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Pseudo-research pulls 385,000 migrants out of a hat


The UK immigration debate isn’t a great place to look for rational or factual arguments at the best of times, and new rules concerning Romania and Bulgaria have spurred a new round of evidence-free speculation. As of January 1, people from both countries will be able to live and work in Britain and other EU nations as and when they please.

Given memories of large-scale – and vastly underestimated – migration from Eastern Europe to Britain after EU enlargement in 2004, many members of the British public are understandably anxious about the potential for a repeat. The government and much of the research community have been reticent to make predictions – also for understandable reasons. But this has left an opportunity for anyone willing to claim that they can forecast the future.

Last week saw a particularly unfortunate example. A report by the Democracy Institute, an American libertarian think-tank, predicted that 385,000 people will migrate from Romania and Bulgaria to the UK over the next five years.

This prediction was uncritically featured or cited in an array of newspapers including the The Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. But the report is deeply flawed and should be dismissed as not credible until its authors can prove otherwise, as it gives no information about the methods by which the prediction was generated. For the British press to continue using the prediction, giving credibility to the dubious report, would be both misleading to the public and damaging to public debate.

To be clear, the problem with the report is not that it predicts a high number. The issue is the lack of transparency about its methodology. The prediction comes from a self-described “proprietary econometric migration model” – in other words, a secret method. This means that there is no way of knowing where the number came from or of scrutinising the approach taken to generate it.

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