Rush to leave Britain explodes migrant myths

Immigration scare stories are not supported by the figures. More people want to get out of the UK than in

THEY ARE swarming across the borders, hundreds of thousands of them, in search of a better life. Charles Wardle, the former immigration minister who resigned last week, is right: Europe is allowing them to quit their lives of poverty and unhappiness and seek a better existence elsewhere, unhampered by border restrictions.

But "they" are the British, who have taken advantage of the European Union to head for warmer climes or better jobs in vast numbers over the past 25 years. More Britons left home to live elsewhere in Europe in the last two decades than any other EU nationality, according to figures published by the Council of Europe.

The figures show that if there is one nation with an interest in removing border controls and easing the freedom of movement in Europe, it is us. Though after the performance of British football hooligans in Dublin last week, it might be fair to ask whether other countries want to let us in.

There are, according to EU figures, about 350,000 Britons living in Europe outside Britain, half of whom went there in the 1970s and 1980s. They form the largest European expatriate colonies in Spain, Greece, Ireland and Portugal, the second largest in the Netherlands and the third largest in Italy. Even taking into account the size of populations, it seems that only Ireland saw a larger exodus to Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.

According to figures from the Council of Europe, the number of Britons in Spain increased by 600 per cent from 1971 to 1992, up to 90,000. They are almost certainly the largest single expatriate national group resident in Spain. There are twice as many Britons in Spain as Germans, so all that stuff about poolside loungers doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. We get there first because we live there.

The number of Britons in Portugal went up from 4,000 to 9,000 over the same period, comprising the largest national group after those from former Portuguese colonies. Greece has 21,000 British residents, up from 3,000 in 1971.

These movements partly reflect people retiring to the sun. But there is also increasing evidence of Britons seeking job opportunities in Europe's wealthier nations. There are about 100,000 British subjects in Germany, for instance, and that does not just reflect the continuing military presence. More Britons arrived there in the 1970s and 1980s than any other nationality apart from the Poles, Turks and Yugoslavs. There are 50,000 in France, an increase of 25,000 since we entered Europe.

The EU member states with the largest expatriate populations elsewhere in Europe are Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal. But as those countries have become wealthier in the past 20 years, many of their citizens have returned home.

The argument that the rest of the world is desperate to get into Britain does not seem to hold water, as far as the EU is concerned at least. There are about 38,000 French in Britain and 42,000 Germans, for instance, so we evidently do not have quite the same attraction for them as they do for us. But then we are the sixth poorest of the 15 EU countries, with Spain catching up fast. Welfare benefits are far from being the most generous in Europe.

The scare story retailed by Mr Wardle was that there are vast numbers of immigrants in the rest of Europe desperate to come to Britain and claim welfare benefits: the figure of 15 million was quoted. In fact, there are about that number of people in Europe living outside their country of origin, but 5.5 million of them are from the other EU countries, who can go wherever they want, even with passport controls.

Of the remaining 9.5 million, 1.2 million are already legally resident in Britain. That leaves about 8.3 million people resident in other countries. Many of those in Germany are ethnic Germans, who seem unlikely to leave for a non-German speaking country. And the non-EU populations of most other states are largely made up of those from their former colonies.

Turning immigration into Britain into a scare story is easy, but fundamentally belied by the figures. By European standards, Britain has a relatively low foreign population. Though we have the second largest in absolute terms (about 2 million,of whom one third are Irish), in percentage terms we lag behind Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany and Norway. We are way behind Germany, which has about 6 million foreign residents.

Nor is there any evidence of a huge influx of asylum seekers to Britain, despite the Home Office's decision to clamp down last week. Most of those who come legally to Britain - about 85 per cent - are joining their families. We saw a decline in asylum applications in 1993, for instance, and never experienced the huge numbers that scared Germany during the early 1990s.

There was a huge problem of illegal migration into Europe through clandestine means at the beginning of the decade. The evidence seems to be that this is declining. Last week, for instance, Romania - one of the main sources of legal and illegal immigration into the EU in the early 1990s - said the number of people trying to leave had fallen from 144,000 in 1990 to 22,500 last year.

The widely rumoured exodus of Russians into Europe - figures as high as 2 million were mooted - has not happened. The Bosnian crisis led to a huge refugee outflow, but that has also peaked.

By portraying EU policy as aimed at removing defences against immigration, Mr Wardle was also being deeply misleading. The problems which Germany experienced earlier in the 1990s have led to a Europe-wide clampdown on asylum and migration. The main focus of EU efforts in the past five years has been to put up the barriers, not to lower the drawbridge.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral