For many years in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, Britain might, with some justice, have been called a ‘nation of emigrants’. Those leaving the country outnumbered those coming in. Even today well over 300,000 a year typically leave the country expecting to be away for at least a year – the UN definition of long-term migration, which the ONS follows. The ‘stock’ of British-born people living abroad is around 5 million; according to the UN, this is the largest number of expats for any high-income OECD country. By contrast, only about two and a half million Americans live outside the Land of the Free.
The make-up of those emigrating is revealing. Despite bucolic fantasies of retiring to Provence or geriatric hedonism on the Costa Brava, adult emigrants are overwhelmingly of working age and are moving to, or seeking, jobs abroad. They are disproportionately from managerial and professional occupations. 40% are taking advantage of the free movement of labour to work elsewhere in the European Union.
But this isn’t a brain drain story. Startlingly, very few (5-10,000 a year) emigrants are leaving to study abroad. This contrasts sharply with immigration to the UK, which currently welcomes around 175,000 overseas students a year. Arguably we should encourage more UK students to study abroad to redress this balance: the muddled and expensive student loan system, and our appalling school language teaching, discourage mobility. Theresa May’s concerns about overseas students might look less plausible if more of our youngsters acquired experience of other countries at an important stage of their development. And it is not just among students that there is virtual one-way traffic – people from professional footballers to academics to HR managers might well improve their future careers with a spell abroad.
Most of those studying overseas, of course, will return home eventually. And this reminds us that ‘emigration’ is a misleading term. Less than half of emigrants are Brits: in 2011 57% of those leaving the country were non-UK citizens. Emigrants seem to be more likely to be single than immigrants, and fewer of them are moving for purposes of family reunion.
The current concerns about uncontrolled EU immigration are understandable, but a look at the figures suggests that they need qualification. EU immigrants are more likely to ‘return emigrate’ than non-EU immigrants, especially those from Africa and the Indian sub-continent. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh alone account for about 30% of those who become British citizens, a good indicator of permanent settlement.
Of course some EU ‘emigrants’ from the UK may return as ‘immigrants’ at some later date. With free mobility of labour, EU nationals (Brits included) may have a number of spells working in a country, perhaps studying, returning, coming back to work, returning and so forth.
All these subtleties suggest that policy-makers need to tread carefully in designing policies, which may not lead to the outcomes they expect.
For example, a clampdown on EU migration to the UK may lead, at least in the short run, to a perverse result. Primary immigration may fall, but so may emigration as those EU citizens already here decide not to go home as they may not be allowed back into the UK. And as Brits will no longer be free to move to Spain, France and Germany (as they now do in quite large numbers), their emigration will be deterred too. If they lose jobs abroad they may have to come home, boosting ‘return immigration’ – currently running at over 90,000 a year, something which people are generally not aware of. The result of these contrasting flows might very well be that net immigration – that feared political headline figure – actually rises.
Playing the numbers game, then, is hazardous. We need to be a lot clearer just why we want restrictions on labour mobility, whom we wish to exclude and what the predictable consequences of doing so would be.