Looking at those immigration stats beyond the hysteria

Migrants Rights Networks' Ruth Grove-White reports on what the latest immigration stats do and don't tell us about the diversity of Britain.

Ridley Market

Ruth Grove-White is a policy officer at the Migrants’ Rights Network

Yesterday’s release of statistics about Britain’s ethnic diversity have provoked yet more bellowing about “the changing face of Britain”. But these soundbites are a cheap distraction from the real story – that immigration policy should be looking to respond better to the vast differences in immigration patterns across the UK in recent years.

The latest statistics from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) give a detailed ethnic picture of the populations of England and Wales, broken down according to the 423 local authorities in these countries.

The headline findings relate to the national picture of ethnic diversity. Overall, these figures show an increase in the non ‘White British’ population of England and Wales, from 6.6 million in 2001 to 9.1m in 2009. Most significant growth has been seen in the ‘other White’ category – including both European nationals and people from the US, Australia, and other Commonwealth countries, and in the black African and mixed race groups.

All this should come as no surprise: these figures are reflective of well-known immigration patterns over the past decade, and are likely to be similar to patterns in many other comparable democracies.

However, the latest stats have led MigrationWatch UK to repeat well-rehearsed fears about the ‘changing face’ of Britain due to immigration, and to predict soaring population growth likely to hit 70 million within twenty years.

This sort of scaremongering is too easily trotted out, and adds little value to debate. Such predictions of national population growth are based on patterns over the past decade which has seen an unusual spike in immigration given the admittance of ten new members into European Union – an event unlikely to be repeated any time soon. Forecasts like this should therefore be treated with real caution.

Instead the real story to be told from the ONS findings is, as ever, more complex. These figures tell an important story about developments in local and regional populations across England and Wales. Some of what emerges here is unsurprising. Ethnic diversity is, as it always has been, concentrated in urban centres across the UK, with London, Leicester and Bradford showing well-documented concentrations of ethnic minority populations.

In contrast, over half of the local authorities surveyed – in particular rural areas – still have populations of over 90 per cent white Brits. This shows us that the ‘face of Britain’ (whatever on earth that is) is in fact not subject to major changes across much of England and Wales.

But there have been changes since 2001, which deserve closer examination. These statistics show particular developments in patterns of internal migration, likely to be related to job opportunities and the relative cost of living in different areas across the UK. These figures show that over 600,000 non-‘White Brits’ have, since 2001, moved out of London to go elsewhere across the country. Significant increases in this group are recorded in regions such as the South West, North East and East of England, probably in relation to the availability of casual work in factories and farms in these areas in recent years.

All this shows the value of better understanding the economic and social drivers of internal and international movements, so that we can better anticipate and respond to them. Figures from Scotland and Northern Ireland would also be useful – Scotland in particular is open about its need for more migrants to balance out an ageing population. In general, we might expect a more regional approach to immigration to gain purchase in the coming period, as arguments for policies which respond to local needs and pressures rather than a national ‘one size fits all’ approach are developed.

In this context, the latest offering from the ONS should be used to move away from a generalised national narrative about immigration, to a more nuanced – and accurate – response to migration across the country.

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