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The future is another country

It's grey and chilly. Throngs of thirty and forty somethings lumber through the drizzle to an agricultural hall outside Coventry. I pay the £11 entrance fee and once through the door everything changes. Sunny optimism illumines the interior. Maple-leaf flags hang like bunting while red, white and blue balloons jostle for attention with inflatable kangaroos and surfboards. This is Emigrate, the largest migration exhibition in Britain, at which financial advisers, estate agents and lawyers from more than 60 organisations offer advice to 7,000 visitors on how to gain entry to new lands of opportunity.

I join the queue of visitors who are eager to discover how to clinch the golden ticket: an Australian visa. We take our seats and the game-show begins. On the stage, a smiling Australian migration lawyer talks up the prize of a one-way ticket to the land of surf, sun and beer. "Once you get a visa you can sit on the beach for the rest of your life. You don't need to work if you don't want to.

" At Emigrate, points win prizes. Later in the day, at stalls dotted around the fair, there are talks on how to gain the differing number of points required for entry by Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Each country has its own list of desired skills and professions and the fair's walls are pasted with posters cataloguing each nation's sought-after occupations. Are you a bee-keeper? A civil servant? Welcome to New Zealand. Hairdresser? Last year Australia was desperate for you. Now, after admitting large numbers of Chinese and Indian scissor-hands, hairdressers are no longer required. Qualification for permanent residence can be a lottery but there are some certainties. All countries allocate more points for youth, English-language fluency and education. And if you are an entrepreneur with thousands to invest in your new country, Australia, New Zealand and America all want you. Myths about points swirl around the show.

To demonstrate the abundant migration misinformation, the presenter, Ben Willis, a migration agent and lawyer, asks, Paul McKenna-style, for a guinea pig who believes he or she has the 120 points to qualify for permanent Australian residency. The victim says confidently that he is an engineer, aware Australia is desperate for them. "Do you have a BSc in engineering?" the presenter asks. "No. I switched careers later and took an MSc in engineering," he replies. It is not enough. The BSc would have given him the necessary points but the MSc counts for less. The volunteer's face falls. The presenter looks vindicated: "My main message is: don't assume you will manage to get 120 points," he says. Registering the wavering mood in the audience, he attempts to gee them up: "It's worth going through the hurdles or else you'll be stuck on the M1 thinking, 'what am I doing here?' Australia is the best place to be.

Once you've made a decision to come, just do it." To keep wannabe migrants' eyes fixed on the prize, we are introduced by video link-ups to Brits who have leapt through the migration hoops to settle in new countries. At one talk, entitled "Chat with Brits in Canada", we're presented to Maxine, a migratory role model who moved from London to Ontario two years ago: "She got a whopping 79 points! She only needed 67 to qualify!". Canada's craving for her postgraduate social work qualifications ratcheted up her score. It's a gold rush for the emigration industry. The Office for National Statistics' figures show more British citizens left the UK in 2006 - 207,000 - than in any year since records began in 1991: 49,000 for new lives in Australia, 71,000 upped sticks for EU countries, mainly Spain and France, and 16,000 to the US. More and more people hanker to move abroad. A 2006 BBC survey found that 13 per cent of 1,000 people asked were planning to emigrate in the near future, twice the number who wanted to leave when the same question was asked three years before. Yet the British press and politicians have been so mesmerised by the rising number of non-British nationals arriving - which the ONS recently showed had swelled to 510,000 immigrants in 2006, double the number a decade ago - that the British exodus has been ignored. Of course, emigrating Brits are nothing new.

At the height of its imperial power in the 19th century, Britain experienced mass migration not only to colonies and dominions such as India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa but also to countries with colonial connections, such as the US. Professor Tim Hatton, a labour market economist from Essex University, estimates the annual emigration rate in the years before the first world war at around 5.3 UK citizens out of every 1,000, though this included a disproportionately high share of Irish emigrants when Ireland was part of the UK. Even today, according to Jim Hammerton, emeritus professor at Melbourne's La Trobe University, who has written extensively on the history of migration, Brits are cashing in on the "colonial dividend", empire having established "common language and family ties to countries". A couple at the Emigrate fair support Professor Hammerton's observation. The woman, in her late 30s, pacifying her toddler with an apple, tells me her parents came to Britain from India in the 1960s, and her husband had lived in Australia as a child for 10 years before they met: "I know it's possible to uproot a family and be happy." Brits are departing their home country in greater numbers than the French or Americans. The Institute for Public Policy Research estimated that 5.5m British nationals, or just over 9 per cent of the UK population, were living overseas permanently in 2006.


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