The topic of immigration to the UK is emotive and opinion can be sharply divided on whether immigrants contribute to society and the economy or damage the British way of life. The media often depicts the UK as a country almost overwhelmed by immigration, the effect of which may be particularly powerfully felt by a small island nation in which resources already seem to be overstretched.
It is true that the UK remains a popular destination for people from all over the world – as a tourist destination, a place to study, a refuge from persecution or simply a good place to start a new life. For hundreds and, indeed, thousands of years people have come from around the world to make Britain their home.
Since the latter part of the 20th Century the issue of immigration has become more and more contentious, with growing concerns that the indigenous population is somehow being put at a disadvantage because of the number of immigrants.
Recent Trends in Immigration
Between 1951 and 2001 the number of foreign-born UK residents has risen from 2.1 million to 4.9 million. In 1951 foreign born residents formed 4.2% of the population whereas by 2001 they constituted 8.3% of the population. The decade with the largest single increase in foreign-born residents was that from 1991 to 2001 when the figure went up by over 1 million.
It will be interesting to see whether the new stricter immigration rules which started to come into force in 2008 have a significant impact on the numbers of new immigrants in the decade leading up to 2011.
The Impact of the European Union
Under European law most EU residents have the same rights to live and work in the UK as British citizens. Indeed, most foreign-born UK residents come from Europe. However, the proportion of foreign born residents coming from European countries has been dropping in recent years. In 2001 33% of foreign-born residents came from Europe, a substantial drop since 1971 when 51% came from countries in the EU.
Immigration in an Economic Downturn
It has recently been revealed by the Office of National Statistics that the final quarter of 2008 saw a drop from 53,000, in the previous year, to 29,000 in the number of Eastern Europeans applying to work in the UK.
Immigrants from Poland in particular, as well as those from other countries who joined the European Union in 2004, have had a noticeable demographic impact on some areas of the UK. The stereotype of the supposedly ubiquitous Polish plumber is now well established. However, the number of Eastern Europeans registering to work in the UK is now lower than at any time since their countries joined the European Union.
Research suggests that the vast majority of Eastern Europeans who come to work in the UK are aged between 18 and 34 and that only 11% of those bring dependent family members with them. The plan for many of these workers may always have been to spend just a few years working in the UK before returning home to settle down. It is likely that, for some, the decision to return home may be brought forward at a time of economic decline.
Foreign Workers in the UK
Official statistics reveal that UK employment fell in the twelve months leading up to the final quarter of 2008. This is reflected in a corresponding fall in employment for those born in the UK. However, over the same period the numbers of those employed who were not born in the UK actually went up by 214,000.
These figures would, no doubt, seem to confirm the views of some sectors of society that foreign workers are coming to the UK to take jobs from British workers. However, the total employment figures show that during this time 25.6 million individuals born in the UK were in employment as opposed to 3.8 million non-UK born workers. When comparing the figures for UK nationals and non-UK nationals these show that 27 million UK nationals and 2.4 million non-UK nationals were employed over this period. This suggests that a little over 12% of the UK workforce is currently made up of foreign nationals.