Why do so many Black Brits want to leave the UK?

Photography by Michaela Quan

When Windrush brought Black immigrants to the UK in the 1950s, they came with the promise of a better life. Now, that generation's grandchildren want to leave the country in search of the very same thing.

My grandfather didn’t really want to go anywhere towards the end of his life. It was hard to get him off the sofa. But in a way, he’d earned the right to be sedentary. In his youth, he’d traversed the sea from a tropical island that still bore the scars of the transatlantic slave trade, headed to a larger – and dramatically colder – island recovering from a bloody war. He toiled for his family and bought a house. He worked hard and planted roots in the country that promised him a better life.

And that’s the thing about the Windrush generation: they generally possess a deeper, richer experience of the world than the generations that followed. Most of their children and grandchildren have spent the majority of their lives within the borders of the British Isles – bar a few easyJet flights.

But where the UK was once seen as a land of opportunity for immigrants, the opposite now seems to be true for those same immigrants’ descendants: young Black Brits have itchy feet. Last year, a survey by the Black British Voices Project found that 39 per cent of Black Britons under 25 want to escape the UK, stating that they don’t see Britain, the country of their birth, as their permanent home. Combined with the survey’s finding that less than half of Black British people feel proud to be British”, it paints a bleak picture of a generation that feels unmoored in their own country, now looking abroad to find what was once promised to their grandparents here.

I don’t want to restrict myself to the UK while I don’t have any responsibilities. Who knows what the world will look like in 20 years?” says Kea, a 22-year-old student at Leeds Conservatoire studying film music. She’s considering moving to the US after her studies, partly in response to the cost-of-living crisis – namely, rising rents and the fear that I won’t be able to buy a house in my entire life” – but also because she’s interested in working in an industry that generally has bigger budgets in America. Everything is so unpredictable. I think young people have this kind of rush to get out there because we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Born and raised in Manchester, moving to another city for uni has also given Kea the confidence to relocate and reinvent herself – to emigrate in search of a better life. I just can’t imagine staying in the same place until I’m 54 and seeing my schoolfriends in Tesco’s like my parents do,” she says. The internet has helped broaden her horizons, too: TikToks about the quasi-bohemian lifestyle hack” of working remotely abroad get millions of views, while Google searches for the term digital nomad” hit an all-time high last month. Through social media we see so much more of the world, so, naturally, I want to see these things for myself. I want to do something different.”

The racism alone is enough to make anyone want to leave”

Kwajo Tweneboa, 25

These sentiments are not exclusive to Black Brits. We are a nation of people who emigrate,” says Michaela Benson, a sociologist who researches migration, citizenship and identity at Lancaster University. This is a consequence of Britain’s far-reaching empire: a British passport holds value, and the ubiquity of the English language around the world makes the move relatively easy for expats.

But right now, the need to escape the country seems more urgent. It’s well-documented that the quality of life in the UK is sharply declining, so much so that the country’s decay is on the brink of replacing the weather as our go-to topic for small talk. Unsurprisingly, young people are increasingly wondering if the grass is greener overseas: 30 per cent of all adults aged 18 to 24 in the UK want to move abroad, while 36 per cent of people who responded to a YouGov survey believe young people will be better off if they leave the UK.

Pre-existing inequalities also mean that young Black Brits are often disproportionately impacted by the UK’s flop era. The crisis in our public services is leading to damaging outcomes for our community across policing and healthcare. The racial pay gap persists. And we still lack housing ownership in our community. To make matters worse, these problems are being flat-out denied by government reports, which gaslight Black people by insisting that racial inequality does not exist in Britain.

The racism alone is enough to make anyone want to leave,” says Kwajo Tweneboa, a 25-year-old housing campaigner from London who, through social media, sheds light on the horrific conditions faced by council tenants. He finds himself exhausted from having to regularly challenge racist X (formerly Twitter) users who distort facts to blame the housing crisis on people of colour, arguing that immigrants have taken all of the available social housing. (In reality, even though Black people are overrepresented as eight per cent of council tenants and four per cent of the population, 81 per cent of new social housing lettings still go to white people.)

The way Kwajo sees it, the rise in right-wing politics could eventually drive people to go overseas in search of better vibes. He has friends who are considering moving to Australia, where similar social issues are compensated for by more sunshine and a thriving economy. But Kwajo also predicts the Black diaspora will seek to carve spaces out for themselves in countries where they are the majority. I do think eventually more and more will return to the Caribbean and Africa for opportunities,” he says. On its current path, the UK is becoming more hostile and right wing, without realising what Black people and migrants of colour have actually contributed to this country.”

For my generation, the allure and the appeal of the West isn’t held on a pedestal”

Anastasia, 23

Black British identity has also shifted significantly over the past few years. With Black Lives Matter protests, increased racial consciousness and a renewed interest in decolonisation, the mindset of young Black Brits is more critical of Britain and its empire than the first and second-generation immigrants that came before. And this feeds directly into a desire to maintain links to our homelands. As Michaela puts it, Black Brits are in search of the good life”, not only looking to find new opportunities and a sense of belonging, but also rediscovering roots” by returning to places where they already have a connection”.

Anastasia, 23, is one of those young people with plans to move to Africa. For my generation, the allure and the appeal of the West isn’t held on a pedestal,” says the London-based graduate. Anastasia has already experienced life abroad. She moved to China to study a Global affairs post-graduate degree and learned the language by speaking to taxi drivers. When homesickness kicked in, she was able to connect with a Black expat group on social media that led her to find the best Jollof in Hong Kong. My whole undergrad experience was shadowed by Covid,” she says. I felt like I wasn’t ready to just go to work and be an adult. I wanted to be young, hot and free.” At the time, news stories heavily reported that Black and South Asian people were more likely to die from the virus, while Black populations were three times more likely to receive fines for punitive measures such as sitting on benches.

Anastasia’s already decided that she’ll eventually settle down in Nigeria, where she has familial roots. Seeing a different way of living has opened her eyes to how she could help shape her ancestral homeland and she now plans to use her new skill in Mandarin to do business in fashion, music or art between Asia and Africa. In many ways, China is like a functioning Nigeria,” she says, referencing cultural similarities such as calling elders aunty” and uncle” out of respect. But while Nigeria is still marred by unstable electricity, a lack of modern public transport, 30 per cent inflation and a currency crisis, China’s technology and economy is miles ahead. It facilitates a baby girl [relaxed and luxurious] lifestyle in a way that Nigeria just doesn’t. It was also just very advanced in a way that the West isn’t.”

Africa and the Caribbean are not the only places attracting young Black expats, of course. Many people are looking closer to home, relocating to European hotspots such as Lisbon, Barcelona and Marseille. In her mid-twenties Zoe, 31, moved to Amsterdam, convinced by the looming threat of Brexit to pursue a career in advertising elsewhere. Her degree in geography hadn’t taken her to the heights she’d hoped for in the UK. I was working in a job I hated that was a one-and-a-half hour commute one way, I was perpetually tired and had zero savings to my name. That was the tipping point.” Now, she’s happily settled in Amsterdam, with a house, a boat, a dog and a solid group of friends,” plus a blossoming DJ career.

Put simply, Zoe was putting in a lot for little in return from the UK; Amsterdam not only gave her more bang for her buck, but more opportunities to flourish. Sociologist Michaela Benson says this echoes the reasons behind identity-focused emigration trends in history: an increase in higher education in any community often influences where people end up. In the 1990s and early 2000s, with the introduction of freedom of movement around Europe, a lot of women couldn’t necessarily realise the skills that their degrees had equipped them with here,” she says. They went to other European countries in order to get jobs that equated to their skill level.”

For a young Black person in Britain, your status as a citizen is forever in jeopardy”

Leah Cowan, author of Border Nation: A Story Of Migration

And right now, more Black people are going to university than ever before – in 2022, the percentage of Black students who were accepted to higher education increased from the year before, whereas all other ethnic groups saw a decrease. But despite this progress, British-born Black employees are still being shortchanged when they enter the workplace: ONS reports that we get paid 5.6 per cent less than white employees, while the Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed that the community’s strides in academia aren’t leading to a rise in pay. This lack of professional progress for highly educated Black people means Britain is in danger of losing its brightest and most ambitious Black minds, a pattern that’s being mirrored in the US in a trend Fortune dubbed America’s Black brain drain”.

It also doesn’t help that the Home Office’s hostile environment policy has already dissolved the citizenship of some elders in the Black community – and that the government’s Windrush Compensation Scheme is under attack for being woefully slow and inadequate. This not only discourages more immigration to the UK but also makes the descendants of migrants feel as though their Britishness is conditional.

For a young Black person, or a person from any racialised community in Britain, your status as a citizen is forever in jeopardy,” says Leah Cowan, author of Border Nation: A Story of Migration. The British border regime is forged in the fire of a system of racial capitalism that stretches back to the origins of the colonial projects and beyond. In the present day, this means that the state and its border agents uphold this unequal system, surveil, harass and brutalise young people [of colour] and remind them of their disposability. We saw this play out when [British-born] Shamima Begum was stripped of her citizenship after being groomed and subjected to a spectrum of violence.”

But is quitting the UK really the answer to Black British problems? Other countries are also facing housing and cost-of-living crises, after all – and racism exists pretty much everywhere. When Anastasia first moved to China, she’d often have awkward encounters with strangers on public transport who hadn’t met Black people before: they would ask for pictures, offer to cook her dinner or even ask her to date their sons. Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, far-right extremist Geert Wilders has recently climbed to power, after his populist Party for Freedom won the most seats in the 2023 Dutch election (Wilder still needs to form a coalition government, as the party fell short of the majority vote). Zoe acknowledges that there are race issues there, too. Zwarte Piet [a Christmas blackface character] is a prime example,” she says. Though the prejudice seems actually more directed towards the Moroccan community because of their perceived involvement in the underground drug industry.”

Moving abroad may seem like a quick fix to escape the UK’s regression, but in reality, it’s not the only nation with problems. What this trend really shows, then, is not necessarily that the grass is greener away from home turf, but rather a change in Black Brits’ state of mind.

When the Windrush brought an influx of Black migrants to the UK during the 1950s, it appeared there was a promise to make war-battered Britain – and, in turn, the lives of Black generations thereafter – better. Now, that promise feels unfulfilled. Younger generations don’t have a blind loyalty to Britain. They want to feel valued, to find success. They’re hungry for change and adventure, so that one day they’ll have their own stories to tell their grandkids.

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