Migration, Scotland and the independence referendum

14th February 2014

New research has been looking at how migration to and from Scotland might change following independence and demonstrates the need for a more tailored approach to migration policies whatever the outcome of the independence referendum.

The analyses, published by the ESRC Centre for Population Change, form part of the Future of the UK and Scotland programme. 

The research:

Using the 2011 UK Census, the research has found that there is value in considering how immigration to Scotland compares with the English regions, rather than England as a whole. London stands in contrast to many areas of the UK, with a more diverse population, so current UK immigration policy may not be serving the interests of the Scottish economy, nor English regions, such as the South West and the North East. These areas have very different levels of immigration and may benefit from more immigration. 

Key points:

  • Population growth in Scotland has continued to increase over most of the past decade and looks likely to be close to meeting the Scottish Government's official population target, which is to match average European (EU15) growth from 2007 to 2017. 
  • Scotland still has a relatively small immigrant population compared with most European (EU27) nations.
  • Scotland attracts migrants from across the world. The 2011 Census revealed that Poland had become the most common non-UK country of birth of residents in Scotland. 
  • The proportion of the foreign population who stay for less than five years is much higher in Scotland than in any region of England. 
  • Seventeen per cent of the migrant population in Scotland arrived as a child under the age of five years old. In contrast the figure is just nine per cent in London.

Added to this, a second piece of research has examined Scottish employers' and industry representatives' views on current UK immigration policies within the constitutional change debate. The research is based on an online survey of more than 700 Scottish employers, supplemented with 20 in-depth interviews. 

Key points:

  • Two-thirds of Scottish employers responded that EU status and migration was an issue of importance to them, and one-third of employers said that they would like to see issues around immigration and visas receive more attention in the constitutional change debate. 
  • Employers have differing views concerning immigration policies governing EU verses non-EU migration. 
  • Employers felt that Scotland's needs from immigration policy were not different to other parts of the UK's, but that the rest of the UK has different needs from London and South-East England. 
  • Many employers and industry representatives claimed that they were actively lobbying the Scottish and UK governments on immigration policy matters. 
  • Regardless of the 2014 referendum outcome, there are a number of opportunities and challenges for Scotland in seeking to implement an immigration policy that better meets its needs.

Other work has considered how migration to and from Scotland might change following the referendum, and how future migration patterns might be predicted. Key points:

  • Levels of migration between Scotland and the rest of the UK are likely to stay at similar levels to what they are now, irrespective of the outcome of the 2014 independence referendum.
  • If Scotland remains a constituent part of the UK, migration trends are not expected to change much. 
  • International emigration from Scotland is likely to increase in the near future, irrespective of the referendum outcome.
  • An independent Scotland might attract a higher number of international migrants, and also - to a lesser extent - generate a higher number of emigrants. 
  • If Scotland becomes independent, migration from the rest of the UK may slightly decrease, but flows in the opposite direction will remain quite similar to the current ones.
  • As with all migration forecasts, there is still substantial uncertainty about future migration to and from Scotland.

Professor Allan Findlay from the ESRC Centre for Population Change and the University of St Andrews, said: "We have uncovered some interesting findings through our research which will have important policy implications regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum. It is clear that the 'London-effect' has a bearing on the UK and English averages in relation to most migration statistics, so we think it could become important to separate out migration policies and tailor them to the different needs of regional economies, be that for Scotland, or for the regions of England.

"The Scottish government, in its White Paper on Scotland's Future, has identified immigration as one of the key drivers of population and economic growth, and so our findings promote re-examining migration policies, with a view to following a less restrictive approach to immigration than is current policy in the UK."

Becki Dey, Knowledge Exchange Manager, ESRC Centre for Population Change
Email: R.L.Dey@southampton.ac.uk Tel: 02380 592 167

Papers are available to download in our Research Briefing section


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Coree Brown Swan's picture
University of Edinburgh
14th February 2014
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