Free movement: UK arrivals and departures

In an increasingly interdependent world UK public policy should acknowledge international mobility and diversity as a permanent social trend

Many people who’ve lived in Britain all their lives dream of winning the National Lottery and being able to move away to some sun-kissed paradise overseas.  Brits routinely holiday abroad and migration, whether short-term or long-term, is common.  

Most of us, however, continue to live in a country where we can enjoy beautiful countryside and coastline, historic buildings, a varied arts and culture scene, and a tradition of volunteering and community support groups. The population of the UK is generally tolerant and easy-going, happy to share these good things with people from other countries. That said, the media keeps telling us that since Brexit there has been growing xenophobia and resentment towards foreign nationals in Britain.

Yet in spite of social and political reserve in some quarters towards foreigners, many people do want to come and live here.  The Migration Statistics Quarterly Report (MSQR) of the Office of National Statistics (ONS) notes that in the year ending June 2017 immigration to the UK was 572,000 (down 80,000 since June 2016) and emigration was 342,000 (up 26,000). To quote the report: “overall, more people are still coming to live in the UK than are leaving and therefore net migration is adding to the UK population.”  

So, what really attracts them to the UK?

In their recent study, Buying into Myths: Free Movement of People and Immigration 2016, Eiko Thielemann and Daniel Schade have suggested that migration flows between EU countries including Britain have been largely the result of high levels of unemployment in southern Europe and poor labour market conditions in Eastern European countries. Unemployment rates in the UK have been low compared to such countries. And when you don’t have work, one obvious option is to move somewhere else to look for a job.

Vasileva first came to Britain from her native Bulgaria in June 2008 She’s now  forty-something-years-old, is raising a family, and has lived in York for almost ten years. She has a permanent job as an office manager with an international training company. Vasileva says she enjoys the cosmopolitan feel of this country, the chance to share meals and conversation with people from all over the world. She loves the sense of community and support, and “people realising the value of these things.”

Something that native monolingual Brits find incredibly hard to understand is that many people come to study, live and work here simply because they know that the best way to learn a language is to come to the country where it is spoken. There is a global hunger for learning English, and with this there is often a natural curiosity to learn about the culture that lies behind the language. Take Céline, for instance. She’s a 32-year-old French teacher who has also lived in the north of England for just under ten years. “I love speaking English every day, and sharing my passion for languages with my students and the children in school.” She loves the kindness she has experienced here as well as the British sense of humour. 

“I also appreciate the fact that you can travel easily from one place to another by just jumping in the car or on a train. In France, you have to travel a long way to see a change of scenery or region.” 

Closely allied to learning English is the idea in many countries of the status attached to living and working in an English-speaking country such as Britain.  

For some immigrants it is the liberal social culture of the UK that attracts them. This is especially true of people from countries with oppressive religious or strict social conventions.  In an interview for an article in The Guardian in 2014, one anonymous 47-year-old woman from Turkey tells of how she came to Britain via France to escape the clutches of her dictatorial father back in Istanbul. “I did not come here for money or benefits; safety and freedom were my main concerns. I am forever grateful that I have had the opportunity to become a free citizen who is entitled to a normal life. Bringing up our children in a free country is priceless

 “Many people, many reasons, “was Vasileva’s reaction to the question why she thought people wanted to come and live in the UK.  She saw the main driver of immigration as aspirational.  “Every individual will be different. But for most people it’s because they like to travel and want to advance themselves whether personally, professionally or financially.”  

 It might just be that free movement of people is a seismic social trend that increasingly goes beyond the power of democratic politics to stop. Migration on a large scale is now more possible than ever in our increasingly globalised world. International migration in search of a better life will continue to defy Canute-like attempts to turn back the tide.

* David Wilson is a York-based freelance writer and Liberal Democrat. He has been actively campaigning against Brexit since June 2016

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  • John Marriott 21st Jun '19 - 12:56pm

    Free movement of people from anywhere (with the exception of asylum seekers, dependent family members and students, who have secured a place of study) NO

    Free movement of Labour from anywhere (if they have secured employment in advance) YES

  • How high do you wish the population to reach, David? 80 million? 120 million? Do you not believe this will have a negative impact on individual living standards? I dread to think how infrastructure and housing will cope. Or do you not care for this?

    You’re as ideologically extreme as the rabid anti-immigration lot – an opposing view, but just as damaging.

  • My understanding is that you have to be habitually resident here to claim benefits even from the EU so that means if you move here on spec without a job you have to be able to support yourself for 3, 4 or more months. In addition few people move much even within the UK let alone internationally once they have a family and children.

    The population of the UK has grown from 8 million in 1801 to 24 million in 1881 to about 55 million today mainly through a higher birth rate and neonatal survival and a lower death rate rather than immigration. And guess what? We have actually coped with better housing and less overcrowding than in the 1800s! Fly over the UK and there’s a lot of green space left!

    By and large it’s a good deal to swap older people requiring health care to say Spain for younger economic active people!!!

  • John Marriott 22nd Jun '19 - 9:26am

    @Michael 1
    Goodness me, I hope that that last paragraph of yours was an example of humour/irony ‘Michael 1’ style. Either way, it’s in very bad taste. Given what you’ve said, rather than go to Spain, I think I’d opt for a euthanasia pill!

    They always say that you can judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable, especially its elderly, of which, at 75, I am definitely one!

    As I said earlier, as far as inward migration to the U.K. is concerned, NO (with exceptions) to free movement of people and YES to free movement of LABOUR.

  • For most people who object to immigration the issue of migration into the U.K. is not really about people coming into the country but a code for identifiable people coming into the country. But then curiously enough they are prepared to thank to the people who work in hospitals for helping themselves and their families.
    If we had had zero immigration over recent years the country would be below replacement level so the population would be dropping.
    We are victim of our own myths. We object to planning by the state. It is socialism, and remember Venezuela. So as a result of this when workers are needed they are brought in. I live on Merseyside. When there was very large building work in Liverpool, there were agencies that worked in Warsaw to find skilled workers and bring them over.
    What is needed is, I suggest, a determination to stop bombing people in other countries as we have done in so many places. We should put resources into working for peace, rather than for war. And we need to recognise that we have an obligation to each other to ensure that all are entitled to a share of our vast wealth.

  • The thing is every survey of attitudes since the year dot shows this not be true. Also in terms of environmental impact a population below replacement level would be a positive. There would be less air travel. less traffic, less destruction of land, more self sufficiency in food production , less strain on the water table, less land fill , less fuel pollution and so on. There is a fundamental mismatch between concerns about climate change and the ramped up consumerist economy driven expansion favoured by supporters of globalization. GDP is less important than quality of life and environmental sustainability.

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Jun '19 - 11:17am

    @Michael 1
    “The population of the UK has grown from 8 million in 1801 to 24 million in 1881 to about 55 million today…”

    No – the population of the UK is around 67 million. The population of England is around 55 milion

  • @john Marriott

    If you look at my post in no way was I advocating killing off older people quite the opposite! One of the advantages of free movement in the EU is that older people if they want can move easily to countries like Spain or France where they are likely to live longer in warmer climates (look at our disgraceful record on ‘excess’ winter deaths). I was pointing out the benefits of free movement not just of labour.

    One of the points made against free movement is how this is terrible economically. People coming here & allegedly immediately getting benefits, NHS care, council housing etc. In fact for all these including NHS care (except reasonably enough emergency care) you need to be habitually resident here & indeed for many years for social housing. Mostly free movement is de facto free movement of labour to a very large degree for the reasons outlined & as I say free movement generally (certainly within the EU) benefits the UK.

    I should have added the words ‘for the economy’ to ‘a good deal’ for clarity An economically active youngish person is a net contributor to the economy paying more tax than they get in benefits. Sadly (but I’m not denying them it) healthcare shoots up in cost for older people. If they go & live elsewhere permanently of their own accord that’s a burden off our taxpayers & prob a longer life for them! Estimates vary but there may be 1.5 million more non UK EU citizens here than UK citizens in the EU 27. For the reasons outlined that is prob. of net economic benefit even though we have more of theirs than they do of ours.

  • @nonconformistradical

    Quite right!

    I didn’t look carefully enough that the Wikipedia page was for England.

    However obviously the point is still valid that we have had very large increases in population and survived – indeed more than survived – prospered with better housing as a rule! Obviously also England is more densely populated than the other nations of the UK. And as soon as you fly over England there is still a lot of green space and no doubt more in the other nations of the UK!

    In fact the figures are prob. roughly accurate (esp. in terms of the growth). For the adult population of the UK. A page on the ONS website estimates this as 52 million for the UK.

  • @ Michael 1 Swapping old people.

    Well done. You get this week’s prize for how to lose votes and influence people by exhibiting insensitive illiberal tendencies.

  • John Marriott 22nd Jun '19 - 10:44pm

    @Michael 1
    You and I have crossed swords on several occasions recently. You are obviously someone, who takes his politics seriously – and can back up his arguments with some serious facts and figures.

    However, you might be brilliant at research, and nobody is doubting your sincerity; but, if I were you, I would steer clear of any attempt at humour, sarcasm, or whatever you want to call it. You see, what you said in that final paragraph has convinced at least one LDV regular that you are on the wrong track. You should leave the attempts at humour to cynics like me and, dare I say, David Raw.


  • @david raw


    I think as you know you are misrepresenting me (see below!)

    ‘You get this week’s prize for how to lose votes’

    There is now a very important section of the electorate who we probably haven’t campaigned with much before and somewhat ignored. That’s better off, older tories (particularly but not exclusively in London and the home counties in what used to be termed the stock broker belt) who are against Brexit. This includes ex-pats in the EU 27, those who spend extended holidays there and those looking to go there in the future or buy a second property there. They are likely to face very much higher health costs, many more hassles and fears etc. In addition they may have children looking to spend some time at university in the EU, some of their career there etc. etc.

    @john Marriott

    Thanks for your kind words and praise.

    I was not being humourous or sarcastic. You’re misrepresenting me. At no time did I advocate killing off older people or forcing them to move to the Eu27. But it is a fact that we have in general terms swapped older people *voluntararily* retiring etc, to the Eu27 for younger economically active people *voluntararily* coming here. For those that *choose* to do so this is a win-win-win situation. The older get a better life that prob, improves their health etc. It is often cheaper for them individually with no expensive heating bills and often a cheaper cost of living. And the taxpayer gets people who contribute net to the Exchequer and is no longer responsible for those that happen to cost a lot especially in healthcare. This has in general terms been the benefit of *voluntary* free movement in the EU and it is worth pointing it out when you are doubting it.

    Actually those thinking immigration is of benefit has shot up since 2016 – from memory about 20% which for me is encouraging. As it happens I think it’s highly likely that net migration between the UK and the EU27 will soon if we stay in fall to around net 0,

  • John Marriott 24th Jun '19 - 3:35pm

    @Michael 1
    My comment about taking a ‘euthanasia pill’ was rhetorical, I think. The thought of spending the rest of my days on the Costa del Sol would, for me at least, be a fate worse than death! Can’t you see how your bright idea about moving us oldies to warmer climes (possibly too warm if climate change continues) smacks of the nanny state or something even worse?

    Like many of my generation, who have seen a bit of the world, whilst appreciating the health benefits of a warmer climate for old bones, I have absolutely no desire to spend the remaining years of my life surrounded by sun, sea and sangria! You know, I quite enjoy our changeable British weather, despite our national pastime of moaning about it!

    The fact that what you are proposing, which might conceivably appear to be logical to you, wasn’t an attempt at humour quite worries me, a bit like your suggestion for a Lib Dem summer activity of ‘throwing stones at the Council’. (Surely that WAS a joke?) I reckon you need to spend a little less time on your opinion polls and just get out a bit more! Or at least make sure that what you might be seriously proposing might not, by its ability to be misunderstood, come back to bite you.

  • Well said, John. I’m just glad there’s only one of them. A Michael2 would be 2 much to bear.

    As for me, I love it in sunny Scotland (even though there’s a sea haar just now over the Forth and I can’t see Fife). It somehow feels much more sunny not living under a Tory Gov’t for a great many things. Dreich is beautiful.

  • Peter Watson 24th Jun '19 - 4:54pm

    @Michael 1 “There is now a very important section of the electorate who we probably haven’t campaigned with much before and somewhat ignored. That’s better off, older tories (particularly but not exclusively in London and the home counties in what used to be termed the stock broker belt) who are against Brexit.”
    Ignored? That sounds like the core Lib Dem vote. ;-(

  • chris moore 24th Jun '19 - 6:41pm

    @ Michael 1
    By and large it’s a good deal to swap older people requiring health care to say Spain for younger economic active people!!!

    I can’t help thinking you’re over-looking the many positive contributions that elderly people make to the smooth functioning of society.

    Volunteering, grand-parenting, words of wisdom, memories and experience, moderation….

    You can’t reduce elderly people to a mere burden on the state.

  • @John Marriott

    I was *not* proposing anything I was merely commenting on some of the benefits of free movement which was what was up for discussion in your comment and indeed you acknowledge in the benefits for “old bones”

    That you don’t want to move to the Costa del sol is of course your privilege but to deny that to those that *want* to is not a step forward.

    @David Raw


    Ok we could if we stay in the EU all move to sunny Scotland! Which looks as if it may be denied to us if Boris gives independence a majority!

    @peter watson

    Core vote.

    To a degree it is. Obv. we are seeing *more and new* people in the mould of Michael Hesletine etc. moving to us plus of course EU ex-pats who were thought to be pretty reliably Tory. We haven’t done that well in the home counties stockbroker belt but the euro election analysis indicates we can a number of these seats at a general election where we haven’t been in the frame before.

    @chris moore

    A typical LDV and debating point which I guess is fair enough. Of course the older make a very valuable contribution in ways that we don’t put a pound sign on. Even so the cost of healthcare for the older is high and if you were being mercenary (which no I don’t want to be or am advocating etc.) is prob. higher than their voluntaring contributions. And indeed they can come here for extended holidays to carry out their grandparenting duties or indeed have their grandkids go to them. All of which is much easier and cheaper with the free movement of the EU And I am *not* reducing the older to just being a burden on the state

  • John Marriott 25th Jun '19 - 8:39am

    @Michael 1
    There are some things that are better left unsaid.

    As regards “swapping people”, is it fair, assuming many of my generation take up your suggestion to move to a warmer climate, to turn parts of Spain into a giant old peoples’ home, with all the pressure that might put on that country’s services, regardless who might be footing the bill? Then, at the same time, we could also be sucking in that country’s young talent because, as Cold War West Germany found, it was cheaper and economically advantageous to let another country (in that case East Germany) pay for their training, rather than do it yourself.

    It’s time to stop digging and get back to your opinion polls, I reckon.

  • @john Marriott


    The original point I made still stands. I don’t care where people live indeed it is you that are reducing people’s choice (& forcing them to live somewhere they’d rather not) in denying them the *choice* of freedom of movement – it seems within the EU except for work.

    On whether it is fair or not that is a question for the people of Spain to consider. As it happens overall the EU has been of immense benefit to Spain in other regards and they’ve grown greatly economically since joining the EU. People tend to view things as a zero sum game. But if countries get richer then there is a bigger & wealthier essentially home market within the single market for us all to sell our products and services in to. Essentially some (actually relatively few as a percentage) younger people have moved from poorer countries/regions which has some positive and some negative effects on the countries concerned but it tends to tail off – famously and a little stereotypically the Spanish to the UK as waiters in the 70s along with the Irish & indeed Brits from the North of England as construction workers to Germany in the 80s as in Auf Weidersehen, Pet & now the eastern Europeans. I’m sure Poland will benefit from its membership of the EU & grow economically and we’ll grow due to that growth if we stay in.

    As I have said you can make patronising little barbs & ad hominem attacks on me if you want & I’m sure I do myself sometimes but I try & minimise it.

    The stone throwing was metaphorical & I am sorry that you didn’t recognise the metaphor. As I said in at least one thread on it, it came from my favourite ALDC training sessions by Jeanette Sunderland who gave us a stone & some stickers to make a face on it (!) & said that we should be “throwing it” – yes metaphorically – at our council. And I did do much of that – with although I say it myself some strong campaigns – but also spent too much time as a councillor considering KPI 46 etc. !!! This is of course a message pumped out by ALDC but if reading that, there was even one person who reconsiders how they will spend their time then sharing my mistakes & experience will have been worth it even if it incurred your wrath!

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