More ways to win: should Scotland adjust its policy priorities on migration?

Scotland Europe Initiative
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More ways to win: should Scotland adjust its policy priorities on migration?

June 21 2023, by Professor Rebecca Kay

As net migration figures hit the UK headlines once again, it’s time to reflect on the perspective from Scotland. For whilst UK migration policy debates have been focused for over a decade on increased control and targets for reducing net migration, in Scotland there is well-established cross-party consensus on the need for inward migration for both economic and demographic reasons.

With UK net migration higher than anticipated, this seems a good point to rethink Scotland’s policy options. In particular, more thought might be given to how existing powers can be used to attract a larger share of UK immigrants to Scotland and get them to settle here for a longer period.

A distinctive part of the public debate on migration in Scotland is the recognition that as well as contributing workers, taxpayers and consumers to the economy, migration can bring people to places that need them, helping to mitigate population challenges. This is reflected in Scottish policy frameworks and public attitudes and encourages a lean towards preferences for migration to lead to longer-term settlement, a desired view of Scotland as welcoming, and policy aspirations to support further increases in diversity and to promote integration.

There are, of course, different views on how best to achieve increased migration to Scotland and there has been long-standing debate about the possibilities for a differentiated migration system. However, a focus on new powers and devolved systems to facilitate new arrivals can distract attention from equally important discussion of policies that could be introduced under existing powers to support Scotland’s existing migrant populations better. There is no inherent reason why both of these policy goals can’t be pursued simultaneously, and certainly there should be no tension between a political desire to increase net migration and an imperative to support migrant populations to flourish.

The Scottish situation

Whilst still much less diverse than parts of England, Scotland has experienced substantial and sustained increases in its migrant population over the past 20 years. In fact, the pace and scale of change has been quite exceptional. The percentage of Scotland’s population made up of non-British citizens has nearly trebled from 2.5% in 2004 to 7.3% in 2020-21. While these changes have not been evenly spread across Scotland, there have been increases almost everywhere, fuelled significantly by EU migration. Migrant populations are predominantly clustered in the biggest cities as might be expected, but also reach over 5% of local populations in some more surprising locations including Fife, Aberdeenshire, North Lanarkshire, West- East- and Mid-Lothian, Perth and Kinross, and the Shetland Isles.

Migrant workers are a significant part of the Scottish workforce, making up 10% of the total and significantly higher percentages in key sectors including information and communications (17%); education (16%); accommodation and food services (15%); manufacturing (9%); health and social care (9%). These map closely to sectors where the UK Migration Advisory Committee has reported clustering of migrant workers in low-wage jobs and point to a likelihood of under-employment within what is generally a well-qualified population. A recent Migration Observatory report, examining the UK labour force as a whole, found that EU nationals, particularly those from the newer EU10 countries, were the most likely to be in jobs for which they are overqualified. The higher percentages of EU citizens in the Scottish workforce, where they represent 70% of foreign-national workers,  means this is more than likely a significant issue for Scotland.

Policy options

So, what could Scotland do to improve the situation of its migrant population and how might it enhance its power to attract new arrivals in the process? The Scottish Government has significant autonomy over several relevant policy areas including employment, education, housing, and public policy. This might be used to develop distinct policies aimed at:

  • enhancing the employment opportunities and career development of migrant populations, for example through bespoke language training and improved frameworks for recognition of foreign qualifications;
  • improving migrant experiences within the workforce by seeking opportunities for closer engagement with employers as key actors who can support migrant workers and their households;
  • tackling poverty and financial exclusion through a review of public policy to ensure that the impacts of migrant status on household finances are fully considered;
  • continuing and extending conversations around place-based approaches to population challenges and migration’s role within these.

At the outset I said there should be no tension between a political desire to increase net migration and an imperative to support migrant populations to flourish; in ending, I want to go further and suggest that win-win scenarios exist. A focus on existing powers and improving the experiences of those migrants already living in Scotland not only serves the interests of equalities, local communities, and Scotland’s economic and demographic resilience, but also increases Scotland’s ability to attract a greater share of current migration to the UK. The new UK migration system has not led to a fall in net migration to the UK overall. Existing migrant communities can act as magnets and facilitators for new arrivals. Policies that support Scotland’s smaller but growing migrant populations to flourish would play a significant role in persuading a greater proportion of those either already in the UK as well as those considering a move for work or study to view Scotland as an attractive option.

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Scotland-Europe Initiative

This Initiative will examine Scotland’s and the UK’s relations with Europe and the effects of Brexit on our daily life by exploring public policy issues such as trade and investment, energy policy, and migration.

Find out more about the Scotland-Europe Initiative

Professor Rebecca Kay is chair of the Scottish government’s independent expert advisory group on migration and population and Senior Researcher at Migration Policy Scotland, an independent policy organisation working to improve the prospects for a more just migration system in Scotland and the UK. She is also a Professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow, where she has conducted qualitative research into migrant experiences in rural and urban Scotland. 

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.