Background Information

The United Kingdom became a country of immigration after the Second World War following large-scale immigration from its former colonies. Labor shortages generated by Britain’s relative postwar affluence were filled by colonial workers who took advantage of privileged immigration channels created by the country's citizenship laws. [1]

Oxford Street in London: According to the 2011 census, "white" Londoners are now a minority: 54 percent of the capital’s population is composed of ethnic minorities; 37 percent of Londoners were born outside the country. (© picture alliance / Alan Copson/Robert Harding)

Until the mid-1960s, migration was a market-driven phenomenon sanctioned by an imperial citizenship regime. Migration patterns were largely stable from the early 1970s until the 1990s, with migration disproportionately made up of family reunification. From then, primary immigration—immigrants with no previous connection to the UK—began increasing. The migration balance, however, remained negative throughout most of the 1970s and 1980s, meaning that more people emigrated from the UK than immigrated into the country. Since 1994 this is no longer the case. Currently, the UK has over 175,000 net migrants per year. This rise has resulted in greatly increased saliency of immigration as a political issue, and there are some suggestions that it could realign the party system.


Background Information

United Kingdom

Capital: London, England
Languages: English, other recognized regional languages
Area: 242,900 km2 (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland)
Population (2012): 63,705,000
Population density: 262 inhabitants per km2
Population growth (2012): +0.7%
Foreign-born population as percentage of total population (2010): 12.9%
Population comprised of minority ethnic groups (2011): 14.0% (England and Wales)
Labour force participation rate (2012): 62.1%
Percentage of foreign-born employees amongst gainfully employed (2012): 13.6%
Unemployment rate: 7.8% (2010); 8.0% (2011); 7.9% (2012)
Religions (2011): Christianity (59.3%), Muslim (4.8%), Hindu (1.5%), Sikh (0.75%), other (4.3%), no religion (25.1%), not stated (7.2%)

Immigration – A Much Debated Issue

Peak periods of immigration in the postwar period have reliably occasioned public hostility, press hysteria, and party politicization of the issue, with polls continuing to place immigration at the top of Britons’ concerns.[2] Migrants are viewed as a problem for reasons being cited already for decades by opponents of immigration: immigrants are competitors for scarce jobs, housing, and social services, and they threaten to alter communities’ character against the will of their inhabitants. To these familiar complaints, critics of immigration have added some fresh concerns: first, that immigration undermines social solidarity and thus the welfare state; second, that older generations of immigrants and, above all, their children are failing to identify sufficiently with Britain and British values; and, third, that unskilled migration pushes down wages and limits opportunities for Britain’s poorest citizens. At the same time, the United Kingdom has Europe’s most elaborate legislative and policy framework combating racial discrimination; moreover, the government, public bodies, and the media take formal and informal measures to ensure representation of visible minorities.

Events since the mid-1990s have undermined confidence both in the ability of the country to integrate visible minorities/migrants and in the efficacy of multicultural policies in doing so. In 2001, gangs of Asian and white youth fought in England’s northern cities; in July 2005, four suicide bombers who were British Muslims attacked London and four others tried; and, in October 2005, riots broke out between members of Birmingham’s black and Asian communities. In the late 2000s, the main focus of controversy, and of anti-migration sentiment, has for the first time since the very early postwar years been European migration: EU citizens from Eastern Europe (chiefly Poles) who came to the UK following the 2004 enlargement of the EU.

Transformations Since the Mid-1990s

Applications for asylum under the 1951 UN convention skyrocketed in the late 1990s, increasing from an average of 35,000 per year from 1991 to 1998, and peaking at 84,132 (only claims of main applicants) in 2002. Restrictive measures have contributed to a sharp, steady decline since 2002, with only 19,865 asylum applications made in 2011. There has been a slight rise since then, with 21,843 asylum applications made in 2012 and 23,507 in 2013. Also in the mid-1990s, skilled migration began increasing, and by 2002 the UK was issuing record numbers of work permits. And, since 2004, a sharp increase in immigration has followed from the granting of labor market rights to A8 (2004 EU accession countries minus Malta and Cyprus) nationals.

Despite promises by the Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition government formed following the 2010 general election to reduce net migration, it remains high: 175,000 in 2012, rising to 243,000 in 2013.[3] These new arrivals come at a time when the UK has not fully coped with the challenges thrown up by earlier waves in postwar migration. This profile reviews that history, briefly touches on the UK’s approach to integration, and examines the current, highly contentious, politics of immigration in the UK.

This text is part of the country profile United Kingdom.
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Hansen (2000).
Ipsos MORI (2007).
Office for National Statistics (2014).

Randall Hansen

About the author

Randall Hansen

Dr. Randall Hansen is Full Professor at the Canada Research Chair in Immigration and Governance, and Director of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. r.hansen@utoronto.ca

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