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The RGS-IBG convened a Policy Forum event addressing questions around how the UK may adjust to high net migration and ensure the best possible outcomes for the UK’s economy, society and for migrants.



Net migration (the difference between emigration and immigration) in the UK reached 336,000 in the year ending June 2015; at the time, the highest estimate of net migration in any 12 month period (16,000 more than the previous highest estimate in June 2005). Net migration at this point exceeded 100,000 a year every year since 1998. In 2014, 13% of those migrating to the UK were British Nationals, 32% were nationals of other EU countries and 45% were non-EU nationals. Work and study were given most frequently as the reason for migrants’ entry. Alongside these longer-term trends, more than 487,000 migrants, a mixed flow of migrants and refugees, have arrived at Europe’s Mediterranean shores since January 2015, the highest number since record-keeping began.

Understanding the dynamics of migration, migrants’ origins and experiences could help policymakers respond appropriately to increasing international migration.



The RGS-IBG convened a Policy Forum event as part of the 21st Century Challenges series, in which expert panellists discussed approaches to this policy challenge. The discussion was focused around three key questions:

  • How could understanding the determinants and drivers, of migration improve policy responses in Europe and the UK?

  • What are the impacts of increasing net migration on the UK at different scales and in different areas of society (for example, productivity, jobs and services)?

  • How could the the UK adjust to new patterns of migration to ensure the best possible outcomes for the UK’s economy, society and for migrants themselves?



The event helped to build consensus and stimulate debate, sharing the views of expert panellists and providing a forum for attendees to intervene in the discussion.

Panellists agreed that policy responses to Europe’s complex migration ‘crisis’ had been too simplistic and founded on assumptions about migrant motivation rather than evidence. Additionally, they concluded that negative narratives of migration in policy and media should be challenged.

Professor Heaven Crawley suggested that the scale and visibility of this migration had triggered crises of humanitarian and refugee protection; border crises between European nations; and a geopolitical crisis reflecting old tensions between European countries. European countries failed to demonstrate leadership and share responsibility to deliver on promises to relocate refugees.

Professor Crawley also suggested policy had failed to incorporate evidence on migrant motivations, relying instead on simplistic assumptions about ‘pull factors’ (particularly welfare, benefits and jobs). However, as Heaven and colleagues’ research reveals, many migrants have limited knowledge about Europe, and may not realise that ‘Europe’ comprises different countries with differing policies. Decisions migrants make about onward movements are often ad hoc, and policy responses must adapt to reflect the complexities of migrant flows.

Madeleine Sumpton noted that migrants entered Europe ‘irregularly’ to secure legal protection for themselves and their families. Such entries represented a small proportion of those migrating into and within Europe - the vast majority did so legally, and the largest groups of migrants remaining at least a year in the UK are EU workers and non-EU students.

It was not clear, suggested Madeleine, whether high net migration would prove to be a short-term or sustained trend. She noted the increasing share of net migration from Europe was historically unusual. Traditionally, migrants were drawn to the UK from Commonwealth countries. However, non-EU migration remained significant, with an increase in work-related migration and a decline in non-EU emigration.


Watch interviews with two of our panellists: Dr Heaven Crawley and Prof Christina Boswell


Regarding economic effects, Madeleine Sumption and Max Nathan suggested research shows only a small impact on public finances - on average, migrants contribute the same amount to the economy as they withdraw in benefits. Professor Christian Dustmann’s work at UCL indicated a small positive impact on wages for high-salary native UK workers, but a small negative impact on lowest-paid native workers. This was most pronounced for those in the bottom 20 per cent of the distribution and in industries with a high turnover of people in low quality, temporary employment - for example domestic service and social care. To address this, Max Nathan suggested, required policy-makers and industry to develop new business models and enforce labour market regulations and workers’ rights.

If the impact on public finances is negligible, suggested Madeleine Sumption, the effect on public services should also be so. Yet at local scale it could not be assumed that money follows flows of people to particular areas; there may be localised pressures, particularly in areas with little history of migration. Max Nathan noted that migrant share varied geographically across the UK, with migrants concentrated in cities. This ‘super-diversity’ brought the benefits of migrant diasporic connections, with entrepreneurial people able to ‘select in’ to migration status. Preliminary evidence on such benefits suggested positive impacts on economic growth, particularly from skilled migration.

However, many citizens in the UK feel negatively that their communities are changing. Max Nathan explained that rural areas saw the greatest increases in migrant share – for example, 450% in a decade in Boston (Lincs).

Audience interaction questioned why migration was framed as a crisis and UK Government policy at the time promoted a ‘hostile’ environment when the actual economic impacts are small? Professor Crawley argued that discussion of a migration ‘crisis’ in Europe was not new but that contemporary debate was distorted around a specific flow from Syria in a particular set of circumstances. She argued policy-makers had responded to migration in the Mediterranean as a homogeneous migration for welfare payments and economic security, which was not the case.


Professor Christina Boswell analysed policy-makers’ discourse, contrasting contemporary Christina contrasted contemporary framings with discussion of migration in the late 1990s and early 2000s, under New Labour. Christina suggested a ‘technocratic turn’ on immigration policy under New Labour (driven by positive economic circumstances and a pro-business, pro-diversity narrative to meet the challenge of globalisation). Immigration policy at this time was, Christina suggested, informed by research-based reflection on the benefits of migration.

After 2004 and the accession of the A8 countries, the debate took a ‘democratic turn’ where expert knowledge began to be viewed as ‘out of touch’ with people’s concerns. Under the Coalition and then Conservative Governments, concerns about being ‘outflanked’ on immigration issues by UKIP gained traction. The economic downturn channelled wider socio-economic concerns into concerns about immigration. In 2010, when Prime Minister David Cameron set a target to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ by the end of that Parliament, a strong discourse began to emerge around the welfare burden of migration and migration in the context of Brexit

As such, a ‘democratic form of settlement’ is required, argued Christina, that is also underpinned by research and expert knowledge and forums to bridge between perspectives on migration debates. Panllists argued that while political leadership was lacking, there was potential space for those who wish to make a positive case for immigration, and value in the ‘drip down’ effect of a body of evidence affecting political conciousness. Finally, both Max and Madeleine highlighted the work of the Migration Observatory and the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), whose recommendations were often taken up by the Home Office.


About this event

This event took place on 22 March 2016 and was part of the Society’s 21st Century Challenges Policy Forum series, which brought together members of the geographical community, practitioners, policy-makers and other interested parties to discuss and debate, build professional networks, and encourage critical thinking and informed debate on some of the biggest issues and challenges facing the UK. 


This case study was originally written in 2016 and updated in 2020

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How to cite

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), Association for Geographic Information (2016). Europe's Migration Crisis? Case study. [online] Available at:   Last accessed on: <date>


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