Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

How can Scotland attract more migrants – Heather Rolfe

Migrants’ own decisions are the missing piece in Scotland’s migration puzzle

Last Wednesday the Welcoming Committee for Hong Kongers, which is housed within British Future, held an event in Edinburgh jointly with Reform Scotland on the country’s immigration challenges. Emma Roddick MSP, Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees gave a thought-provoking keynote speech explaining that Scotland is the only UK nation where population numbers are projected to fall, with serious consequences for the economy and services. While the UK government is pledging to reduce net migration from current record levels, the Scottish government would like to attract more migrants, rather than fewer. The event’s focus was on how Scotland can achieve this aim.

What’s on the table?

In her keynote speech, the Minister emphasised the present, as well as future challenges: the impacts of demographic decline are already evident, with depopulation of areas of the Highlands and West of Scotland and skills shortages throughout. The Scottish Government’s policy is that responsibility for migration should be devolved to Scotland, so that new routes can be created. One current proposal, yet to be agreed by the UK government, is a rural visa pilot where migrants would be allowed to live and work in defined areas for 4 years, after which they could move elsewhere in the UK should they wish to. The Scottish Government is working closely with employers to provide advice and support on meeting skills needs. This includes working with charities including Talent Beyond Boundaries assisting refugees into skilled employment.

Why aren’t Hong Kongers coming to Scotland?

The focus of the event was on migration of people from Hong Kong, coming on the British National (Overseas) (BNO) visa route, introduced by the UK Government following the political crackdown in Hong Kong in 2020. Relatively few of the 150,000 who have come to the UK have chosen Scotland as their new home. Other speakers at the event, from the Strategic Migration Partnership, UKHK and the Welcoming Committee/British Future shed some light on some of the reasons why. They include lack of awareness of Scotland as a distinct and modern nation, rather than an extension of England or the setting for Braveheart. Harder to address issues are the weather and Scottish accents. Yet England and Wales can’t be complacent since many regional and even RP accents can also be difficult for Hong Kongers who are often taught American-accented English.

A distinct feature of Hong Kongers’ decisions about where to live in the UK is the influence of YouTubers who understand their audience’s needs very well. Education is a strong priority for Hong Kongers, keen for their children to have successful and happy lives. Towns in Surrey, the West Midlands and North West of England with high performing schools have attracted significant numbers for this reason. Low crime, good housing and employment opportunities are other key priorities. These are all things that Scotland can offer in abundance, along with unrivalled scenery, cultural and leisure opportunities – all of which are highly valued by Hong Kongers.

Hong Kongers are coming to start a new life

Scotland didn’t have difficulty attracting EU migrants under free movement. Since 2010 EU nationals have been the majority of people who are not British living in Scotland, compared to a third in the UK as whole. EU migrants, largely from new Eastern and Central European member states, were enticed to Scotland by employment agencies and direct employer recruitment, and later by word of mouth. They were largely young and single, sometimes coming to learn English or as a rite of passage and in other cases because of lack of opportunities in Poland. Long term settlement, while it has happened to a greater extent than elsewhere in the UK, was not part of EU migrants’ initial plans. This made it easier for Scotland to meet their needs since, initially at least, they were about jobs and accommodation.

In contrast, most Hong Kongers are coming as families. They plan to stay and to make a new life for themselves and their children. This makes choosing where to live a major life decision involving schools, housing, jobs, local amenities and more. Once they’ve decided to make the move, the UK is their oyster. And, though different from EU migrants in many respects, they are also are not attracted to areas with an existing community from their home land.

Move on from free movement

While free movement has ended, the belief that if the offer is good migrants will come, remains both in Scotland and across the UK. Record levels of UK net migration reinforce this misconception. In Scotland, lower levels are seen as proof that post-Brexit policies aren’t working. Yet many of the hard to fill vacancies reported by employers are in professional, vocational and specialist occupations, many of which are eligible for skilled visas. There’s a case for Scotland to have control over its own immigration. However, it seems that, for now at least, a visa and job offer might not be enough to attract the numbers that the country needs. A more proactive approach is needed.  

The puzzle of why migrants aren’t coming is missing a piece

After hearing from Hong Kongers on the panel and audience, the Minister agreed that the motivations and priorities of prospective migrants to Scotland – and not just Hong Kongers – need to be better understood and form part of the government’s strategy to attract more migrants. Adopting this approach will help the government to fill the missing piece in the puzzle of why Scotland has not been able to attract the migrants it wants and needs. Stakeholder organisations working to support Hong Kongers in Scotland, and elsewhere in the UK, will be ready to advise the Scottish Government to help attract, settle and integrate new Scots.

Heather Rolfe is Director of Research & Relationships at British Future