Columns

The UK’s immigration figures are a fantasy

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

Journalists filing to deadline are apt to dig only so deep when googling for statistics, which in themselves are sometimes derided as worse than damned lies. Thus we’re often suckers for ‘known facts’. Besides, if the UK’s Office for National Statistics doesn’t produce reliable data, where’s a poor scribbler to turn? Nevertheless, the current uptake of Britain’s offer of settlement status to resident EU citizens exposes even this upright organisation’s immigration statistics as, well, worse than damned lies.

Far more generous than the begrudging bureaucratic bramble of reciprocal packages on offer to Brits resident on the Continent post-Brexit, the UK’s settlement scheme for resident EU citizens had, by the end of May, received more than 5.6 million applications. The programme then had one month to go, so last-minute stragglers will likely push that number closer to six million, or fully 9 per cent of Britain’s population. What’s disconcerting? As of March last year, the ONS estimated the population of EU citizens living in the UK at 3.7 million.

It gets worse. That 3.7 million figure does not take account of the many EU residents who have fled the UK’s inhospitable shores during the pandemic. That 5.6 million figure does not include however many EU citizens living in Britain who — out of laziness, disinclination, uncertainty about their plans or ignorance of the process — are not applying for settlement.

Breakdowns of citizenships by country demonstrate the same pattern: twice as many Romanians and Bulgarians (1.2 million) have already had their settlement applications approved as the ONS thought resided in the country altogether. All in all, it’s likely that at least twice as many EU citizens have been living in Britain as the bean-counters imagined.


For reasons of shared history, religion (or lack of it) and levels of English fluency, the capacity of EU immigrants to gracefully assimilate into British culture is probably second only to that of immigrants from the Anglosphere (e.g. me, as it happens). Thus especially concerning is the doubt — if not outright disbelief — that the stunning inaccuracy of EU immigration estimates invites in relation to non-EU immigration. After all, covered by free movement laws until the end of the Brexit transition year and still enjoying a grace period, EU citizens in Britain have had no reason to hide in the bushes. Their presence is perfectly legal. By contrast, ‘irregular’ immigrants from elsewhere who’ve not dotted all the i’s for the Home Office are highly motivated to keep their heads down.

For the year ending March 2020, here are the official stats. In addition to only 58,000 more EU citizens who arrived than departed, 316,000 non-EU immigrants rocked up in Blighty, and that’s after subtracting those who left. Rather unusually, too, the UK prefers to quote its immigration figures as ‘net’. Thus the exodus of 61,000 British citizens (84,000 returned, 144,000 emigrated), including many retirees who have dumped the damp for sunnier climes, are subtracted from annual arrivals. The effect is to disguise the country’s degree of ethnic transformation. Effectively, those 61,000 departed Brits have been swapped for foreigners, but you won’t see that in last year’s ‘net inward migration’ of 313,000 that journalists and politicians customarily cite.

Even taking these figures at face value, the UK is adding another million people to its population about every three years. The vast majority of these visitors for life are non-European. Depending on your politics, that may or may not seem disquieting. But given that EU migration has been so underestimated that the numbers might as well have been made up, what is Britain’s real annual level of migration from the rest of the world? Even the stats we’re provided on the number of boat people fleeing the terrible tyranny of France for the glorious liberty of lockdown Britain are only the seafarers whom the Border Force has apprehended. No one counts the folks who land their dinghies, swipe a towel from a washing line and slip off into the countryside unnoticed. When the people-smugglers aren’t caught, no one counts the customers who are stuffed into lorries in Belgium, dissolve into family networks and pick up work under the table. Only the intrepid Migration Watch seems to be keeping track of the 90,000 people who annually overstay their UK visas, on top of the 250,000 ‘non-visa nationals’, from countries whose citizens aren’t required to have a visa, who fail to leave the country within the mandatory six months.

My purpose here is not to stir up xenophobic hysteria. After all, I’m a UK immigrant myself. Still, I have had it with the fake precision of numbers like that ‘313,000’ annual migration total. If the EU settlement scheme’s big reveal is any guide, the real number is at least twice that, meaning the population is actually rising by a million every 19 months. These fantasy figures matter for policies on transport, housing, water, energy, sewage and the NHS. In truth, no one knows how many people are living in the United Kingdom. Too many guests of the nation have a keen self-interest in not being counted.

This is purely anecdotal, but in my formerly white, working-class neighbourhood of south London, the proportion of Africans on the streets is high. In the 11 years we’ve lived there, that proportion has palpably risen. One inevitably puzzles over the aegis under which all these people from a different continent took up residence. One inevitably puzzles over whether the government has any idea how many newcomers we don’t recognise have been filtering through the revolving door of the council house next door. Staggeringly, even official figures estimate that closing on 40 per cent of the inhabitants of the nation’s capital were born in another country.

Mind, on the ‘lies, damned lies and immigration statistics’ front, the United States takes the biscuit. The improbably low stats routinely quoted in America are either naive or wilfully deceitful. But my homeland’s utter cluelessness about how many people have poured into the country illegally is so dumbfounding that we’ll reserve my astonishment for a Part II.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
Close