This statement sets out what an economic migrant is and what the available data tells us about migrants arriving in small boats.

What is an economic migrant?

An economic migrant is distinct and different from a refugee. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees defines an economic migrant as “persons who leave their countries of origin purely for economic reasons not in any way related to the refugee definition, or in order to seek material improvements in their livelihood.” An asylum seeker is defined as “people who seek sanctuary (sometimes referred to as ‘international protection’) in another country by applying for asylum – the right to be recognized as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance.” A refugee is defined as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”  

What does the available data tell us about migrants arriving in small boats? 

The Home Office has recently begun to publish data on irregular migration, including arrivals by small boat. These data provide estimates of the nationality of those arriving by small boat and statistics on their age and sex. As part of its quarterly Immigration statistics release, the Home Office also publishes regular statistics on the outcome of asylum applications. However, asylum grants by arrival route are not currently available, so the proportion of people arriving in small boats who are, or are not, granted asylum and recognised as refugees cannot currently be estimated.  

What does this mean for claims related to economic migrants? 

While there are data available relating to the nationality, sex and age profile of those arriving by small boat, it is not possible to know how many are ‘economic migrants’. There is a public interest in knowing this information and Home Office should consider what additional analysis could be developed and provided to help inform understanding of this issue.  

Without this information, statements about the proportion of economic migrants arriving in small boats should not be made; they are not supported by data, and therefore have the potential to give a misleading picture.

More information on our recent and ongoing work related to migration statistics, including arrivals by small boats, can be found on our Population and Society domain page.