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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 April, 2004, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
UK attracts few European migrants
By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online economics reporter

Who's coming to Britain, and why

Eastern Europe is not the source of overwhelming immigration into the UK, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have suggested.

In 2002, 46,000 people moved to the UK from non-EU Europe - ex-communist states plus countries such as Turkey.

At the same time, 28,000 UK residents (including some who had previously migrated) moved there or returned.

For the EU as a whole, 90,000 moved here while 125,000 left Britain and moved to an EU member state.

The figures coincide with Tony Blair's review of immigration policy and with concerns about migration from countries that will join the EU on 1 May.

The figures do not reflect illegal migration, or people who overstay their short-term visitors' visas.

Political issue

With 10 new states joining the EU on 1 May - increasing its numbers to 25 - Mr Blair said the UK would be neither "fortress" nor "open door".

Tony Blair
Mr Blair has paid particular attention to immigration in recent weeks
But the government is imposing restrictions on people who come to Britain without work and who seek social benefits like public housing.

It is also reducing the number of work permits for low-skilled jobs in the agricultural, hospitality and food processing sectors.

Mr Blair said concerns over migration could not just be dismissed as racism, and that a "top-to-bottom" look at the system was necessary.

"We need few reminders about what happens when the politics of immigration gets out of hand," he said.

'Economic migrants'

The UK has seen a huge increase in migration in the past decade, with the numbers arriving in the UK and staying for one year or more nearly doubling from 265,000 to 512,000.

But more people are both arriving into Britain and leaving the country.

In overall terms, after subtracting the roughly 300,000 Britons (and others) who move abroad each year, net immigration is now running at around 150,000 per year.

That has been a benefit to the British economy, according to the Treasury, which estimates that large-scale immigration boosts the rate of UK economic growth by 0.5% extra each year.

The ONS figures show that the bulk of immigrants are highly-skilled professionals or students.

And immigrants tend to be young, arriving at the economically active ages of 15-44.

Many economists believe that in the long-run a continuous influx of immigrants will help ease the "demographic time-bomb" as Britain becomes a society dominated by the old.

In twenty years time, one in five of the population will be over 65, demographers estimate.

Local pressures

But the new ONS figures also show that the majority of immigrants have settled in just a few parts of the UK, especially London and the South-east.

That has put a strain on local authorities, for example where many languages are spoken at school, although it has also added to the cultural diversity of the capital city.

And there are a growing number of migrants from non-Commonwealth and non-EU countries, for example from Asia, many of whom may be less familiar with the British way of life.

There is little evidence on past trends that an increase in the size of the EU has led to mass migration to the UK.

Indeed, during the last enlargement it was UK citizens who moved in increasing numbers to Spain.

Competing for skilled migrants

Most developed countries, including the UK, are trying to encourage more skilled migrants, especially those who only want to come on a temporary basis, while trying to cut down on the numbers of those who are believed to be an economic burden.

The UK's main instrument of immigration control in regard to work, the work permit system, is regarded as highly flexible and adaptable to changes in local labour market conditions.

And the demand for immigrant labour, at least in certain occupations like hotel and catering and construction, is likely to increase in the future even more.

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