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Will Brexit mean a Brit expat exodus?

Tuesday 29 March 2016 16.56 BST

Fear of a vote to leave the EU, and in its wake healthcare and pension losses, is driving Britons from the continent back to the UK, says a broadsheet.

Britons play pool in Benalmádena, Costa del Sol. British expats have recently been leaving Spain at a rate of 100 a day. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

A Brexit vote would trigger an exodus of UK expatriates from Europe, according to a column in the Times. Fear, says the newspaper, is pushing thousands to return home to Britain.

The Times quotes UN population estimates for 2015 which say that 1.22 million Britons are living in other EU countries at present. The same source shows that in 2010 the figure was 1.18 million. The estimated number of British migrants in the EU has therefore slightly increased during the six years to 2015.

The article states that, daily, about 100 Britons have been leaving Spain over the past two years. According to UN data slightly fewer than 309,000 UK nationals were living in Spain during the period, compared to 381,025 in 2013. The 2010 level was 319,144 people.

However, the article’s claim that the drop in the number living in Spain is driven by Brexit fears has not been substantiated. Data published by Spain’s national statistics office reveal that outward migration from Spain has increased substantially since 2009 due to the country’s economic woes, which have affected both Spanish nationals and foreign-born residents.

According to the same UN data, the number of EU citizens living in the UK was 2.9 million in 2015, up from 2.6 in 2010, and in line with ONS estimates. 

However, it is quite likely that the UN data underestimates the number of Britons living abroad and the number of EU nationals in the UK, because EU citizens living in other member states do not have to register their arrival. For example, in 2010 the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated that 808,000 UK nationals were living in Spain permanently.

Moreover as the piece itself states, there is no indication to suggest a spike in Britons returning home. According to the latest migration estimates from the Office for National Statistics 87,000 British citizens returned to the UK in the year ending September 2015. This is similar to the previous year when 81,000 citizens did so, and it is lower than the equivalent period in 2010 when 92,000 went back to Britain.

Britain’s relationship with the EU, following any vote to leave the union, seems unclear. But it is fair to say that a potential Brexit could lead to uncertainty and concern for those living abroad or planning to depart. But that factor would apply to both British migrants abroad and European expats in the UK.

Pamela Duncan and Alberto Nardelli
The Guardian