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Far more Britons live in Europe than government statistics suggest

The Conversation

Far more Britons live in Europe than government statistics suggest

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Karen O’Reilly, Goldsmiths, University of London

The UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) has recently produced estimates of the number of British citizens living in the European Union (EU). The numbers, apparently, have declined from 1.22m prior to 2017, to “around 900,000” (Jan 2017), and more latterly to 784,900 (April 2018).

Meanwhile, our research has revealed that most informed commentators (academics, local government officials, consular offices, and others who work with the British abroad) understand numbers to have changed little since 2008, and that the correct, conservative, estimate is closer to 1.8m.

So, what is going on? Where do these estimates come from? And why does the drop matter?

According to the ONS, its estimates, which are reproduced widely by campaign and interest groups, academics, politicians and journalists, are published “in response to an increased user need for data about the people who may be most likely to be affected by the UK’s decision to leave the EU”. The ONS argues that the heretofore trusted United Nations data (source of the 1.22m estimate) are unreliable “high-level estimates” based on extrapolating out from census data. The ONS said in 2017 that it prefers to use “more detailed census data”, leading to the first, inadequately explained, reduction to 900,000.

Suspiciously precise figures

But the perhaps more insidious reduction is that between the 2017 report and the April 2018 report, when the estimates dropped even further to a suspiciously precise 784,900. Apparently, this new estimate was produced because new data were available. But close examination reveals that the only new data being used come from the European Labour Force Survey, and the final appendix of their 2018 report states that “since the 2011 round of Censuses, there has been little change in the estimates of British citizens living in these European countries”. The drop is not explained by analysis of “new data” then.

Then there is the caveat that the April 2018 estimates exclude Ireland. The difference between 900,000 and 748,900 is 115,100 – and the estimated number of UK citizens in Ireland in January 2017 was 112,090. So, the exclusion of Ireland pretty much explains the change in estimates.

The, somewhat odd, argument for excluding Ireland is that “citizenship is not a suitable definition and so the data would not be comparable”. The April 2018 report defines British abroad using citizenship rather than country of birth, because the latter can miss some groups of citizens, and because Irish and British citizenship “are complex”. Well, given that dual citizenship is available in most EU27 states, I would argue it is complex for everyone. At least the 2017 report provided a distinction between the two definitions, with helpful comparison estimates. Comparing these estimates, it becomes clear that using British citizen rather than country of birth has made very little difference to the overall numbers once Ireland has been removed – 3,010 people, to be precise.

What has been achieved, amid all this obfuscation, is that the April 2018 estimates look very precise, and are greatly reduced since January 2017. This is worrying given the attempts of diverse interest groups (such as British in Europe or The 3 million) as well as our own project to provide information and support on behalf of these citizens as Brexit proceeds. Reducing their numbers only serves to reduce their relevance, while providing a precise estimate lends gravitas to the estimates. Statistics are political.

Karen O’Reilly.

Political statistics

But I have further concerns about the ONS estimates. First, the ONS estimates only include long-term residents, that is people who “intend to or have lived abroad for one year or longer”. This excludes all seasonal workers, second-home owners, students, and other mobile individuals who move backwards and forwards (see our new report with MPI). These are numerous by any estimate and I have no idea why they would be considered irrelevant for the purposes of the exercise. Surely these people, who have exercised their rights to freedom of movement, are as likely as any to be affected by Brexit. Also, it is entirely unclear how the data they have collected can identify this distinction. Population registers, for example, are unlikely to distinguish length of stay, still less intention.

The ONS reports use Eurostat data and Migration stocks data, which in turn use population censuses and registers. Census data are often out of date and notoriously unreliable for counting migrants, so that “even the best censuses are likely to be underestimates”. And population registers are hardly more reliable given many people do not register, and some countries do not even have registers, as has been argued endlessly for this population.

While we in the Brexit Brits Abroad project welcome the aim of these reports, and especially the nuanced analysis that, for example, challenges assumptions about the age and employment status of the majority of British in Europe, we are anxious about the way in which data sets are analysed in crude form with no attempt to improve estimates based on expert or insider knowledge (see this IPPR report for just one example of how to estimate in an informed and critical way). We are also anxious that the outcome is to continue to dismiss the concerns, interests and contributions of Brits abroad, as we have highlighted in our project and again was raised seriously by IPPR in 2010.

Given our goal is, like the ONS, to provide estimates of numbers of British living in the EU27 who are likely to be affected by the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and based on our knowledge and understanding of this population in all its diversity, we estimate there are in fact 1.8m to 3.6m British people living part-time or full-time in the EU27 for whom Brexit is proving disruptive. This estimate is derived by taking ONS’ original estimate of 900,000 and multiplying it to take account of the estimated one (a conservative estimate) or two (a more radical estimate) out of every three people who are not on any register or census for the reasons outlined above.

The truth is that migration statistics are notoriously unreliable, and to give such precise and rapidly declining estimates, as the ONS has, gives cause for concern. All figures are political. But we prefer to present an estimate based on a combination of what can be counted, what we understand of the registration processes involved, and mobility patterns of the populations concerned.

Karen O’Reilly, Professorial Research Fellow, Goldsmiths, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Our research in the news!

Last week, saw the release of our report, Next Steps: implementing a Brexit deal for UK citizens living in the EU-27co-authored with the Migration Policy Institute Europe. This was picked up by several news outlets. It featured in the FT Brexit Briefing on Thursday 19th April, and Michaela’s article based on the report was published in the Telegraph. Copies of where our research features in the press can also be found on the website here.

‘We are not, we’re not reassured … yet!’ Our report Talking citizens’ rights with UK citizens living in the EU27

By Katherine Collins and Michaela Benson

In this post, Katherine and Michaela reflect on the latest report released by project team. The report is drawn up from responses to the question of the extent to which the recent agreements re: citizens’ rights had provided UK citizens living in the EU27 with reassurance about what Brexit would mean for their lives and futures. 


Download the report

Continue reading ‘We are not, we’re not reassured … yet!’ Our report Talking citizens’ rights with UK citizens living in the EU27

Episode 20: What does the draft withdrawal agreement mean for UK citizens living in the EU27

**IMPORTANT INFORMATION ABOUT THIS EPISODE** This episode was recorded before the agreed legal text relating to the withdrawal agreement was published on 19th March 2018. The text, particularly relating to healthcare provision—which she discusses in this episode—has been significantly been modified since then. Professor Hervey has amended and updated her evaluation of this element of the withdrawal agreement accordingly—which she discusses in this episode—since then, and you can read all about it in her post for the EU Law Analysis Blog

Wondering what the draft withdrawal agreement means for UK citizens living in the EU27? In this episode, Michaela is joined once again by EU law expert Professor Tamara Hervey to talk through the complexities of this agreement. From the legal status of this document, what it means in terms of the enforcement of rights, and causes for concern and (limited) cause for celebration, they discuss what this document reveals about the future rights and entitlement for these populations who have made their homes and lives in the EU27.

The disconcerting caveat: ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’

karen_oreillySince the start of the ‘Brexit Brits Abroad’ project in July last year, Karen has made two long field trips to Spain, in October 2017 and January 2018. She has undertaken over 40 interviews, and numerous informal conversations, with over 100 British people living in Spain and representatives of campaign and support groups. Many of these conversations have continued over time through Skype, email and telephone. In the first of her posts reflecting on her second trip, she reflects on how agreements on citizens’ rights have been received by those taking part in her research.

Continue reading The disconcerting caveat: ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’

British enough for the vote? From ‘True Brits’ to no representation without taxation in the Overseas’ Electors debate

By Michaela Benson, Chantelle Lewis and Katherine Collins

I offer my sincere congratulations to my hon. Friend on bringing this Bill forward … Does he agree with me that in this centenary year of Emmeline Pankhurst’s efforts to get women the vote in this country, the same thing most apply to voters of over 15 years’ longevity abroad? This could open up the franchise to another 1 million people. It must be the correct thing to do … it is a disgrace for certain Labour Members to try to deny the vote to women who have lived overseas for longer than 15 years. —Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP (Con)

On 23rd February 2018, the Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 – which proposes that British citizens should have the right to vote in British elections throughout their lives regardless of the number of years they’ve lived abroad – passed its second reading.

Wrapped up in symbols and stereotypes, with a cast of characters that included Emmeline Pankhurst and Harry Shindler, the meaning of ‘Britishness’ was at the heart of the debate as it played out for an hour and a half on the floor of the House. What seemed to be at stake was not so much the question of whether it was practical to extend the vote to UK Citizens living overseas, but whether the British abroad could be considered British enough (and whether the British abroad contribute enough to life in the UK) to be granted suffrage.

Continue reading British enough for the vote? From ‘True Brits’ to no representation without taxation in the Overseas’ Electors debate

The draft withdrawal agreement and other things: what do we know so far?

karen_oreillySince the start of the ‘Brexit Brits Abroad’ project in July last year, Karen has made two long field trips to Spain, in October 2017 and January 2018. She has prepared this post as a way of responding to some of the areas of concern raised by those she has been speaking to.

Continue reading The draft withdrawal agreement and other things: what do we know so far?

Leavers and Remainers and a shared passion for Britain’s future

karen_oreillySince the start of the ‘Brexit Brits Abroad’ project in July last year, Karen has made two long field trips to Spain, in October 2017 and January 2018. She has undertaken over 40 interviews, and numerous informal conversations, with over 100 British people living in Spain and representatives of campaign and support groups. Many of these conversations have continued over time through Skype, email and telephone. In the second of her posts reflecting on her second trip, she reflects on how changing feelings about Britain among UK citizens living in Spain.

  Continue reading Leavers and Remainers and a shared passion for Britain’s future