A day in the life of a shifting population: the 2,500 migrants who come in and out

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The Independent Online

Up to 500 Britons a day are acting on their dreams of upping sticks and moving to a new home. Record numbers emigrated from the UK last year, with Australia, Spain and France topping the list of preferred destinations.

The scale of the exodus emerged yesterday as government figures painted a dramatic picture of "departure lounge Britain". Some 1,500 immigrants arrived in the UK every day in 2005, with people from Poland leading the influx, while 1,000 left the country.

Half of them were UK nationals opting for a life abroad, mainly attacted by work opportunities, a lower cost of living and the prospect of retirement in warmer climates. One in five headed for Australia, where many Britons already have relatives, research by the Office for National Statistics showed. Large numbers also emigrated to Spain, where a large expatriate retirement community lives, and France, which has surged in popularity with Britons over the past decade.

Thousands also chose the United States, which is recovering in popularity since the September 11 terrorist attacks, and New Zealand.

Of the other nationalities that left Britain last year, 56,000 were from the EU; 40,000 from "old Commonwealth" countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; 24,000 from "new Commonwealth" nations and 62,000 from other countries.

The UK, in common with much of the Western world, has experienced high levels both of immigration and emigration for a decade. The numbers settling in this country for at least 12 months fell slightly last year to 565,000, with Poles representing the single largest group of incomers. Over the same period, 380,000 people left the country - half of them foreign nationals and half of them Britons emigrating abroad.

The overall effect was that the population increased by 185,000 as a result of migration in 2005, or 500 a day. Immigration, rather than birth rate, is now the biggest cause of the growth of Britain's population, which passed 60 million last year.

In 2005, 80,000 east Europeans settled in Britain, mainly from Poland. This was the first full year of the European Union membership of eight former Soviet-bloc countries. At the same time, 15,000 east Europeans returned home, suggesting that the numbers from those countries in Britain increased by 65,000 over the year.

The figures also confirm that the vast majority of east European workers who come to the UK - estimated at more than 600,000 since the EU expanded in May 2004 - stay in the country for less than a year.

High numbers of immigrants came from south Asia last year, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as the "old Commonwealth" countries. And 15,000 Americans settled in Britain - mainly for work - while significant numbers of Spaniards and Germans also made the move.

The net inflow of asylum-seekers fell to 11,000 from a record high of 81,000 five years earlier. It is the lowest figure for more than a decade.

The falling asylum figures demonstrate that the political sting has been taken out of the sector over the past two years as tougher enforcement measures begin to bite and the number of removals increases.

Liam Byrne, the Immigration minister, said that migrant workers made a vital contribution to the country, with workers from the new east European EU members boosting the economy by £4bn annually.

He added: "What the data doesn't show is that many of these migrants are coming to the UK to take posts in important industries benefiting the UK." Mr Byrne said that about one in four work-permit applications were for jobs in the health sector and one in six in information technology.

Danny Sriskandarajah, a migration specialist with the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank, said: "We have a healthy economy that attracts workers from all over the world, a world-class education system that attracts international students, and the UK has been welcoming hardworking young eastern Europeans.

"With record numbers of people coming and going from the UK in recent years, it is clear that the UK more than any other country is becoming a global hub for the movement of people." He said those emigrating were "seeking job opportunities, retiring abroad, wanting a better quality of life or just better weather".

Damian Green, the shadow Immigration minister, said: "The net immigration figure for 2005 is again huge. The Government needs to tell us whether it plans to have around 200,000 extra people coming to Britain every year."

Sir Andrew Green, of the right-wing pressure group Migrationwatch, said that Britain was already one of the most crowded countries in the world. "We cannot go on absorbing people at the rate of 500 a day. We have a real problem of infrastructure and community cohesion," he said.