Return to opening page for further information and viewing conditions

The British diaspora

We hear a lot about the number of immigrants arriving in Britain -
but what of the thousands of British citizens moving abroad?

How many Brits are leaving?
The exodus is greater than at any time since before the First World War, in percentage terms at least. An estimated 208,000 British citizens left these shores in 2004 - up from 135,000 in 1995. Around 4.5 million British passport holders (approximately 8% of the population) are believed to live abroad, proportionately far more than have left other rich countries such as Germany and France, and a figure that dwarfs the number of foreign nationals living in the UK (2.9 million). It's an outflow that seems likely to grow: according to a recent BBC survey, 13% of us are hoping to emigrate "in the near future", Brits in double the figure three years ago.

Is this a new phenomenon?
By no means. Throughout history British citizens have shown a strong tendency for wanderlust. Of the many millions of Europeans who left for America in the 19th century, for instance, a third were from Britain or Ireland. Passenger statistics show that between 1853 and 1913, some 13 million Brits (most of them aged between 18 and 45) left the country for extra-European ports. Many came home again, but between 1870 and 1913, six million more people left Britain than arrived - equivalent to approximately 13% of the 1913 population.

What is the legacy of these earlier exoduses?
According to Frank Laczko, of the International Organisation for Migration in Geneva, Britain has an emigration culture which simply doesn't exist in the rest of Europe. True, many Europeans emigrate - but largely for economic reasons. (Germany is currently suffering a "brain drain" as a result of its high unemployment levels.) British motivation seems to be more complex and emotional. As evidence, Laczko cites our insatiable appetite for books and TV programmes about living overseas and buying "a place in the sun". In France, "people do not dream of living abroad", he says. "There is not this discussion."

Why are so many leaving now?
Very little serious research has been done into what is prompting the British to leave. A recent poll blamed high taxes, but since it was commissioned by the Taxpayers' Alliance, the results have been greeted with some scepticism. Anecdotal evidence suggests that motivation varies enormously. Some emigres are undoubtedly chasing job opportunities: others are seeking a warmer climate and a better quality of life, or taking advantage of lower property prices.

Given that emigration is higher now than in the economic dark days of the Seventies, it is likely that people are not leaving primarily to seek their fortunes, but that thanks to greater prosperity, they can more easily afford to get away. Other factors that may have spurred people to move abroad include new EU rules making it much easier to live and work in Europe, and better communications - cheap flights, the internet, and cheaper international phone calls - all of which have made emigrating seem a far less drastic move.

Where do they all go?
The country with the biggest number of British passport holders - 800,000 of them - is China, a fact that seems less surprising when you consider that many of them are in the former British enclave of Hong Kong. Australia comes second, with 615,000 permanent British-born residents. There are also 500,000 in the United States (despite its strict entry requirements). But we get everywhere, from Mongolia (300) and Iceland (900) to Ethiopia (1,500) and Bolivia (2,000). It is difficult to estimate the number of Britons who have made new lives in the EU, as they are no longer obliged to register themselves as permanent residents. Official French figures put the number of Britons living or working in France at 600,000, although other estimates are closer to 200,000. Spain and Germany are also popular destinations.

Are they welcome?
It's impossible to generalise about the British experience abroad, and again, the evidence is largely anecdotal. But it is certainly said that, while we expect immigrants to Britain to integrate, we feel no such responsibility ourselves when we move abroad. Indeed, Britons often don't actually consider themselves as immigrants, so much as "ex-pats". In France, Britons have been credited with bringing new life to depopulated rural areas.

However, there have also been complaints in areas such as Brittany that the newcomers live in ghettos, overload the health service, avoid taxes and ride roughshod over local customs. "The original emigres came because they really loved France," says Jocelyn Piper Kemsley, an estate agent who has lived in France for 20 years. "Those that come now are here to take advantage of the better style of living and they don't mind whether it is France, Spain or Italy - they simply want a detached house with its own grounds."

Are there similar tensions elsewhere?
It would seem so. Research at Aberdeen University suggests that on Spain's Costa Del Sol, social interaction between Spaniards and immigrant Britons is scant, stoking resentment which has led to British children becoming the victims of racist attacks. Other studies have found that fewer than 10% of the British patients at hospitals on the Costas are capable of communicating with staff, and many doctors are refusing to treat them, unless they have an interpreter. The Spanish health minister, meanwhile, has said Spain's health service can't cope with all the British patients (many of them elderly), and is demanding £40m from the UK Government to pay for their care (see box). But Age Concern in Spain says it gets 12,000 calls a year from Britons who find that they are incapable of finding, or ineligible for, the care they need.

Am I entitled to health care in the EU?
British citizens travelling in the European Economic Area are entitled to free, or reduced¬cost state health care, if they have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), and if the treatment becomes necessary while they are abroad. The definition of "necessary" is somewhat elastic, but clearly incorporates more than just emergencies.

If someone wants to go abroad specifically for medical treatment, they can apply for an E112 referral, which, if granted, means the NHS pays for all or some of the cost. Their local health commissioner will need to be convinced that there is good reason, economic and/or medical, for having the treatment abroad.

People who make another EU country their permanent residence are not entitled to carry an EH1C. Instead, in order to use the local health service, they must register with the local social security system. (Many don't get round to it, which can cause serious problems when they fall ill.)

Emigrants are also often advised to take out private medical insurance, since in some ELI countries (eg France) patients have to contribute to the cost of their care, while in others, the state system isn't as comprehensive as the NHS.
The Week 16.09.06
See also

The Scottish Diaspora