Why do migrants leave Scotland?

(CC) Image by Karl-Martin Skontorp on Flickr

The current immigration debates in the UK seem to be increasingly narrowed down to questions such as ‘Why do migrants come to the UK?’, ‘What do migrants costs the UK taxpayer?’ etc, often raised with a tone of disapproval or of mistrust regarding the contributions, motives, and plans of migrants. Interestingly, during various meetings and seminars on migration issues I attended in Scotland over the last year, a different set of questions seemed to take more centre stage: ‘Why do migrants leave Scotland?’ or ‘What can be done to keep them here?’

by Taulant Guma
Taulant Guma is currently a PhD student at Glasgow University. His research project focuses on migrants coming from Central and Eastern Europe who reside in and around Glasgow and on the complex ways in which they manage uncertainties and construct securities in everyday life.


Within Scotland, these questions are often raised less as a matter of sheer curiosity but as an issue of local and national importance; faced with population decline and an ageing population, the Scottish government sees immigration as a solution to the nation’s demographic challenges as well as a means for stimulating its economy (see e.g. COSLA Migration Policy Toolkit) and wants to attract migrants.

This strategic aim has been echoed more recently in responses to the UK government’s plans to introduce an ‘immigration cap’ when e.g. Minister for External Affairs, Fiona Hislop, expressed the Scottish government’s deep concern:

“about the damaging impact the annual limit will have on the Scottish economy. Scottish businesses, employers, universities and the NHS share our concerns that the UK proposal is not right for Scotland.”

At the same time, the policy aim of encouraging migrants not only to come but also to settle in the region is also reflected in questions such as the ones introduced above, shifting the emphasis from persons ‘coming in’ to migrants being already here.

The majority of available research on migration in Scotland is limited in scope to certain regions and focuses on migrants from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), reflecting a heightened interest of policy makers and practitioners in these so-called ‘A8 and A2 migrants’ who came in increasing numbers after their home countries joined the EU in 2004 and 2007.

Next to these limitations, there is generally a lack of reliable data on who comes, who stays where and for how long, as well as what mid- to long-term plans and intentions migrants living in Scotland have and how the latter relate to their experiences of life here. All this shows that there is still a long way to go to understand why migrants might not make Scotland their permanent home.

However, the growing body of research into CEE migrants in Scotland indicates that many are affected by issues such as poor pay, insecure and short term contracts, illegal deductions from wages, denial of holiday and sick pay, as well as discrimination in their everyday lives (e.g. Blake Stevenson – A8 Nationals in Glasgow).

And despite the satisfaction expressed by employers interviewed in this study about the flexibility and reliability of these migrant workers (e.g. their “strong work ethic”, “willingness to work anti-social hours”, “keenness to learn”) and the fact that most ‘A8 migrants’ are highly educated, the majority of them work in various types of low skilled and low paid employment.

The above study shows a great deal of similarity with regard to the issues and challenges faced by CEE migrants living in Scotland and those living in other parts of the UK. Interestingly, however, there is one aspect which differs significantly: in Scotland, CEE migrants find it much harder to find employment in administration, business and management than elsewhere in the UK (38% of CEE migrants in the UK work in these employment sectors, whereas the corresponding figure for Scotland is 18%, and for Glasgow even lower at 10%). While migrants’ lack of knowledge and/or competency in the English language is introduced as a possible explanatory factor for this low proportion, it provides no answer as to why the Scottish figure differs so significantly from the all-UK figure.

Certainly, migrants, wherever they are, often experience difficulties in terms of finding better jobs and moving up the career ladder. It seems, however, that these difficulties and challenges are more pronounced in the Scottish labour market, which means that the risk of CEE migrants ‘getting stuck’ in unskilled and low paid work is significantly higher than in the UK.

Can this apparent rigidity be an explanatory factor as to why CEE migrants, and indeed other migrant groups, might decide not to stay in Scotland? While migrants might initially be compelled to accept poor working conditions and even regard these jobs as an opportunity to improve their English language skills or as the only entrance into the labour market, is the lack of better opportunities in Scotland an important factor for migrants’ decisions on mid- to long-term settlement?

When experiencing a continuing devaluation of their skills, qualifications and experiences, is it surprising that many of them might decide to move on and go elsewhere, e.g. South of the border?