‘Unprecedented exodus’: Why are migrant workers leaving the UK?

New study says COVID has forced up to one million from the country, but many people Al Jazeera spoke to cited Brexit as another push factor.

The study's authors said the exodus was primarily being driven by the economic fallout unleashed by the COVID-19 crisis [File: Tolga Akmen/ AFP] (AFP)

London, United Kingdom – Migrants have left the United Kingdom in large numbers, causing what is likely to be the largest population decline since WWII, according to a new study.

As many as 1.3 million people born abroad left the UK in just over a year – from July 2019 to September 2020 – the UK’s Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence (ESCoE) think-tank said on Thursday, describing an “unprecedented exodus” driven by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The trend was particularly pronounced in London.

The ESCoE said almost 700,000 people may have left the capital during the same period. If accurate, that would mean the city had lost nearly eight percent of its population in a little more than 14 months.

The analysis was based on UK labour statistics.

Authors of the study noted a high number of job losses in sectors that rely heavily on workers from abroad, such as hospitality.

“It seems that much of the burden of job losses during the pandemic has fallen on non-UK workers and that has manifested itself in return migration, rather than unemployment,” they said.

Brexit, pandemic fuel departures

COVID-19 has battered the UK, killing more than 86,000 people nationwide, threatening millions of people’s livelihoods and plunging the country into its deepest recession for 300 years.

But a number of people who left the UK last year told Al Jazeera the pandemic was not the biggest factor in their decision to relocate.

Instead, they said, it was mainly the country’s tortuous exit from the European Union.

Freyja Graf-Caruthers, 50, said the “threat of coronavirus” gave her the final push to depart England’s northeast for her native Germany in June 2020, after years of heightened anti-immigration rhetoric and political crises that followed the UK’s June 2016 referendum on EU membership.

“I had made plans to leave the UK since the Brexit vote,” said Graf-Caruthers, a university lecturer. “[But] leaving felt terrible, after 30 years of building my life in the UK; it felt like ripping out my own heart.”

Fabian Vella, a 32-year-old project manager, also cited Brexit as his motive in returning to France from London last year.

“I am pretty convinced that Europe is a good thing,” he said. “And I didn’t feel like I wanted to live in a country that didn’t want to live in the EU any more. The pandemic just reinforced my willingness to come back to France.”

‘No plans to ever return’

The ESCoE study’s authors said the exodus may be temporary, suggesting some could return when the pandemic eases.

“But it may not,” they cautioned, noting a permanent drop in London especially would have “profound” implications.

“Big shifts in population trends in London, driven by economic changes and events, are by no means historically unprecedented,” they wrote. “Inner London’s population shrank by fully 20 percent in the 1970s, so the recent picture of sustained growth driven by international migration is relatively recent.”

Todd Foreman, a dual US-UK national, was among those who left the capital in 2020.

He relocated to Paris in October after witnessing the UK “change for the worse” as it struggled to divorce itself from the EU.

“I regard Brexit as an enormous and tragic mistake fuelled largely by xenophobia, misplaced British exceptionalism and shortcomings in UK democratic structures,” the 47-year-old financial services lawyer said. “COVID played no part whatsoever in my decision to emigrate … [although] it did make leaving more difficult.”

Foreman was clear there would be no turning back.

“I have no plans or desire to ever return to live in England,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera