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Who Do We Think We Are?

S3 E3 Bye, Bye Britain

7 Jul 2023

Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to season three of Who do we think we are? The podcast debunking taken for granted understandings of migration and citizenship in Britain today. In this season, we'll be considering the role of migration in the making of Global Britain, as the UK redefines its borders and seeks to reposition itself on the world stage following Brexit. I'm Michaela Benson, a sociologist specialising in citizenship and migration and your host. For this season, I'll also be joined by co host Nando Sigona, whose research expertise includes international migration and forced displacement. Join us as we challenge public and political narratives of migration to and from Britain today, and encourage you to think differently about some of the most pressing issues of our times, charting a new understanding of Britain's migration story, after Brexit. 

Mukti Jain Campion [MJC]: In the 19th century and early 20th century, emigration was on everybody's lips, it was the topic of parliamentary debates, it was in newspaper headlines, it was in church sermons, it was in posters, it was in popular art, it was what was driving everybody's ambitions. And if you hadn't got the experience directly, yourself or your family have one of your members going off to Australia or India or wherever, you certainly knew other people in your street who did. So, it was literally a way of driving the national conversation around what Britain was, who you were, as a British person. 

MB: Britain has, per capita, one of the highest emigration rates in the world. I think it's at 6.5%, which is really high. Where we see we saw even in the last round of statistics that were released about net migration, that nearly 100,000 British citizens left the UK in the year ending in December 2022. It's important to look at emigration now to ask the question, why are they not there?  For me, that marked contrast between the status of emigration and its significance to the making of the British world, and the relative absence of emigration from conversations about migration in Britain today, despite its persistence, is what frames this episode and which is what has framed quite a lot of my own explorations and examinations of emigration. You heard that from Mukti Jain Campion. Mukti is our guest today, and she's the founder of the independent production company Culture Wise. She has over 25 years of experience producing radio documentaries for BBC Radio Four and the World Service. The majority of these focus on migration. It was in her role as a producer and presenter of the Migration Museums' podcast 'Departures' that I first met Mukti. This series focused on 400 years of British emigration, shining a light on to how this history made Britain and Britishness. I can't recommend this series enough, especially Episode 10, featuring Yours truly. Will drop a link to the series into the Episode notes so you can check it out for yourself. You might have clocked by now that emigration and particularly leaving the UK was my entry point into researching migration. And it's a family history that brought me to this. Over the last two to three generations of my father's family, people have taken opportunities to emigrate. Most recently, my brother who left the UK for a dream job in the US at the start of this year. And on my mother's side, it was the emigration of my grandfather that started a chapter in a family story that was intimately connected to Hong Kong, which I'm certain will come up in future episodes. What's clear, though, is that the British Empire was significant, not only in shaping those past emigrations of my ancestors, with family members moving within the vast British world, notably to the settler colonies, but also how Britain's past global power made a world where today, British citizens still traverse borders and settle abroad with relative ease. I already indicated something of the scale of emigration in the present day in that opening excerpt, but just to give you a little bit more of a flavour of this, it's s estimated that today, between 4.7 million and 5.5 million British citizens live overseas. And what this means is that approximately one in 10 British citizens live outside the UK. So while emigration might not be as extensive as it was a century ago, and may not be so explicitly connected to Britain's state making project, even today, it's likely that most people know someone who's left the UK. Yet, it's certainly not part of that national conversation about migration. Hopefully that gives you a little bit of the backstory to today's episode. But here's a little flavour of what we've got in store for you. Elena Zambelli returns with an explainer about what we mean by emigration and what is opened up to view when we consider it within broader conversations about migration. Mukti offers a whirlwind tour of the history of British emigration highlighting its sheer scale. She shows the significance of emigration to the making of the British Empire, and how this changed the world. She also highlights why remembering the stories of emigrants might help to shift conversations about migration and migrants today. And Nando and I reflect on why we need to talk about emigration today. We consider how states engage with emigration from its role in net migration figures through to policies and concerns over brain drains. We consider who is leaving Britain today, drawing on what British citizens and EU nationals taking part in our research told us about the emigrations decisions and the significance of Brexit to these. But first, let's hear from Elena about what distinguishes emigration from immigration. 

Elena Zambelli [EZ]: The difference between emigration and immigration is a matter of perspective. Both acts imply the movement across international borders, but they are seen from opposite viewpoints. Emigration describes the move out of one's country of nationality or usual residence whilst immigration describes the act of moving into a country other than one's country of nationality or usual residence. Simply put, then, all emigrants are also immigrants, or at least so they aspire to be, if their country of desired settlement lets them in. As we heard in the previous episode, 'Freedom of movement limited', the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights establishes a person's right to leave any country, including one's own. This right is a legacy of World War Two, granting legitimacy to people's attempts to escape state violence, such as that committed by the nazi-fascist regimes. However, in the same episode, we also heard that there is no corresponding right to enter any country other than one's own - a lack, that the continuous deaths at Europe's borders constantly remind us of. A person does not need to be a citizen of one's country of departure for that exit to count as emigration. Non-citizens emigrate as well. An immigrant may, for example, leave to return to their country of birth, or to move to yet another country - movements that migration scholars normally refer to, respectively, as return migration, and secondary movement. Indeed, both groups are counted in net migration figures, which capture the difference between the number of immigrants arriving in a country and the number of citizens and immigrants leaving it over a period of time. People emigrate for a variety of reasons. Some do to get a new or better paid job, others to reunite with a family member or enjoy a different lifestyle. For others, emigration is an act of political dissent against the powers ruling in their homeland, such as is the case of many Hong Kongers today, or the result of violence and persecution. Emmigration is also intimately tied to processes of diaspora formations - but this will be the subject of another episode, so stay tuned for more! States attitudes towards emigration are similarly varied. Some incentivize it to alleviate the demographic pressure on domestic labour markets, and in anticipation of the development opportunities that emigrants' remittances will bring. They may, for example, do so by 'exporting' that excess labour power to another country that 'needs' it. Today the Philippines is a country leader in these developments, with 12 active bilateral agreements with so-called 'labour receiving' countries, and one with a so-called 'labour sending' country. Conversely, other states may consider emigration as a loss of human capital, as captured by the term 'brain drain', and promote return through tax breaks or other incentives. States' attitudes towards emigration may also change over time. Historically, immigration played a key role in state building, including the construction and maintenance of Europe's colonial empires. Whether sent on administrative or trade assignments in the service of the empire, taking up opportunities for assisted passage (such as the so-called 10 pound poms), or leaving in search of a better life overseas, millions of people left Europe to settle in its colonies. Emigration calls into question states' claims to represent the imagined community of the nation, a concept we've explored in our first episode, far more than immigration does. But does it really? What happens to those who leave, then? Do they leave a physical place only, or do they also leave the imagined community linked to it? Are they forgotten when they leave? If they are not, how is their belonging to the nation cultivated, when, by whom, and why? It is to respond to these and similar questions on the relationship between people, states and the territories they inhabit, leave, traverse and return to that we need to study emigration and its politics. 

MB: To offer more insights into the history of emigration from the UK, here's our guest for this episode, Mukti Jane Campion, on what she discovered as she explored the history of those leaving the British Isles. 

MJC: The scale of British emigration over the past 400 years has been huge. From the 17th century onwards, the British Isles rapidly became the biggest source of migrants anywhere in the world, easily surpassing the other Western European seafaring nations such as France and Portugal and Spain and so on. The absolute figures are hard to come by because no one counted those who were leaving. And so it's a matter of piecing together, being a bit of a detective, using ship registers, parish records, you know, all sorts of other documents in order to build up a picture of what the scale was. But it's estimated that just over the course of the 17th century, Britain's population was only around four, four and a half million, that 400,000 people left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. And then over the course of the 19th century, so talking about the beginning of the 19th century, really till the beginning of the First World War, by which time the population was around 40 million, it's estimated that over 10 million people left these shores. So, if you can imagine it as a proportion of the population is huge. And I think the events that drove this are probably the same that drive migration today. It was people wanting to escape abject poverty, to get better opportunities, to get land, to get away from political or religious persecution. All those sorts of reasons that still exist in the world today were the reasons that we're driving so many people from the British Isles to leave, often a desperation and to seek a new life abroad. The countries, the major countries that they went to, at the time of, in 17th century, was also the time when the British were colonising the Americas, the Caribbean. And so that became the prime destination to begin with. As British colonised other parts of the world, including Australia, New Zealand, and so on, those two became major settler colonies. And if you look at British migration today, you can see why so many people still choose those countries as their preferred destinations. They're English speaking for historical reasons. And they're often moving into societies which are very familiar, in that the way that they're run, the way that they've been constructed historically, is along the British model. So you can see why those countries still dominate the emigration choices of people today living in Britain. The major events, you know, I can't sort of really talk about British emigration, nobody can, without referring to the process of colonial settlement. In Britain, as with several European countries at the time, emigration very quickly became a process of colonisation, of appropriating the lands of Indigenous peoples of, often by force, and often subjugating those people or wiping out entire populations, in order to be able to extract the resources. And that process is so closely tied with emigration that I don't think we often think about them as being so closely linked, but they clearly are, and the building of the British Empire, through that process, particularly the 19th century, led to the emigration choices that people living in Britain had expanding and expanding, expanding. So you could really go anywhere in the world in the 19th century, without a passport, without anybody controlling the borders, and settle, to trade, to pursue your profession as a doctor or a lawyer, to be a soldier, to really do anything, be a missionary, all of those things where it was like the world was literally your oyster, you could go anywhere and Britons did, in their millions. And I think what's surprising to me when we're talking about British emigration is that we've largely forgotten that in the 19th and early 20th century, virtually every family, every part of the British Isles would have been impacted by emigration. It's extraordinary now because we hardly talk about it. But in 19th century and early 20th century, emigration was on everybody's lips, it was the topic of parliamentary debates, it was in newspaper headlines, it was in church sermons, it was in posters, it was in popular art, it was what was driving everybody's ambitions. And if you haven't got the experience directly, yourself and your family of one of your members going off to Australia or India or wherever, you certainly knew other people in your street who did. So it was literally a way of driving the national conversation around what Britain was, who you were as a British person, to have this access to the world. And I think that sense of Britain as a global power, as a global, I was gonna say, a global influencer, but I think it's more to do with defining the world, you know, British emigration has changed the world, it has changed the world in a way that is so profound, and so all encompassing that we don't even think about the fact that English language is the dominant global language, we don't think about how the world's geographies have been transformed, how the economies of entire countries and regions have been shaped by the resources that were extracted, the train lines that were built, the communication systems that were built as a result of, you know, European but largely British enterprise. And that was the backdrop to British emigration, really, until the second half of the 20th century, arguably in so many ways today. So we really need to sort of get beyond to thinking of migration as something very individual, about an individual person packing their belongings, getting on a ship or a plane and moving countries. It was part of a bigger enterprise and one that was supported by the government, supported by the countries to which a lot of people were emigrating, such as Australia and New Zealand, their immigration policies favoured people from the British Isles. And therefore, they were always going to be top of the list of priorities of anybody being allowed to come in once border policies were introduced. So Britain's had privilege very quickly after they started their history of emigration. And that privilege continues today. I was obviously not completely ignorant before I came to this project and looking into British emigration history. But the biggest surprise to me was the sheer scale of British emigration. And the fact that so little is known and spoken about today. From the 17th century until well into the latter half of the 20th century, the British isles was probably the largest source of migrants in the world. And again, if you just stop and think about that, you know, when we think of migrants, we think of people coming from Asia or coming from China. But Britain, a tiny island, was the source, the largest source of migrants for so many years. And that inevitably has shaped, you know, the world. The fact we don't talk about it today, or if we do talk about it, we talk in terms of expats, not migrants, is in itself very significant. And it sort of symbolises that privilege that British emigration has created, because of its historical past. And again, I would ask people to reflect on the words and the language that we use in the context of migration. And when we think of migrants as being these poor, wretched people caught in the small boats, you know, crossing the Mediterranean, is that really the only image that we want to associate with migration? And if we look at our own history, there were many British people, people from these isles, who left an equivalent poverty and despair and risked their lives. And that parallel is something that should be right at the forefront of all discussions about migration today. And yet it isn't, and we need to be asking questions as to why not. There are so many fascinating stories that aren't covered. And I think inevitably, the things that attract me when you read letters or personal accounts of the actual experience of migration, and particularly in the early years, when it was so difficult and desperate, and we came across sort of quite unusual correspondence, for example, from a 12-year-old child who found himself in one of the very early colonies in North America, living on day to day on grass and and starving, basically, and writing this piteous letter to his parents. And then there was another letter that I came across, which is from a young Cornish woman to her husband, who had emigrated to work in America, along with thousands of other Cornish miners in the 19th century, basically leaving behind their families in search of work that was no longer available in the Cornish mines. And the letter is just so poignant, it reveals a desperate hunger and hardship that she and her children are facing, trying to survive on the remittances that he sends, which may or may not arrive. So that is partly a sort of very explanatory sort of way of looking at it, but it's also about, instead of demonising people who are coming as migrants to this country, we need to understand the contribution that they can make. And just as Britons have made in other parts of the world, you know, there were parts where it was pure exploitation, one could argue, but there's also cultural connections that are made in the process of migration. There are exchange of ideas of science, scientific progress, all sorts of things that go on when cultures collide. And we need to understand the benefits of that process and not just see it as a negative or economic, simply economic exercise. 

MB: You're listening to Who do we think we are presents Global Britain, a podcast all about migration and citizenship in the UK after Brexit, hosted by me, Michaela Benson and my co host Nando Sigona. If you like what you've heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform. This means that you'll be the first to hear when our episodes drop, and it also helps more people to discover the podcast. We heard there from Mukti about that kind of, that curious history of emigration in Britain. And I think that to a certain degree, while people might know that history, they might be less familiar with emigration today, and if and why it's significant in the British case. And part of that, I think, Nando, is because when migration is talked about among academics, it's really become the norm to talk about immigration. But that wasn't always the case. And I'm reminded of going back into the archive of the Sociological Review, and finding old journal articles from the 1930s, which explicitly focused on migration to, from and within the British Isles. So what was significant there was that the conversation about migration was about population movement in the context of Britain as an empire, that I wondered if you had any reflections on the extent to which emigration is a concern for scholars or not. 

Nando Sigona [NS]: When we research migration studies very often, we are actually doing research on immigration as you pointed out. However, within migration studies there is also some different trajectory, different history that is one for example, that linked to the history of the Scalibriniani centre for migration studies. So the Scalibriniani are a missionary group that at the end of the 19th century, began their mission, which was to support refugees and migrants in the world. The political context in which this mission started was very much the mass emigration of Italian and other Catholics towards the Americas. One of the most important journal in migration studies, the International Migration Review, is part of that tradition, and it was based in New York. So, what we can see and that's that research has always paid more attention to those who are leaving, and especially at the beginning, and now there is both, there is both the attention to those who arrive, but also the perspective of the country that looses population as well. And this is very important. And I think there is also another tradition, another genealogy that I think we need to bring back here. I mean, at the moment within migration status, we can say that there is what we call a postcolonial turn, a greater attention to the consequences and impact of colonial histories from the past and in the present. But I think it's very important to remind that this is not new in our discipline, in our research, and in particular, the work of the French Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad, a friend and a colleague of Bourdieu is really important. Sayad was a French-Algerian, France-trained sociologist, he had an experience of being socialised in the colonial sort of relations between Algeria and France, and his important contribution is to always remind us that every immigrant is also an emigrant. Every time we look at an immigrant at the same time, we should also consider the other side of the 'double absence', which is the fact of them never been fully part of the society of destination, but also no longer fully part of their society of origin. 

MB: I mean, writing about the work of Sayad, Bourdieu and Wacquant - another of Bourdieu's collaborators - made very clear that that people hadn't really risen to the occasion to take up the call of studying emigration and thinking about its significance. I suppose, though, that what that does, and I think, kind of if we think about what's at the heart of that word, emigration, it's about leaving, leaving what, leaving where, might be the question. And I think that to a certain degree, there's something within that when we, you know, we want to return to thinking about the state in thinking about the significance of the state of origin to the lives of people who move because as you just said, it's not a complete and utter rejection or denial of the state that you've left, you might still have a relationship with it. So I suppose the question might be, why would it be important to look at that relationship now to look at emigration in the present day? 

NS: We're going to come back to this topic also in the future when we were going to talk about diaspora organisations' political participation, but I think what is missing here is the extent to which a migrant leaves at the same time in different worlds, and also in different system of regulations, rules. For example, there is an important example, for example, is countries like Turkey or Hungary that actively trying to connect with their emigrants and try to bring back resources from them, but also, they use them as a way of expanding their reach politically, so they're part of their geopolitical projects. But you've done a lot of work over the years around the British emigration, contemporary British Immigration, why is it important for us to bring back this group of people in our conversation on migration in UK today? 

MB: think that my starting point and thinking about that question, which, as you said, I've thought about a lot of times, is in asking the question about why they're not there, what it does to absent them from that story about migration, because they were very significant, both to the building of the British imperial project and the actual construction of the empire, sending British people to settle in other parts of the world, and specifically white British people, I would say, was a really important part of that story. It's not until 1972, that the British government stopped doing that, for example. But even after 1972 emigration continued. At that time, of course, Britain was part of the European community, it was part of the free movement of workers. So that was something that British people could take advantage of. And they did. Yet, what we see at that time, is the kind of a sudden absence of kind of political or public conversations about emigration, despite the fact that it remains quite a significant part of the story. As British people move, perhaps less to Britain's colonies or former colonies, and more to its European neighbours, there doesn't seem to be so much political interest in bringing this to the forefront. And even today, when we think about emigration, I think people think historically, and I think it's really, really interesting that over the last, you know, for the first time in a long time, I've seen television that's focused on the history of British emigration, and I know that you watched as well the 10 Pound Poms, Nando. So you will have seen some of that. So for me, the question is, why aren't they there, despite the fact that we know that Britain has per capita, one of the highest emigration rates in the world, I think it's at 6.5%, which is really high. Where we see, we saw even in the last round of statistics that were released about net migration, that nearly 100,000 British citizens left the UK in the year ending in December 2022. And that's, that's pretty sustained, actually. So year on year, that's around about what we would expect in terms of British nationals leaving the UK. So, I think that's why it's important to look at emigration now to ask the question, why are they not there? But also to ask the question about why the state is or isn't interested in them politically, I think is quite important. 

NS: I think something may be changing now with Brexit. But one point which I want to connect to what you said is the debate around the release of the latest Office of National Statistics' data on migration, this idea that the old focus was around net migration, which as everyone knows, is the difference between immigration and emigration, but most of the comments and discussions that followed, both from politician and from the media, were just focused on the numbers of those arriving in the country. And with very little attention to the emigrants. And the point is that in the data, and this is where it can also be complicated or misleading, in the data also on emigration it is not just about the British nationals going abroad, but emigration also includes, for example, EU nationals that leave Britain or non-EU nationals that are leaving Britain after a period in the country. So these are very complex figures that are very much shaped by the policy and legal frameworks that define the terms of stay for anyone in the country. So if you have a six month visa, for example, you may be counted as an immigrant, but after six months, you're counted as an immigrant because you have to leave the country. So it's a very complex sort of account. But at the same time, a discussion that we are not having, and why is the case, as you point out is really interesting to the work we do and we have done with the EU nationals and British nationals living in Europe, for example. 

MB: Yeah, I think that point about policies is really important, because you and I were looking at those statistics earlier today and when they kind of tried to account for reasons for emigration, they link it back to the visa categories through which people originally entered the UK. So we can't find out anything about why British nationals, for example, leave the UK from that data. But this brings us around to another important point, you know, it's not, it's not unthought of, for a state to have kind of policies around emigration. It's not a big thing anymore. It used to be a much, much bigger issue around kind of exit policies, for example. Britain doesn't have these, it hasn't had them and I suppose that absence of a policy around emigration may also contribute to that kind of that seeming lack of understanding politically about emigration, in contrast to an immigration system that's so carefully controlled. But the reason that I point this out is because states do have control over the movement of people across borders in both directions, or can exercise that control. And, you know, there was a lot of discussion around this during the Cold War, particularly in respect to communist states or authoritarian regimes, who didn't want their citizens to leave, and so impose quite strict restrictions on people. But you wouldn't necessarily have to have such an explicit policy stopping people from leaving, there are other kinds of softer measures that you can use. And I think we need to start thinking about how states do that, how they disincentivize people leaving, or they discourage emigration in a variety of ways. And so to me that, you know, that could be an interesting area to explore.  

NS: In our research, we have spoken with British nationals that live abroad, we have actually also spoken with British nationals that used to live abroad, and then came back to Britain as a result of Brexit. And also with the Europeans that were living in UK and then they left the country. What we learn from this experience is that there is not currently part of the public debate around emigration. 

MB: I think that's a really interesting question. I suppose the first thing to say is that, I think initially, like the idea that free movement was ending between the UK and the EU, would raise questions about what that would mean for the future of movement between those two countries. So I'm thinking here, particularly about British citizens who lived in the EU. So, on one hand, what we can learn is, you know, there were people who were who were trying to beat the Brexit date in both directions. Why do I say in both directions, when I'm talking about British citizens, there were British citizens who wanted to move back to the UK, before the end of the Brexit transition period, so that they could bring their families in, their non-British families in, without having to go through domestic immigration controls. But we're also finding that British citizens, of course, tried to beat the deadline by moving to the EU before that date. And that worked for some people under some circumstances, and it didn't work for others under other circumstances. And so we find that after Brexit, British citizens are still moving to the EU and to all other parts of the world. And actually, when we look at that data, what's remarkable to me is that the, the levels of British national emigration seem to be around about the same level, whether you're looking at 2018, or whether you're looking at 2022, for example. So it kind of raises questions to me about what we don't know, what we don't know is who's going how that's changed the shape of that migration flow. Because I anticipate that really, what what may have happened is, is the terms on which you move or the terms on which you can move have changed substantially, and therefore that may have consequences for who can go and where they can go. 

NS: Since Brexit and in particular, since the implementation of Brexit itself, the number of EU nationals that are coming to the UK has decreased significantly. And we also see the increase in the number of EU nationals who are emigrating out to Britain. So what we're seeing is that Brexit in a sense may not affect necessarily the number but is certainly changing the direction of movements, the destinations, we see, for example, that Britain is no longer a primary destination for cities in the European Union and other places that are emerging as preferred destinations. And this is also occurring in the case of EU nationals who were living in UK that are either going back to their country of origin, but also we are seeing also people going back to third countries within the European Union where there may be more opportunities or more, both in terms of labour but also for their families. 

MB: Yeah, I mean, that's certainly mirrored in the case of British citizens who I've been speaking to for the MIGZEN project who have more recently left the UK. So who've left since the end of the Brexit transition period. And I think there are a couple of narratives that really stand out to me from that. One is of a man in his 30s, who spent his career working across the EU, but then met somebody in the UK, who happened to be Danish. She had a job opportunity back in Denmark, which she took. And then they found themselves in this situation where they're thinking, Well, what do we do because he had a job in the UK. So he tried and tried and tried to get a job in Denmark, he even worked for Danish companies. So it wasn't even, you know, and for a variety of reasons, it didn't work out. And so then they kind of thought to themselves, well, you know, maybe maybe he can beat the deadline, maybe he can be there. You know, on the night of Brexit, I'll let you listen to what he had to say about that. 

Voiceover – British national 1: We were planning to be in Denmark on the night of Brexit day. And then because of COVID, they cancelled all our flights. And so we couldn't get home for Christmas, or get to my girlfriend's family for Christmas. So I wasn't in Denmark on Brexit, Eve. 

MB: The next instalment in the story is of course, that he's stuck now in the UK, and he wasn't able to get back to Denmark in time for that Brexit date. But then he finds himself in a situation where he thinks right, okay, so the next step is I really do need to find a job in Denmark, but that for a variety of reasons, doesn't work out. And he's kind of stuck in the UK, while his partner is in Denmark. And he's looking for a way out of the UK. So the next step in his instalment is Well, okay, how can I carry on working in the UK, but live in Denmark, which, of course, is also something that's quite, it's quite challenging in the context where the UK is no longer part of the European Union. So, in the end, they decided to get married, and he applied for a family reunification visa, which actually allows him this possibility of living in Denmark part of the week, and then working in the UK for the rest of the week, because that seemed to be the only way that they could do this. So I thought that that was quite interesting in terms of thinking about the kind of the various contingencies that come into play around Brexit, that might then shape differently, the routes  in which people can live in the EU now.  

NS: I guess, in our interviews as part of the Eurochildren project with EU national left UK after Brexit, there are very much similar topics that comes about - decision around the shape of the family, where people can be, what the change in the legal framework means in terms of the possibility to live one's life. Maybe we can hear two stories here. One is from a Polish national that is in a in a relationship with another Polish national, and they arrived in UK in 2004 and left back to Poland in 2017 with two children that are born in UK, and also the story of a Dutch interviewee that is in a mixed-couple relationship with aBritish national that arrived in 2005 and left in 2019 for the Netherlands, with one child born in Europe. 

Voiceover – EU national 1: On the day of Referendum results, my husband and I looked through the window and realise that at least half of those people have voted against us. That's how it was. So despite owning a house in the UK, and what else, having a wonderful job, in six months, we decided to leave. But as I say, we weren't thinking about it. Brexit was something that just tipped the scale. 

Voiceover – British national 2: So we were first thinking about Australia, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and in Germany. Those were the options, including the Netherlands. And then finally we went, Oh, the EU citizenship. So it makes more sense if you first live in my country, and then we could go elsewhere, perhaps later. 

NS: So this story, in a way confirms something we already found out also through our MIGZEN survey around the impact of Brexit on migration decision making, both from the perspective of the British nationals living in Europe, but also the EU nationals living in UK. People has been telling us a lot about the extent to which Brexit in a sense made the decision around migration fundamental and important, that cannot be postponed. And so people was forced in a way to decide where to stay, making important choice around the life of themselves and the future of their children. I think it's actually perhaps going back to the point around not just about the decision making but also why we don't talk about emigration as part of this or the bigger narrative, so why we don't include the discussion on emigration in our discussion on migration more broadly. I think you pointed out in the past in your work around highlighting the extent to which the British was constructed as an emigration state, and because of the function that emigration has played within the project of the empire. And that story changed with the inclusion of Britain within the context of the European Union, in which case the British emigration, which was still there, but then disappeared from the narrative, we still have British nationals living and working and marrying in most other European member states, we've got EU nationals coming back in. Maybe perhaps the point for us to discuss is to think about to what extent emigration may or may not come back in the narrative of Global Britain. 

MB: This is a really, really important point. And I was trying to think about it in terms of why it is that during Britain's membership of the European community, and later the European Union, that this slipped from view a little bit. And I think it's because that story of intra EU mobility, as we discussed in the last episode, is one that was about creating a European project. It wasn't one that was necessarily about creating a distinctly British national project. Although I think that it's fair to say that while Britain was part of the European Union, that to a certain degree, that story of intra EU mobility was part of the discussion about Britain's place in the world. But when we turned to thinking about now and Britain outside of the European Union, and its shifting position on the world stage, I think it is really interesting that all of a sudden, we're actually starting to see a little more public visibility of Britain's emigrants. So I mentioned The 10 Pound Poms series before, but there's also another series that I've been watching, and obviously, for research purposes, called The Diplomat, and it's the one that's on Now TV, just to be clear, because ther are two Diplomats, but it's about one of the British consulates in Spain, but to see emigration in popular culture In that way, might signal a bit of sea change in respect to thinking about Britain's emigrants at this point in time. And we've also seen it and I'll just mention this, in the fact that it's only post Britain's exit from the European Union that the Conservative Party delivered on their manifesto promise to give British citizens who live abroad a lifetime right to vote. So might want to ask questions around that, as well as the explicit inclusion of British citizens and British businesses abroad in the integrated review, which was about Global Britain. So there, you see Britain's emigrants and Britain's businesses held up as a source of soft power on the world stage. But there's another side of this too, which is particularly in the context of issues around the strikes that we've seen with the NHS and the problems in the health and social care sector. We have started to see some murmurs within the press about possible brain drains from the NHS. And this is not about the X number of European workers who've left. But it's also about the fact that the working conditions within the NHS are now turning away those British-trained British citizen doctors and nurses, who are now being actively recruited in, interestingly, in some of the former settler colonies, so New Zealand and Australia where apparently the working conditions are significantly better. 

NS: Intentional migration may contribute both to a more drowned and nuanced public debate around migration and mobility, but also can be massive contribution to migration studies as well, remembering that migration is not just about paying attention to the framing and the question that come from the immigration states, but paying attention also to the role of sending states and the fact that migrants are both immigrant and emigrant at the same time, can also contribute more broadly to a better understanding of the phenomenon and a more open and inclusive and just society. 

MB: That's a wrap for this episode. I hope you found it interesting to take a look at what considering emigration might do to challenging some of those taken for granted understandings of migration in Britain today. We've just got one little favour to ask of you. We'd be really grateful if you could recommend the episode and series to a friend or even just share something about the episode on social media. And don't forget to tag us into anything you do post. This just helps us to reach a larger number of people interested in what we produce. Our voiceovers today were read by Roxana Barbulescu, Alex Craven and Rolien Hoyng. A special thanks to Emma Holton at Brilliant Audio for her production and post production support, to Elena Zambelli for the additional research for this episode, and as always, to George Kalivis for the cover art. If you head over to you'll find transcripts and enhanced episode notes, including active listening questions, our podcast picks, and where you can go to find out more about the topics discussed in the episode. As always, thanks for listening to this episode of Who do we think we are presents Global Britain, a podcast series presented by me Michaela Benson and Nando Sigona. This season has been produced as part of the research project 'Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit', funded through the Economic and Social Research Council via their Governance after Brexit Initiative. You can find out more about the project at That's M-I-G-Z-E-N .net. That's all for now, but we'll be back with another episode very soon. 

Understandings of migration are invariably reduced to immigration, framed by the policy agenda of receiving states. But what about the people who leave? And why does it matter that we remember, as French-Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad stressed, that ‘every immigrant is also an emigrant’?  

From the role of emigration in the making of the British empire and other European colonial powers to its neglect in public and political conversations about migration today, this episode explores what is opened up when we turn the spotlight onto those leaving the sovereign territory of a nation. Elena Zambelli explains what we mean when we talk about emigration. Mukti Jain Campion, founder of the independent production company Culture Wise, reminds us of the relationship between emigration and the making of the British Empire. Nando and Michaela reflect on why we need to talk about emigration today. We look into how states engage with emigration from its role in net migration figures through to policies and concerns over brain drains. And we turn to consider who is leaving Britain today, drawing on what British citizens and EU nationals taking part in our research told us about the significance of Brexit to their emigration decisions.  

In this episode we cover …   

  1. Emigration and colonisation 
  2. Leaving Britain today 
  3. Brexit and Brits Abroad 

Hear more from Michaela and Mukti about British emigrants today  

Learn about The Migration Museum’s Departures exhibition  

Explore the Brexit testimonies of British citizens living in the EU 

Our podcast picks ... 

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Active listening questions

  • Do you have any family members who have emigrated from their country of origin? What do you know about their reasons for leaving? 
  • What do you think understanding emigration can add to our understandings of migration?  
  • What is the relationship between British emigration and British colonialism? And how does this shape the experiences of British citizens emigrating today?
  • What relationship does your country have with its citizens who have moved abroad?  

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