Why are so many Britons leaving Australia?

  • 23 November 2011
  • From the section Magazine

Thousands of Britons emigrate to Australia every year in search of a better life, but now more and more are deciding down under is not for them and returning home. The same trend seems to be happening to Australians deserting the UK. Why?

Despite a fierce sporting rivalry between the British nations - especially England - and Australia, the countries enjoy very close ties. It's a bond cemented by the thousands of Britons and Australians who travel to the other side of the world in search of a new life.

For many, it's a dream come true to visit and eventually settle in a country that's far away but also very familiar. Britons are attracted by the outdoor lifestyle, sunshine and sense of space, while Australians are drawn to the history, the adventure and the UK's proximity to the European mainland.

Many end up settling down in their new country but in recent years, for an increasing number, it's not the one-way trip they had intended.

Despite Australia's booming economy, more than 7,000 British people left the country for good in 2009-10 - the largest emigration recorded in recent memory - according to figures from Australia's immigration department.

Between 2005 and 2010, nearly 107,000 Britons settled in Australia but during the same period more than 30,000 decided to permanently leave. And the feeling appears to be mutual, with fewer Australians arriving in the UK.

The difficult economic situation in the UK goes some way to explain why fewer Australians should be heading there, but it's more surprising that the expat British should be leaving a booming country in exchange for one still struggling to recover from a recession.

Chief among the reasons why the British are leaving include missing friends and family, and lacking a real sense of belonging, says Prof Roger Burrows, a sociologist from the University of York who has studied the phenomenon.

"The people who don't settle have always lived close to their friends and family [in the UK] so any move comes as a shock.

"If they live in a bungalow in the suburbs of Adelaide, it gets lonely. There isn't a culture of going for a drink after work and the TV is terrible."

Some people went to Australia for the heat but ended up hating the warmth, the flies, and having to cover the kids in sun cream all the time, he says.

"It's not about living by the coast in the sun - it's about living in a dull flat in suburbs that don't have any real infrastructure."

For some migrants, moving to Australia can be a source of sorrow and regret for people for the rest of their lives, he says.

Not everyone leaves with bad memories though. Tom Armstrong, a 41-year-old father, moved back to London this year after four happy years in Sydney, because of a new job opportunity at his media company. But a big bonus was being reunited with friends and family in the UK.

"We moved out to Australia because my wife wanted to be closer to her family, and we had four fantastic years there. It was a wonderful lifestyle with friendly people and a very high quality of life.

"If I could get all of my friends and family out there to live, and I had the right job, then living in Australia would be a no-brainer."

Some British people complain about a lack of culture and history, he says, but that depends where you live.

"Sydney and Melbourne are world-class cities with plenty of great things to see and do, but outside the big urban areas life is definitely less colourful and probably more of an acquired taste. The biggest drawbacks for Brits in my opinion is the long distance from friends and family."

Martin Gilbert, 47, will move back to the UK with his English partner next year after 24 years in Australia.

"Australia has been good to me. Certainly I've had some good times here but there is something fundamental and soulful missing here for me."

Life in England is tougher and more competitive, he believes, and that's something he has missed. Plus he hasn't been able to shake feeling like an outsider, even after all this time, and Australia has become more expensive in recent years.

It used to be that you could come to Australia from the UK for a cheaper lifestyle, says radio DJ Jono Coleman, but no more.

"All of the basic commodities - bread, fruit, milk - are more expensive. When I was in London in July this year it was much cheaper to eat out than in Sydney and Melbourne.

"The cost of petrol has also risen. A friend of mine recently took his two children to the cinema and it cost $85 - about £40 - just to see a movie.

"Many Brits came here expecting a land of milk and honey. If you had pounds you were like the king of the castle but not anymore. Now they're saying: 'Hang on, it's too expensive here.'"

Coleman falls into the "ping-pong Pom" category - he was born in the UK, raised in Australia and then returned to London to host a radio breakfast show, only to head down under again in 2007 to be near his very frail mother.

Many other Australians have done the same thing as Coleman in the last few years and headed home, but usually for economic reasons, citing fewer job opportunities. More are also staying away - about 14,000 fewer Australians came to the UK last year compared with 2005.

"For young Aussies, it will always be a rite of passage to travel to Britain on a working holiday visa," says Carol Driver, editor of TNT - a free weekly magazine aimed at Antipodeans in the UK. But fewer Australians are following that well-trodden path from the southern hemisphere.

"The lure of a growing economy, good job prospects and a decent salary - not to mention guaranteed sunshine and beautiful beaches - back home is too much to ignore, at least for the moment."

Despite these recent trends, many restless young Britons and Australians will continue to strike out for the other country in the years ahead.

Now in his fourth stint living in one of the two countries, Coleman says it's hard to place one of them above the other. But for him, Australia just shades it.

"If you're broke, where would you rather be? Sitting in a park in the rain in London, or in a park in Sydney looking at the ocean?"