Immigration became a defining issue around the 2016 EU referendum, as the Leave campaign made control over the UK’s borders a central part of its position.

Polling around the referendum found that reducing immigration levels was a significant factor in motivating voters to back Brexit.

Ferret Fact Service | Scotlands impartial fact check project

In Scotland, there have been many competing claims about the impact of inward migration on the country.

Ferret Fact Service took a look at some of the most common questions around the issue.

How many EU nationals live in Scotland?

According to the latest population estimates, there were 219,000 EU nationals living in Scotland (not including students) in June 2017. This accounts for just over four per cent of the population.

Scotland attracts a disproportionately low number of migrants compared to the overall United Kingdom, with 6.8 per cent of the UK’s net immigration level in 2016 (335,000). Net immigration is the number of people coming in compared to those who leave.

Is Scotland’s population declining?

The overall population of Scotland has been a point of concern for successive governments in Scotland the UK for decades.

For many years, it has been a picture of decline, both relative to the UK population and in absolute terms.

The population of Scotland increased from 5.12 million in 1956 to 5.24 million in 1974, before declining to a recent low of 5.06 million in 2000.

However since the turn of the millennium, Scotland’s population has increased each year to the current level of 5.40 million. This has been primarily attributed to an increase in net migration.

How has migration affected the population?

According to National Records Scotland: “Historically, Scotland has been a country of net out-migration, with more people leaving to live elsewhere than moving to live in Scotland.”

This has changed since the 1960s, as net out-migration has greatly reduced, and from 1990 onwards Scotland has experienced net migration gains in most years.

Between 2003 and 2011 there were net gains in immigration over more than 18,000 each year. The latest figure for 2016 was 31,700.

Between 2000 and 2015, 86 per cent of Scotland’s population growth was down to immigration.

How many EU immigrants are unemployed?

Figures from the Annual Population Survey covering 2016 show the employment rate for EU nationals was 76.8 per cent. This is higher than the overall rate for Scotland of 73 per cent.

EU immigrants had a lower rate of unemployment, at 3.8 per cent, than Scotland as a whole, which has an unemployment rate of 4.8 per cent. The group also recorded a lower ‘economic inactivity’ rate. The Scottish Government’s examples of inactivity include students, those looking after family and home, and retired people.

The pattern of work for EU nationals is broadly similar to the broader Scottish population, with nine out of ten working men and around six in every ten working women in full-time positions.

Evidence suggests migrants are less likely to use unemployment benefits, but more likely to take up in-work benefits.

Does immigration depress wages?

This was cited repeatedly during the Brexit referendum campaign as a reason to leave the EU ‘retake control of borders’.

There have been numerous studies in the UK about how immigration affects overall wages and those in specific sectors.

Most of the research suggests that any observed negative impact is very small, and that there are a number of methodological issues which affect the results.

The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford wrote: “The impacts of immigration on the labour market critically depend on the skills of migrants, the skills of existing workers, and the characteristics of the host economy.”

The available research on wages and immigration shows that there is an impact, but that is may affect different sectors of society in different ways.

One report looking at migration in the UK from 1997 to 2015 found that an increase in the foreign born population of the size of one per cent of the native population leads to an increase of between 0.2 per cent and 0.3 per cent in average wages. However, for low-paid workers a decrease in wages of around 0.6 per cent.

A review of the evidence around EU workers concluded that “empirical research on the labour market effects of immigration to the UK finds little overall adverse effects of immigration on wages and employment for the UK-born.”

The Bank of England looked at the differing impact between EU and non-EU immigration, but concluded that the ratio had a “tiny” effect. The report stated that the “impact of immigration on wages is driven mainly by the overall total stock of immigration, with its composition – EU vs non-EU – having a second order impact.

In Scotland, studies on the impact of EU migration on wages have been fairly rare, but the Scottish Government commissioned an overview of the evidence in 2016.

Regarding the impact of immigration on wages, the report summarised: “Migration does not appear to have had statistically significant impacts on the average wages and employment opportunities of the UK-born population in periods when the economy is strong, although there is some evidence of labour market displacement when the economy is in recession.”

Does Scotland attract only four per cent of the UK’s immigrants?

Do immigrants help the economy?

Economic analysis from the Scottish Government found that “each additional EU citizen working in Scotland contributes a further £34,400 in GDP.”

The report estimated the total contribution of EU migrants as approximately £4.42bn per year.

Research in the 27 OECD countries has estimated that, where migrants have had an economic impact, it has rarely exceeded plus or minus 0.5 per cent of GDP.

Many studies have looked at the net fiscal impact of migrants into the UK, while research in Scotland has tended to focus on demographic changes in the country linked to migration.

This means the impact that inward migration from the EU has on increasing Scotland’s population, and how immigration can fill gaps in the Scottish workforce.

Immigration is largely responsible for Scotland’s increasing population, and as such helps to contribute to the working population as the majority of immigrants are young and economically active.

The Migration Observatory published a review of the evidence on the net economic impact, which looks at the revenues the Government obtains from migrants compared to the cost of benefits and tax credits.

It concluded that migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) are more likely to have a positive fiscal impact, but also found that most studies had reported a very small impact either positive or negative. Migrants from outside the EEA are likely to have a broadly negative fiscal effect.

However, it is important to note that the evidence on immigration’s fiscal impact is affected by the specific characteristics of the host country’s economy.

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Email us at or join our community forum.

Correction: An earlier version of this article gave the number of EU nationals in Scotland as 228,000. That is actually the number with an EU nation as their country of birth, rather than given nationality. The correct figure is 219,000.