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In the past immigration to United Kingdom was largely from Commonwealth countries, but in recent years there has been a surge in arrivals as a result of the eastern expansion of the European Union.
Until the early 1990s immigration to the UK was at was at fairly low levels. Indeed there was often a net outflow of people. But subsequently many more started to arrive and by 2005 net immigration – the gap between inflows and outflows – was around 300,000 per year. The increase in 2004 was due to the enlargement of the EU eastward which allowed many more people free entry to the UK.
This will lead to a rise in population: in 2007 the Office for National Statistics estimated that by 2016 the population would increase by 4.4 million to 65 million, with around half of the increase from immigration. However this assumes continuing net arrivals from the EU, even though these flow are likely to reverse as these countries become richer. The bars in the chart below shows net immigration for each year.
Until recent years, the immigrant population was assumed to be equivalent to that of 'ethnic minorities' – the legacy of arrivals from the Commonwealth countries. Although the largest number for foreigners were actually Irish, who had free entry, from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, 'immigrants' to the UK came primarily from the Carribbean. Indians arrived slightly afterwards, and East African Asian arrived in the late 1960s, particularly from Uganda. The main flows from Pakistan came somewhat later, and people came later still from Bangladesh.
By 2001, according to the Census, 4.6 million people, 7.9% of the population, belonged to a minority ethnic group. Indians were the largest group, followed by Pakistanis, then those of mixed ethnic backgrounds, then Black Caribbeans, Black Africans and Bangladeshis. Ethnic minoriy groups, and immigrants in general, tend to be concentrated in cities, particularly London.
Since then the countries of origin have become more diverse and numbers have been rising, largely because of the need for workers, notably in the health services, in the construction industry and in skilled trades such as plumbing. Indeed immigration has contributed substantially to economic growth.
The total stock of migrants is around three million with an additional 400,000 unauthorizied migrants. Overall, the immigrant population is weighted towards professionals: they make up 30 per cent of the foreign population compared with 25% for the national population.
Over the same period large numbers of British people have emigrated , particularly to Australia and the USA, but more recently also to Spain.
The rules for immigration to the UK have become steadily more restrictive. Until 1962, nationals of Commonwealth countries had free right of entry. But in that year the Commonwealth Immigrants Act reduced the flows of non-white arrivals. Since then there has been a steady stream of legislation, generally making controls tighter.
This resulted a highly complex system for non-EU immigration, with more than 80 routes of entry. To rationalize the process, in 2008 the government introduced a five-tier points-based system. Immigrants are given a score that depend on academic qualifications, for example, previous earnings, age, competence in the English language and their ability to support themselves and their dependants. The five tiers are:
Tier 1 – This tier is for people who have advanced degrees, know English, and are financially stable. They will have little trouble getting a visa and will not be tied to a particular employer.
Tier 2 – This tier is for non-EU foreigners who come to the UK to fill jobs in the labour-short engineering, IT, and education sectors. A 'Migration Advisory Committee' rules on whether or not there is a labour shortage. These workers must pass an English test and will be tied to the employer who sponsors their admission.
Tier 3 – This tier is for low-skilled workers. In fact, nobody will be admitted under this category in 2008 since the the government believes that there are already sufficient unskilled workers.
Tier 4 – This tier is for foreign students
Tier 5 – This tier is for temporary workers such as Working Holiday Makers.