland and nine other member states joined the EU in 2004, British consular authorities estimate that 2.2 million Britains live in the other 26 member states, excluding Croatia that joined in 2013.  

Of the 2.2 million one million are in Spain and 400,000 claim the UK state pension.

Immigration to the UK

Because we are an island nation there was relatively little immigration into Britain from the period of the Norman Conquest (1066) until the mid 20th century.

Flemings came in small numbers to work in the textile industry in the Middle Ages.
Huguenots emigrated from France in two waves; in 1572 following the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris and from 1685 following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. By 1700 around 50,000 had settled in England, about 1% of a population of five to six million.
Around 50 000 European Jews arrived in the 19th century, joining a population of about 30 million.
In the 1930s about 70,000 refugees from Nazi Germany were admitted.
Many East Europeans settled in the UK after WW2 rather than live under Russian occupation, notably Poles, and thousands of displaced people found work here.
Until the 1950s the most substantial immigration came from Ireland.
In 1956, the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution saw nearly 21,000 Hungarians arrive.


Migration from the Commonwealth

Immigration from the Commonwealth effectively began in the 1950s. There were no immigration controls for Commonwealth citizens and they arrived as economic migrants, filling gaps in the UK labour market for largely unskilled labour. The majority came from the Indian sub-continent, following Partition in 1947, and from the Caribbean.
Flows increased:     3,000 p.a. in 1953
    46,800 p.a. in 1956
  136,400 p.a. in 1961
Since 1963 the settlement of Commonwealth immigrants is estimated at 2.5 million.
Until the 1980s the effect on the total population was counterbalanced by the emigration of British citizens.

This increasing flow of immigrants led to some racial tensions and the start of restrictions in a series of Commonwealth Immigration Acts:
    1962 – requirement to have a work voucher
    1968 – tighter controls and definitions
    1971 – work vouchers replaced by work permits

In 1967 Asians from Kenya and Uganda who had retained British citizenship after these former colonies gained independence began to arrive in the UK.
In 1972 Asians were expelled from Uganda by President Idi Amin and 27,000 were permitted to settle in the UK under the terms of the Uganda Resettlement Board.

Migration from the EU

2004 saw the next significant increase in migration with the accession to the EU of the A8 countries.(Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania)

Average annual inflow of EU citizens  1997 – 2003:   67 000
  2004 – 2010: 170 000  (peak in 2007)
In 2004 – 2010 the total net migration from A8 citizens was 353,000.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) in 2011 gives 2.34 million EU citizens living in the UK of whom about 683,000 came from the 10 countries that joined in 2004. The high numbers from 2004 were unexpected . There was no model to go on and the previous EU enlargement when Spain and Portugal joined in 1986 created no significant migration. Also most existing EU member states, except Ireland and Sweden, restricted access to their labour markets.

2019 update. Net migration of EU citizens to the UK has fallen to its lowest level since 2003. This is largely due to a sharp decline in the number coming to the UK to work, continuing the trend since the 2016 referendum. Net migration fell to 48,000 from 74,000 in the previous year.The peak was 218,000 in 2015. Source: Office of National Statistics.

See Briefings: For independent, evidence-based analysis of data on UK migration refer to the Migration Observatory.

Net migration

Figures from the ONS show that net migration to the UK in the year to June 2019 stood at 212,000, the same by chance as in the year to September 2013. There were 609,000 arriving and 397,000 emigrating. For the year to June 2021 the ONS estimated net migration at about 239,000. The rise reflected arrivals from the Ukraine and a surge in overseas recruitment by the NHS.

In the future migration levels may be affected by reforms to boost high-skilled immigration by cutting visa fees and associated red tape.


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UK migration - a historical perspective