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How important is migration to Wales’ population?

November 30th 2018

With the UK Government due to publish its White Paper on the future immigration system after Brexit, Lucy Stone highlights how Wales relies on migration to maintain and grow its population.

Today the Bevan Foundation has launched a paper outlining Wales’ current and future demographic trends, playing particular attention to the role migration has played and will continue to play in Wales’ future.

Unfortunately any comment on population change is a bit technical and dry, but do not be put off – the changes that are underway will radically change the Welsh economy and society and we had better be ready for those changes.

Wales’ population

Over the last 20 years Wales’ population has increased by 8 percent, a much slower increase than that of the UK as a whole. This increase also saw a change in the age distribution of the population, with a 27 percent increase in the number of people aged 65 or over and a 3 percent drop in the number of people aged 20 or younger.

Changes in the population are caused by three main components. The first two are fertility and mortality, which both make up the natural change in the population that is calculated by taking the number of deaths away from the number of births each year. The third component is net migration, which measures people moving in and out of Wales from inside the UK, known as net internal migration, and from outside the UK, known as net international migration.

Where does migration come in?

Due to low fertility rates in Wales, between 2016 and 2017 there were more deaths than births resulting in a natural change of -874 people. So, Wales in not replacing its population naturally, let alone growing it. Almost all of Wales’ population growth (97 percent) between 2016 and 2017 was from net migration – that’s 57 percent from internal net migration and 39 percent from international net migration.

Wales saw one the highest rates of net internal migration between 2016 and 2017 of +7,386 people, which was higher than the rate of net international migration of +5,090 people. When looking at the characteristics of those coming into Wales, for one they tend to be younger, with the vast majority being of working age. Most of those coming into Wales from outside the UK came to study or to work and were more likely to be from outside the EU than from inside the EU.

How important is migration?

Just as population change is made up of births, deaths and migration, projections of future populations make assumptions about these components. When we looked at Wales’ projected population in 20 years’ time using different levels of migration, Wales’ population looked different.

Using natural change only and no migration, Wales’ population decreased but when using migration Wales population increased. However, with or without migration Wales’ population will continue to age with the number of people aged 65 or over projected to increase by as much as 34 percent. Alongside this the number of people of working age is projected to drop by as much as 9 percent.

Even with migration Wales’ future working age population is expected to be lower than it was in 2017, even with a higher level of migration. As the level of migration decreases the percentage of the population of working age drops but the percentage of the population aged 65 or over increases.

What does it mean?

If this happens the effects of our ageing population will be greater, causing strains on our health and social care system and on our economy, with fewer workers meaning less national insurance payments and less income tax which could also have an impact on future pensions. It also raises key policy questions about future housing, health and ageing, education, local communities, the sustainability of the Welsh language and Wales’ fertility in the future, that will all need to be investigated as Wales’ population changes.

Wales’ demographics are different to that of the UK as a whole and although immigration policy is not devolved, it raises important questions about how decisions on immigration are made and who they are made by. Although migration is a complex issue, if Wales wants to continue growing its population and minimise the reduction in the numbers of people of working age, it will need to look to immigration, both from in and outside of the UK.

This report is part of a larger piece of work by the Bevan Foundation highlighting some important debates that need to take place about immigration and immigration policy in Wales. For more information click here.

Lucy Stone is Policy and Research Officer at the Bevan Foundation.



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