Dobson, J.: Child Migration in the United Kingdom, 2009

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Thousands of children enter and leave the United Kingdom every year.  Providing an overview of this international migration and its implications for public policy is less straightforward than might be expected.  Child migrants are not a single homogeneous group, any more than adult migrants are.

Some child migration into the UK is associated with the movement of labour.  Some young migrants are the children of foreign students or are themselves coming to study in private boarding schools.  Some are asylum seekers, including those who arrive unaccompanied by their parents or usual carers.  Some come with a foreign parent whose spouse is a British citizen and the family is being united.  Some are the children of British parents who have been living abroad for a period.  There are many different scenarios.

Not all children who enter the UK each year remain and settle here. They may subsequently return to country of origin or they and their families move on to a third country.  Foreign children sometimes come and go more than once, for example where parents are doing seasonal work.  British families emigrate and some of them come back.

This piece outlines the total pattern of child migration but focuses on foreign children who come to live in the UK.  It is concerned with current migration rather than with historic trends and settled ethnic minorities – that perspective can be found in other papers (1).  It identifies some issues of public policy of particular relevance to migrant children.

Foremost among these is education policy.  The school is the one arena in which children are the principal actors and which they are legally required to attend if they are of compulsory school age (5-16), with many starting in a nursery class and continuing post-16.  The role of the school in relation to the life of the migrant child newly-arrived in the country is immensely important.  Firstly, it may be the only place where s/he interacts on a regular basis with adults and children (including those of settled immigrant families) in the host community.  Secondly, it provides the crucial opportunity to learn the English language if not already spoken.  Thirdly, it is the route to skills and qualifications which will be essential to future life chances. 

It is commonly assumed that a child is a person under the age of eighteen but data published for different purposes cover different age groups, as can be seen below.  It should also be noted that some of the information presented relates to the whole of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), while some relates only to England. Education in the UK is now administered separately in the four constituent countries and the discussion of policy regarding education refers mainly to England.  Much of the work with migrant children over a long period has taken place in the English school system because England has been the destination of the majority of foreign migrants.

How Big are Child Migration Flows into and out of the UK? 

The only source of both immigration and emigration data in the UK is the International Passenger Survey (IPS), a sample survey of passengers arriving at and departing from UK air and sea ports and the Channel Tunnel.  Statistics produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on child migration derived from this source are therefore estimates, not a precise headcount.  Immigrants and emigrants are defined as those intending to stay in the UK or be away from there for a year or more, having lived out of the UK (for emigrants) or in the UK (for immigrants) for a year or more.  The inflow data are likely to exclude many asylum seekers, whose numbers are discussed later. 

Between 2004 and 2008, it is estimated that 44,600 British children and 105,100 non-British children under the age of fifteen migrated to the UK.  Over the same period, 87,700 British children and 34,500 non-British left the country.  During these five years, there was therefore a net loss of 43,100 British children and a net gain of 70,600 non-British children.  A net outflow of British children and net inflow of non-British has been the pattern for the last three decades, though actual numbers have varied over time.

Children are a small proportion of total migration flows.  In 2004-08, they comprised 11 per cent of the total British inflow and 10 per cent and the British outflow, whilst they were only 4.8 per cent of the non-British inflow and 4.0 per cent of the outflow. However, foreign migrants have a disproportionate impact on children’s services because of their geographical concentration.

The surge in foreign immigration to the UK following the accession of the ‘A8’ countries to the European Union in 2004 did not bring with it a proportionate increase in child migration.  The total inflow of foreign migrants between 2004 and 2008 was 59 per cent higher than that between 1999 and 2003.  However, the inflow of foreign children was only 11 per cent higher than in the earlier period.  The total outflow of foreign migrants was also higher in 2004-08 than in 1999-2003 but the outflow of foreign children appeared to have actually diminished.

How Many Children Seek Asylum in the UK?

Applications for asylum increased substantially from the late 1990s but have been lower in recent years (2).  In 2003, the number of dependants of asylum applicants aged 0-15 peaked at nearly eight thousand, compared to about half that number in 2008.  The number of unaccompanied children aged 0-17 applying for asylum peaked at over six thousand in 2002, declined to below three thousand but then began to rise again to over four thousand in 2008.

By far the largest number of unaccompanied children applying for asylum in 2008 came from Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, Iran, Eritrea and China.  By contrast, children from Zimbabwe formed the largest group of dependants of asylum applicants, followed by those from Pakistan.

Foreign Countries of Birth of Children Resident in the UK

The ONS estimates the numbers of children aged 0-15 resident in the UK who were born in different foreign countries.  Like the statistics on migration flows, these estimates are derived from sample surveys and have a margin of error but they provide a broad indication of the origins of migrant children currently living here (3).

In 2008, the ONS listed 94 countries as the ‘most common countries of birth’ of children born abroad, a remarkable total, although the estimated number born in each was often relatively small.  For over half the countries, the estimate was of one or two thousand.  For only 13 countries did the number exceed 10,000.

Poland was the principal birthplace of foreign-born children living in the UK in 2008, with an estimated 56,000.  The numbers born in the USA and in India were estimated at over 30,000, with Pakistan, South Africa, Germany and Somalia in the 21-29,000 range.  Other countries for which estimated numbers exceeded 10,000 were France, the Philippines, the Netherlands, Zimbabwe, Australia and Nigeria. 

When the data on migrant children are broken down into smaller age groups (0-4, 5-10 and 11-15), they indicate differences in the representation of children by country of birth in the different age ranges.  For example, though children born in Poland are the most numerous in every age group, they are most strongly represented in the 5-10 age range, whereas the Somalia-born are more concentrated in the 11-15 grouping. 

Information on the nationality of children, as distinct from country of birth, adds to the above picture and is an important reminder that the two can differ.  The estimated number of children in the UK aged 0-4 of Polish nationality is more than double the number born in Poland.  This reflects the extent to which adult migrants from Poland over the last few years have been building families in the UK, an indicator of probable settlement. 

For some countries of birth, the position is reversed.  Looking at the 0-15 age group as a whole, the estimated number of children of German nationality is less than half the number whose country of birth is Germany.  It is likely that British armed forces stationed in Germany account for much of this discrepancy. 

Geographical Distribution of Migrant Children

Greater London and the South East of England have been the dominant destinations for migrant families for a long period, with some other cities also attracting substantial numbers.  In recent times, new arrivals from overseas have become more widely spread across the country (4).  A system for dispersing asylum seekers from London and the South East to other parts of the UK began in 2000.  In addition, foreign workers have been finding employment in new areas and there have been increasing numbers going to established migrant destinations.  For example, in some places Portuguese and East European workers are now playing an important role in agriculture and associated industries and have settled there with their families.

Migrants who are new to the UK frequently move from place to place before settling down. They may initially live with friends or in temporary accommodation before finding a more permanent home or they may move to a job in a different area.  The dispersal of asylum seekers and subsequent changes of home add to the mobility.  Young people who come as unaccompanied asylum seekers may be placed with foster parents in a different locality from the one where they arrived.   All this movement creates problems for local services, particularly schools, which can have a constant inflow and outflow of children throughout the year. It also disrupts children’s lives and education at a time when they are trying to adapt to a new social environment.

Migrant Children and the English Language

Non-British children arrive in the UK with widely varying knowledge of the English language.  Some come from English-speaking countries. Others come from former colonies where they have been educated in the medium of English even if they speak another language at home.  Many speak little or no English at all.

Immigration over several decades means that large numbers of children living in the UK today have parents or grandparents who speak a language other than or in addition to English.  Thousands of these children were born in the UK and so were some of their parents. 

All state-funded schools in England are required to provide information on pupils’ ‘first’ language in an annual School Census.  The official guidance to schools states that:

A first language other than English should be recorded where a child was exposed to the language during early development and continues to be exposed to this language in the home or in the community.  If a child was exposed to more than one language (which may include English) during early development, a language other than English should be recorded, irrespective of the child’s proficiency in English’.

The most recent statistics (2009) show that 856,670 pupils in England are recorded as having a ‘first’ language other than English, 15.2 per cent of the primary school population nationally and 11.1 per cent of those at secondary schools.   In inner London, over half of all pupils are recorded as having English as a second language.  (5)

These data are sometimes misinterpreted in political debate as meaning that children thus designated cannot speak English.  In reality, some speak English better than their ‘first’ language and many speak both fluently.  The majority are likely to be better at reading and writing English than their ‘first’ language if they have been educated here.  The term ‘English as an additional language’ (EAL) rather than ‘English as a second language’ (ESL) is often used to clarify the fact that children can be proficient in two or more languages. 

The challenge for many schools today is to support the learning of children from diverse linguistic backgrounds who have different levels of competence in English.  The general approach is for children who know little English to learn in mainstream classes alongside other children, sometimes with additional teacher support and sometimes being withdrawn for intensive small-group teaching.  New arrivals in secondary school may have an initial induction period in a special unit before being integrated into the classroom.  Different schools have different ways of organising language support depending on their staffing, the number of children learning English, their level of fluency, their distribution between classes and the diversity of languages spoken.

The government’s Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant is the main source of funding for teaching English as an Additional Language in schools.  National strategies emphasise the importance, not only of having specialist EAL staff, but of training and helping mainstream staff to support bilingual pupils. 

All children are taught in the medium of English within the state education system but some are given the opportunity to study their ‘first’ language and obtain a qualification in it.  The increasing diversity of languages in many schools makes this difficult to organise.  Some children are sent by their parents to mother-tongue classes out of school hours.

In addition to policies on learning the English language, there are national and local strategies to promote the achievement of children from migrant backgrounds where particular groups are found to be performing less well than their peers.

Migrant Children: Other Policy Issues

The experience of migrant children in the UK is intimately bound up with the circumstances of the adults with whom they live and the reasons for migration.  The child of a senior executive transferred to London from another country by a multi-national company will live in a comfortable home and may receive an expensive private education paid for by the employer.  The child of the migrant who cleans the company’s offices may live in poor accommodation and will attend state-funded schools.  In these respects, migrant children have more in common with British children from the same socio-economic background than they do with each other and public policy on matters such as the minimum wage and investment in social housing and public services directly affects the welfare of all families living on low pay.  Where parents are working illegally for very low wages, the implications for child poverty are self-evident.

There is a variety of policy issues relating to the needs and circumstances of asylum-seeking children (6). The dispersal of asylum seekers from 2000 onwards presented a challenge to local services and communities to support and integrate the newcomers in areas which had experienced little foreign immigration.  An evaluation by school inspectors of the education of asylum seekers in 2003 (7) found that “schools committed much time, effort and resources to integrating the asylum-seeker pupils in a positive and supportive manner” and provided useful insights into the responses of schools and local government.  

Other reports (8) around the same time focussed on a wider range of issues relating to   asylum-seeking children, including problems with gaining access to health services, racial harassment, disputes about children’s ages and particular problems concerning the housing and welfare of unaccompanied children.  Some of these issues continue to generate concern.

Some of the difficulties facing asylum seekers affect other international migrants too, as do the implications of their arrival for host communities.  The large population inflows from the ‘A8’ countries from 2004 onwards placed new demands on schools and services in areas which had not previously experienced much, or any, immigration, as well as putting pressure on localities accustomed to receiving migrants. 

Aspects of child migration which cause controversy include the detention of parents and children in immigration removal centres. A further area of concern is child trafficking for sexual and labour exploitation and other criminal purposes (9).

Within the education system, schools, local authorities and central government have all expended much effort on policies designed to meet the needs of children ‘on the move’, including those moving within the UK.  The Department for Education and Employment helped to fund a study of pupil mobility in schools in 1999 (10), followed by its own national project on managing pupil mobility in 2003 (11) and the ‘New Arrivals Excellence Programme’ initiated by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2007 (12).  The guidance for the NAEP sets out recommended approaches to welcoming, integrating and supporting migrant children in schools, with a summary of statutory obligations in respect of race equality, fair school admissions, promotion of community cohesion and the ‘Every Child Matters’ policy.

More generally, the government has been developing policies to manage the diverse impacts of international migration at local level, supporting local authorities and introducing a range of initiatives and special funding.  Some of this, directly and indirectly, is intended to benefit migrant children (13).


Crawley, H.: The Situation among Children in Immigrant Families in the United Kingdom, Innocenti Working Paper, no. 2009-18, Florence, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2009.

2.UK Home Office Statistical Bulletins on Asylum and Control of Immigration

3. Unpublished ONS estimates derived from the Annual Population Survey/Labour Force Survey

4.  Bauere,V./Densham, P./Millar, J./Salt, J.: Migrants from central and eastern Europe: local geographies in Population Trends 129 National Statistics UK, 2007.

5. Mehmedbegovic, D.: Miss, Who Needs the Languages of Immigrants? London's Multilingual Schools' in Eds. Brighouse, T. and Fullick, L. Education in a Global City Institute of Education, University of London UK, 2007.

6.  Rutter, J.: Supporting Refugee Children in 21st Century Britain Trentham Books: Stoke-on-Trent, 2003.

7. Office for Standards in Education: The Education of Asylum-seeker Pupils HMI 453, 2003

8. Dennis, J.: A Case for Change: How Refugee Children in England are Missing out First Findings from the Monitoring Project of the Refugee Children's Consortium, 2002, www.childmigration/files/Case_for_change.pdf


10. Dobson, J./Hemthorne, K.: Pupil Mobility in Schools Research Report 168 Department for Education and Employment UK, 1999.

11. Department for Education and Skills: Managing Pupil Mobility, DfES UK, 2003.

12.Department for Children, Schools and Families: New Arrivals Excellence Programme Guidance, 2007

13. Department of Communities and Local Government: Managing the Impacts of Migration: Improvements and Innovations, 2009,

Dr. Janet Dobson, University College London, 2009