Making predictions is hard, especially about migration

One of the reasons people worry about immigration is its unpredictability. The record of governments predicting migration is abysmal, from Christian Distmann to your humble blogger. What accounts for this debacle? Why is migration so hard to predict? Nobody knew how many Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Slovakians, Hungarians and Slovenians (called the EU8) would move here after 2004 because nothing like it had happened before. We had no reference to rely on, but that’s not true for Romanians and Bulgarians and yet predictions were yet again still wrong.

In 2013 in response to Tom Harris’ concern about how many Romanians and Bulgarians would move to the UK I said:

I’ll go out on a limb and say that we’ll get between 20,000 and 30,000 more people a year from Romania and Bulgaria coming to work in the UK. This is a lot less precise but a lot more accurate than anything else you will hear on the topic. Don’t let the scaremongers win on this one.

How was my prediction? Pretty fucking bad. But I can explain. Of course I can.

In 2014 44,000 net migrants entered Britain from Romania and Bulgaria (called the EU2) and in 2015 a further net 58,000 entered Britain. This is less than the screeching of 2013 would have led you to believe when people kept saying “up to 29 million” but it’s about double what I predicted. Romanians and Bulgarians saw the opportunity to move to the UK and they took it with both hands. They didn’t care about ruining my blogging credibility, the bastards.

It, of course, gets worse. In addition to the 102,000 net migrants about 300,000 National Insurance numbers have been issued to Romanians and Bulgarians. 300,000 in two years. Why is this number larger? There’s not a hidden army of EU2 migrants, there’s just been a lot of people here on temporary jobs. Work in agriculture is seasonal so lots of EU2 migrants and inhaled and exhaled by the UK each year in addition to those who move more permanently.

To work out how the 29 million new potential migrants would behave I assumed they would behave like the EU8 migrants had. If they had acted like the EU8 then I would have been right, but they were even more enthusiastic migrants than Poles or Lithuanians. The divergence between UK economic performance and European for the mid-10s is even larger than in the mid-00s.

Bulgaria and Romania had growth rates in 2014 and 2015 of between 1.5% to 3.8%. This is about half what Poland achieved 2005–2010 when it averaged 4.5% growth. The UK has also been on a jobs boom, 78% of people aged over 15 are economically active. This is a few of points higher than during the 00s. In case 78% doesn’t sound that impressive to you, trust me, it is. So the EU2 pushed hard just as the UK pulled.

So was Tom Harris right? Well, err, let’s move on shall we to less controversial topics, like the EU referendum.

The UK economy is remarkably flexible and has assimilated 100,000s of workers with relative ease. However, episodes like the EU2 accession are make people worry about migration and I fear the Leave campaign will make hay of it once the referendum campaign enters its final weeks, that is what I will be blogging about next.

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