Census sensationalism: Latest population data cues more media panic about immigration

Jill Rutter reports on the latest release of Census 2011 data - and the latest media panic about immigration.

Jill Rutter writes on migration issues and formerly worked at the Refugee Council and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

Today saw a further release of 2011 census data (pdf) and, as with the previous releases, media coverage focused on international migration.

While the data was unsurprising and tallied with recent migration estimates from the Annual Population Survey (pdf), the BBC and much other media ran with an immigration story; equally interesting and important census data, for example, on religious affiliation and on the numbers of adults offering unpaid care, was forgotten in another panic about immigration.

The census release showed the overall population of England and Wales stood at 56.1 million in 2011; it was 52 million at census day in 2001. An estimated 55 per cent of this increase has been due to international migration, the rest due to increased longevity and a small increase in the birth rate.

The migration data from Census 2011 showed 13.3 per cent of the population of England and Wales had been born abroad, with just over 50 per cent of those born overseas having arrived in England and Wales since 2001. India, Poland, Pakistan, Ireland and Germany are the top five countries of birth for the overseas born population, although the size of the Ireland-born population has decreased since the 2001 census.

The new census data also gives local authority breakdowns (pdf) of the proportions of their populations born overseas.

As Map 1 shows, London local authorities are those with the highest proportions of overseas-born populations, with 36.7 per cent of resident Londoners being born overseas

…the former coalfield areas and many deprived urban local authorities in the north east and Liverpool, meanwhile, tend to have the lowest proportions of the overseas-born, with Blaenau Gwent in south Wales the lowest at 2.2 per cent of the total population.

Census data, based on the total population, is used to reconfigure future population projections. The later data is then used to calculate mid-year population estimates until the next census, figures which are then used to calculate the amount of much non-targeted revenue funding for local authorities, the police and many other public services.

In the last ten years, particularly after the arrival of new migrants from eastern Europe, there was a great deal of criticism of the Office for National Statistics for the methodology it used to calculate mid-year population estimates, with some local authorities arguing ONS under-counted migrants, thus depriving them of revenue funding.

However, Census 2011 shows that outside London there is generally a good match between census data and mid-year population estimates. The view that local authorities are being under-paid as a result of large-scale population enumeration is not borne out in the statistics.

Census 2011 also shows local authorities are becoming more super-diverse, with many more migrant groups represented in local populations. In the past, the UK’s migrant populations comprised a small number of large groups, predominately from the UK’s former colonies in south Asia and the Caribbean.

Today, many parts of urban Britain manifest super-diversity where many different nationalities and ethnic groups live side-by-side and also differ in relation to their length of residence in the UK; qualifications; skills; and needs. Super-diversity demands much more knowledge by those who work with migrants in schools and colleges and other public services and requires different approaches to integration.

Super-diversity can also make it difficult to pick up on patterns of inequality, as the ethnicity categories used to monitor patterns of inequality are too broad to pick up on differences. For example, the category ‘Black African’ aggregates English-speaking Nigerians, who usually come to the UK to work, with Somalis, who have mostly arrived in the UK as refugees. We need new ways of picking up on patterns of inequality, perhaps using the extended ethnicity codes used by some schools.

But perhaps the most important issue raised by today’s release was that Census 2011 confirms global migration trends. Almost all western European countries have seen increased immigration over the last 15 years. Globally, too, more people are on the move – to work and to study – and migrants tend to gravitate to growing economies.

Whatever policy changes this government introduces, immigration into the UK is likely to remain at its present levels in the foreseeable future. We need to learn to accept this; in this modern globalised world migration is the norm not the exception.

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