LONDON — They flock unstoppably through Britain's border crossings, thousands every week, posing a threat to social, demographic, and economic stability, according to some.
But this is not another verdict on the perils of immigration. This is about people moving in the opposite direction. Surprisingly, for a country obsessed about immigrants, Britons are emigrating in record numbers.
Official data show that more than 350,000 people leave the country every year, up almost 50 percent from 10 years ago. A recent BBC survey remarkably found that 13 percent of people said they were hoping to emigrate in the near future – double the figure from a similar survey conducted three years ago.
At least 4.5 million Britons – about 8 percent of the population – now live abroad, a far bigger diaspora in percentage terms than those of other rich countries like France, Germany, and the US. Those anxious about rising immigration numbers should take note: more Britons now live overseas than the number of foreign nationals resident in Britain.
"In Britain there is an emigration culture which doesn't exist in other continental European countries," notes Frank Laczko, head of research for the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration. That the British have a penchant for emigration is clear from the number of TV shows about buying property abroad, living overseas, and "a place in the sun," he says.
"If you look at France by comparison, people do not dream of living abroad," he adds. "There is not this discussion."
So who goes where and why? According to Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, an expert with the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, emigration has become far more democratic.
"It's not just about colonial officers looking for opportunities elsewhere," he says. These days, he says, it's just as likely to be a plumber taking his trade to Spain or Australia, a nurse who can make more money in the Gulf, a policeman attracted by the great outdoors of New Zealand, or middle-class retirees with a windfall from soaring property prices heading for rural France. "They aren't fleeing a sinking ship, but are going to seek out better opportunities and lifestyles," he says.
Richard Gregan, director of Overseas Emigration Visas, a company that helps some 2,000 Britons resettle overseas each year, says business is booming, with clients from a broad cross section. "We see everybody from the megawealthy to the small business owner, the tradesman and white- and blue-collar workers. The youngest are 25 and the age range goes right up to 55-year-olds."
Australia is the most popular destination, with 615,000 Britons. Despite stiff entry requirements for immigrant workers, the United States is second, with about 500,000 Britons. According to a recent survey by the ICM polling institute, the chief factors driving Britons overseas are better quality of life, high costs at home, job relocation, and yes, the weather.
Andy Rix, who has worked as an outsourcing consultant in Chicago since emigrating seven years ago, says there are plenty of things about British life that he is happy to have left behind.
"I definitely don't miss the weather," he says. "I don't miss bad service in restaurants, and I can't remember the last time I stood at a bar yelling to attract the bartender's attention. I don't miss the glass-half-empty, doom-and-gloom attitude that periodically engulfs the Brits. Once you get used to it, always looking on the bright side of everything, as most Americans do, is a better way to live your life."
David Maund, a restructuring adviser in Hong Kong, says most Britons he knows moved for reasons of career and lifestyle. He says many start out on a short-term posting and decide to prolong their stint. "The majority of my British expatriate friends are long-term expats and unlikely to return to the UK," he says.
The trend is significant because it comes at a time when Britain is becoming very touchy about the numbers moving in the opposite direction.
Migrant workers have found Britain an easy destination because of its relatively relaxed approach to newcomers. But figures showing that almost half a million East Europeans flocked to Britain to work in the two years since EU expansion (the government predicted no more than 13,000) have revived a debate about setting immigration thresholds.
John Reid, the home secretary, has started talking of "controlled" immigration. The terror threat has, moreover, convinced authorities that Britain should be less welcoming, particularly when it comes to hate preachers and radical jihadis.
Yet with a stagnating birthrate and more people heading overseas, some migration experts are warning that the government should take a much closer look at the impact of emigration on society.
Mr. Sriskandarajah says the outflow of well-educated people could hurt the workforce. "I don't want to suggest we should panic ... but I think Treasury should think about size of pensions being taken abroad," he says. He also wonders about double standards. "It's hypocritical to say we want to benefit from the positive opportunities of emigration for our people, but don't want people to come here."
Mr. Laczko highlights factors from the loss of capital overseas to the impact on Spanish health services of British retirees, to rising property prices in rural France. He notes that Australia and Ireland, with high rates of emigration, are making noises about wanting some of the brightest and best to come home or at least reinvest in their home countries.
For now, the government appears as relaxed about emigration as it is touchy about immigration. "We are not concerned about a skills deficit because there is so much positive immigration from Eastern Europe," says one government official. "We are fairly relaxed about emigration."