Michaela Benson examines the number of people leaving the UK for the purposes of long-term migration. She highlights the absence of emigration from the political and policy debate and asks whether in the context of labour shortages in certain sectors it might be time for this to change.
When we think about migration since Brexit, there has been a tendency to reduce this to immigration. The other side of the coin, emigration, only ever fleetingly comes into view.
But with a rise in emigration among EU citizens since the Brexit referendum onwards to the possibility that a third of junior doctors are planning to leave NHS to work abroad, it is perhaps time for the UK government to give more attention to emigration and to consider why people might be leaving, and what they might do to incentivise them to stay.
In the year ending December 2022, 557,000 people were estimated to have left the UK for the purposes of long-term migration (Figure 1) – a not insignificant number.
Notably emigration was at an all-time high for non-EU nationals.
But what we can’t tell from this data is why people leave the UK – or at least, not in any great detail. As the ONS highlight, the number of non-EU citizens leaving the UK is skewed towards those who previously entered the UK as students (where their studies last for longer than one year). Non-EU students accounted for 153,000 of those leaving in the year ending 2022. But of the EU and British citizens leaving the UK, no such analysis – which is linked to data on how people originally entered the UK – is possible.
There are no large-scale surveys that capture details about why people leave the UK. The handful of in-depth studies of British citizens living abroad offer some insights into why these citizens left the UK for a life abroad – work, family, and study being the most significant. But when it comes to EU citizens, until Brexit there had been little consideration of those leaving the UK. This started to change in the face of the post-Brexit exodus of EU citizens – which peaked at 302,000 in the year ending June 2019, with some subsequent research which considered their onward and return mobility.
Since the referendum, fears of a brain drain from sectors including higher education and healthcare have surfaced. The government’s response to labour shortages in these and other areas has involved adjustments to the managed migration system. This includes relaxed eligibility criteria for those seeking to migrate to the UK to work in health and social care, the introduction of Global Talent visas and short-term visas for seasonal workers and lorry drivers (among others).
In a context where the Home Secretary remains concerned about driving down net migration, it is perhaps unsurprising that more attention is not paid to emigration or that it is rare to hear British politicians recommend ways to reduce this.
Indeed, a reduction in the number of those leaving the UK would, by simple mathematical equation, have the consequence of increasing net migration to the UK. However, mathematical equations neglect the human dimensions of migration. Introducing incentives for people to stay in sought-after sectors experiencing labour shortages, might, for example lead to a healthier and more sustainable economy in a context of reduced turnover of staff.
Since 1972, when the British government ended the assisted passage of UK-born, white British subjects to Australia, emigration – whether of British citizens or others – ceased to be part of the UK migration policy agenda. Today’s managed migration regime centres almost exclusively on immigration – deportation and other policies relating to voluntary removal being the obvious exception to this. What this means is that there is no obvious pathway to insert emigration into public policy conversations.
Looking back at parliamentary debates taking place since 1972, emigration has, nevertheless, found its way onto the agenda. Notably debates focused on two concerns. On the one hand, they were tied to fears about depopulation – a concern linked both to race relations, in the context of rising immigration, and the future of rural areas and Scotland and Wales in the context of rapid urbanisation and social change. On the other hand, they focused on the loss of key workers notable among them, doctors and academics – as research workers – through emigration, in a context where working conditions and pay were better elsewhere. Yet, since 1987, there has not been a parliamentary debate explicitly focused on emigration.
But could the tide be turning?
On 5 July the British Medical Association passed a motion to urge the UK government to incentivise the retention of UK-trained doctors by covering the student loan repayments of doctors, so long as they work in the NHS following graduation.
If ongoing discussions conclude that the UK will rejoin the Horizon science programme – as the reports of a draft agreement between the UK and EU indicate – this might stem some of the anticipated brain drain within Higher Education and research. This has been on the parliamentary agenda for its impact on the UK’s research leadership. Less considered, however, has been how this impasse has already led to the emigration of world-leading academic talent.
These are just two case studies. And what both cases demonstrate is that there are soft levers that could be pulled to incentivise people to stay in the UK, reducing risks in relation to labour shortages in key sectors, which it might be time for the government to consider. But first, we need better public and political understandings of why people are leaving for pastures new and what might induce them to stay.
By Michaela Benson, Professor in Public Sociology, University of Lancaster
For further discussion listen to the latest episode of the ‘Who do we think we are? Presents Global Britain’ podcast with Michaela Benson and Nando Sigona. You can find the podcast on all major podcasting platforms or through our RSS Feed. Get all the latest updates from the MIGZEN research project on Twitter and Instagram.