Do citizens always (net) leave their own countries?

In my post the other day on New Zealanders continuing to leave New Zealand, one thing I didn’t touch on is that in normal circumstances one should expect more citizens to leave their own country than arrive.

People mostly acquire citizenship by first living in a country.  For most people, it is a matter of being born somewhere (although not everyone born in a particular place is entitled to citizenship of that country).   Others acquire citizenship through immigration, sustained residence and naturalization.  And there is a, typically much smaller, group who acquire citizenship outside the country –  eg the children born abroad of New Zealanders.

In other words, most citizens of a country are in that country to start with.  However successful the country is, it is likely then that over time more citizens will leave the country than will arrive in it.  There typically isn’t a large stock of citizens abroad, and some citizens will, for example, marry someone from another country and move to settle in that country.   Others will find an exceptional job abroad, or simply like something about the lifestyle or values that another country offers.  The United States, for example, has had among the very highest material living standards for a long time, but the best estimates seem to be that there are a couple of million American-born US citizens living abroad.  More Americans have left the United States than have arrived.

But two million Americans is less than 1 per cent of the US population.  In New Zealand’s case, by contrast, Australian statistics say that there are around 600000 New Zealand born people (almost all of whom will have been New Zealand citizens –  many still are) in Australia alone.    There are only around 3.5 million New Zealand born people in New Zealand.   Diasporas make a difference.

Once there is a large stock of citizens living abroad, there is no reason to think that the net migration flow of citizens will continue to be outward, no matter what the economic conditions are.  If New Zealand’s economy starts performing better than those abroad, which group of people finds it easiest to move here and take advantage of those opportunities?  Surely those who are already our own citizens –  they have the legal right to move here, full access to our welfare supports, and few cultural adjustment issues  (Australians can come here too, but the flows are typically small.)  By contrast, people from other countries face  all sorts of additional hurdles.  They need legal permission to come (and we don’t allow just anyone in, as soon as they want to come),  and they typically won’t know the culture that well or find it easy to immediately see their skills fully recognized in the labour market.    With 600000 New Zealanders in  Australia alone, if there was any convergence going on between living standards in New Zealand and Australia (or New Zealand and the UK, where the next largest group of New Zealanders live) that could quite quickly and readily been accompanied by a reversal of the net outflow of citizens.  Many would still be leaving  –  some permanently, some just for a few years –  but more could be returning.

What happens in other countries?    Do we ever see net inflows to a country of citizens of citizens of that country, or is this just a theoretical curiosity?  In fact, we do see, and have seen, such flows.

I went to the Eurostat database, which collects and reports data from a huge number of European countries (mostly those inside the EU, but not only them).   Somewhat to my surprise, I actually found what I was looking for: in this case, 10 years of annual data for the migration inflows and outflows of citizens of each reporting country.  I’m not sure how they compile the data in most countries (in New Zealand, we use arrival and departure cards), but in Europe the use of identity cards and the need to register in a locality probably support data collection.  In any case, however they manage to calculate it, this is what I found.   I downloaded the data for 32 countries for the years 2004 to 2013 (the most recent Eurostat had).  Bear in mind that New Zealand has not had an annual net inflow of its own citizens for more than 30 years.  But over the last decade, 11 of these European countries had had such inflows in at least one year (in fact, all of those 11 had had at least two years of net inflows of their own citizens).

These were the countries that had experienced inflows: Denmark, Ireland, Greece, Spain, France, Croatia, Cyprus, Slovakia, Hungary, Malta, Finland

It is a diverse group: some of the richer EU countries (France, Denmark and Finland) as well as some of the poorer.  Unsurprisingly, most of the inflow years seem to have been when the home economies were doing well.  Over time, for example, Ireland has huge net outflows, akin to New Zealand’s experience (and hence a very large diaspora), but they had a net inflow of their own citizens of around 12000 people a year from 2006 (when the Irish data start) to 2008.  Cyprus –  a much smaller country –  was attracting back a net 1000 or so of its own citizens each year right up until their crisis hit in 2013.  And so on.

As I noted, even very rich countries will tend to see a modest outflow of their own citizens over time.  Norway, for example, has an extremely high GDP per capita (and even higher GNI per capita), and about the same population as New Zealand.  It was losing about 1000 Norwegians per annum over 2004 to 2013 –  a period when New Zealand lost an average of 28000 people per annum.

And how do to the average net outflows over time compare across countries?  This chart shows data for the Eurostat countries discussed above, supplemented with national data for New Zealand and Australia.

own citizens inflow

A handful of countries actually had a net inflow of their own citizens over this full period.  But only two of the countries had a larger average annual outflow (as a per cent of population) than New Zealand.  If New Zealand had really been doing well our diaspora is large enough that the flow could easily have reversed.  It simply hasn’t.  It fluctuates, and the net outflow in the last year has been modest by our own historical standards (recent decades), but even last year’s net outflow would have put us towards the right of this chart.