UK Official Net Migration Numbers – “little better than a guess”

29th August 2018 / United Kingdom
Official Net Migration Numbers - "little better than a best guess"

By TruePublica: Much has been made recently about EU net migration, which has supposedly hit a four or five-year low, depending on what you read, as more European citizens leave the UK and fewer arrive in the wake of the vote for Brexit. But was Brexit about EU migration or illegal immigration – either way, we all rely on the facts to make informed decisions and so those ‘facts’ need to be reliable.


The Office for National Statistics (ONS) provides the numbers on net migration and is the only source of information available.

For instance, the ONS released data that was quoted by every mainstream newspaper that said – “estimated net long-term migration to the UK from the EU was 101,000 in 2017, which is the lowest level since the year ending March 2013.”

Note the word ‘estimated.’ This would infer that the numbers are fundamentally right but there’s a small margin of error.

The numbers are taken from a survey and then broken down. For the purposes of this article, we’ll look closely at overall net migration calculations, not just those from the EU.

From the House of Commons Library comes some more detailed information.

Many will be familiar with the idea of ‘net migration targets’ and bids to ‘reduce net migration to the tens of thousands’. But fewer people know that the UK’s official net migration figures are estimates based primarily on an annual survey of just 3,000 people and come with a large margin of uncertainty attached.

The UK’s official net migration figures are estimates based on a continuous survey of people travelling through UK air, rail, and seaports. Originally designed to simply collect information on passengers’ journeys, this survey is now our primary means of estimating the flow of migrants in and out of the country.


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A dodgy survey, not border information

The International Passenger Survey (IPS) is a rolling survey of passengers entering and leaving the UK. It takes a sample of people passing across the UK border and uses the information collected on them to estimate the UK’s official immigration, emigration, and net migration figures.

The IPS, which began in 1961, was originally designed to capture information about tourism and business travel. It takes a sample of all passengers passing through, so it picks up far more tourists than long-term migrants.

In fact, the survey samples ‘around 800,000’ passengers per year, of which around 3,000 (0.4%) are identified as long-term migrants.

Someone responding to the IPS is counted as a ‘long-term immigrant’ if they are intending to stay in the UK for one year or more and vice versa for long-term emigrants.

In 2017, net migration was estimated at 282,000 with statisticians 95% confident that the estimate is correct  -/+47,000. This means that if the assumptions on which the data are collected and analysed hold, it is highly likely that the ‘true’ net figure is between 235,000 and 329,000.

These estimates come with uncertainty because the survey sample (3,000 people) is small compared to the population of migrants (630,000 arriving and 350,000 leaving).

Forty years ago each migrant arriving in the UK represented 71 migrants arriving in the UK for the purposes of the survey. Today, that same migrants now represents 293 migrants.


Just a guess

As if these calculations were not ringing a few bells already, they will now.

The ONS also adds in the number of asylum seekers and refugees (who usually do not pass through the arrivals terminal) and uses Home Office data (which we are unable to scrutinise) to estimate how many people extend or switch their visa once already in the UK.

A 2013 report by the Public Administration Select Committee called it, “little better than a best guess” and the chair claimed that:

“If you try to work out, say, how many Egyptians or Syrians came to the UK last year, any numbers are virtually meaningless.” It is true that because the sample size is so small, IPS estimates of migration by nationality and migration are very imprecise.

Even the ONS acknowledges that the IPS has been “stretched beyond its purpose” and is currently working on ways of combining its data with Home Office data on visas and border checks. How accurate that will be is anyone’s guess – literally.


Feeding the nation

Then there’s something else that would give rise to suspicion that successive governments have either been lying to the general public about immigration numbers for years or deliberately omits or hides the truth by way of not fixing a broken system of calculation.

In our recent report – The Truth About Britain’s Migrant Numbers, we wrote:

In 2007/8 the British public was told by government officials that the population of the UK was about 61 million. That figure is not supported by the corporations who were feeding the nation who quite clearly stated the population was then somewhere between 77 and 80 million.

We also ended that report with: “The public is lied to (by government) about inflation and unemployment and all sorts of other measures of the nation’s wealth and prosperity – why did you think they would be telling the truth about their abilities to control its own borders either now or in the future?”


Some Source Information:

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Migration Statistics – House of Commons Library



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