LONDON (Reuters) - Anne Darwin may be the one who hit the headlines, but Britons are emigrating in droves.
Darwin, 55, who returned last weekend from Panama to face charges of deception linked to her husband’s “return from the dead” five years after a canoeing accident, was one of record numbers who are leaving.
All have different motivation — and there is no suggestion of criminality for most — but while stories about immigrants pouring into Britain feature daily across the pages of newspapers, less attention is paid to the number who quit.
The latest official migration figures showed that while 591,000 people arrived in Britain last year, a record high of 207,000 Britons left for sunnier climes.
High levels of crime, dreary weather, bad transport and expensive accommodation helped drive Christopher Khalil to Sydney, Australia, said the 33-year old from Rhyl, a seaside town in north Wales.
Australia, where the former superpower used to send its criminals, is the number one destination of choice.
“It’s a new world out here — the sun shines every day, the beaches are beautiful, it’s cheaper to live, salaries are approaching UK ones and you can live an amazing outdoor lifestyle, “ Khalil, who now works for an Australian digital media company, told Reuters by e-mail.
“There seem to be new people arriving every week in search of a better life and better opportunities,” he said.
One-third of last year’s emigrants headed to Australia and New Zealand, a quarter went to Spain and France and just under one in 10 to the United States. Only about 1,000 British passport-holders live in Panama, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-wing think-tank.
“Increasing pressure at work and demands on time in the UK, coupled with increased focus on importance of leisure time, mean that more people are probably considering various quality-of-life issues than they used to — such as climate, cost of living, value for money, transport facilities and recreational activities,” said Neil Prothero, UK analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).
Britain languished in 29th place in an EIU “quality of life” survey, coming bottom among the 15 countries of the pre-enlargement European Union. Australia, Spain and New Zealand ranked respectively 6th, 10th and 15th.
Darwin’s husband John “was forever looking at new things and new places on the Internet and one day he just came up with Panama,” she told the Daily Mirror.
“Brits leave the UK to escape, because they want to enjoy a happy, carefree life again,” said Anne Butt, a British nurse who moved to New Zealand.
“After living in London for two years, I was in need of a break from the seriousness of life in the capital,” she added.
“For young families especially, the chance to raise a family in a safe, out-of-doors, sporty country, where your income allows you a more enjoyable standard of living is very attractive.”
The old settler colonies of Australia and New Zealand promise a warmer climate, open landscapes and relaxed lifestyle — without requiring new arrivals to learn a foreign language.
In addition, a shortage of skilled labor and ageing populations have prompted both countries to recruit abroad.
“I know as many Brits as Kiwis (New Zealanders),” said Butt. “As a skilled migrant — a nurse — New Zealand immigration are very welcoming to applications for residency, so it’s not really a surprise that I work with so many Brits.”
And while rising numbers of eastern and central Europeans are coming to live in Britain — 92,000 arrived in 2006, of which three-quarters were Polish — more Britons are moving to Europe, also taking advantage of European Union freedoms.
Spain and France are the top EU destinations, promising cheap wine, a relaxed lifestyle and warmer weather.
A spate of television programs and newspaper columns on travel, life abroad and property restoration has promoted the idyllic vision of leaving polluted, stressful British cities and investing in a French vineyard or Spanish villa.
“Far more families are coming over here to settle here now, lured by low-cost travel but also by the numerous TV features and other stories in the British press which have jumped on the bandwagon of selling Brits the ‘French dream’,” said Miranda Neames, editor of French News, an English-language monthly newspaper for Francophiles.
Helen Thorpe, who moved to a country house in southern France a year ago, said she now grows her own fruit and vegetables and shops at the local market.
“A lot of English people come here because it is rather like the England of say 25 years ago; seemingly less crime, people having more time for each other,” she said. Also, “the plot is much larger than we would have been able to afford in Britain.”
But the dream of escape does not always work out, and many Britons eventually return.
“Many find out sooner or later that the climate’s definitely better but the life isn’t necessarily more relaxed especially when the language barrier takes its toll,” said Lucy Brown, of Spanish-living.com, a Web site aimed at English-speaking expats.
“I hear of just as many people returning to the UK because they can’t cope with the Spanish system, can’t find work, life is much more difficult than they imagined or they miss family, friends,” said Brown, who lives in Marbella.
In Anne Darwin’s case, it was having a living husband after all — who was missing his sons — that put paid to the dream of a new life.
Editing by Sara Ledwith