When 30-year-old Ronald Kennedy speaks of the Netherlands, he is at pains to point out that the air is "unbreathable." A native of Vlaardingen, an industrial town close to Rotterdam, he studied journalism at Utrecht — a city located at the junction of four motorways, where locals there consider a house with a quiet bedroom to be the height of luxury. With 470 inhabitants per square kilometre, the Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and overpopulation is the main reason for Dutch emigration. In 2008, close to 120,000 people (from an overall 16 million) left the country for good. Surveys have shown that approximately one Dutch person in 30 has plans to emigrate. Similar trends hold sway in the United Kingdom and Germany — two of the richest and most stable countries in the world, which figure in the dreams of millions of Asian and African refugees. Last year, Germany registered a record 165,000 departures. In 2008, 318,000 British citizens chose to live elsewhere, following in the footsteps of 400,000 who left the previous year. The figure for 2009 is expected to be even higher.

Ask people to define a typical immigrant, and they will talk about pensioners who move to Spain or Asia, where the climate is better, and the low cost of living allows them to lead a life of luxury. Occasionally, they will speak about young hedonists who succumb to the lure of Caribbean beaches, and a life of casual sex and cheap Colombian drugs. But what most of us do not realize is that the majority of emigrants are responsible middle-aged people with families, who are seeking tranquility and more space. Typically, they come from busy and inhospitable cities in Europe, which they cannot wait to abandon for the charms of new lives in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. As sociologists have recently discovered, the phenomenon of emigration is no longer confined to the rural poor, but now mainly concerns middle-class city dwellers.

A highly dangerous brain drain

Studies by the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI) show that one in three aspiring emigrants is ready to accept a reduction in income. "No one is leaving Europe to become a millionaire. On the contrary, in Australia and in Canada, average incomes are lower than they are in the United Kingdom," remarks Frans Buysse, who runs a visa reservation service in Culemborg. A desire for a change in life-style is the key motivating factor. Research has also shown that in Europe, aspiring emigrants not only take into account their personal circumstances in their countries of origin (notably with regard to salary and housing), but also the level of public services. The decision to leave can be motivated by "dissatisfaction with long hospital waiting lists, poor quality schools, the level of crime, or industrial strife," explains Harry van Dalen, a professor at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute and the University of Tilburg. Van Dalen's work has revealed for example that the murders of eccentric nationalist politician Pim Fortuyn and film director Theo van Gogh — shot for his anti-Islamic stance in 2004 — clearly boosted emigration from the Netherlands. For many people, these attacks definitively put paid to the ideal of the Netherlands as the world's most liberal country: so they upped and left.

In Germany, the lure of a better life elsewhere has cast a spell over broad sections of society, launching a fashion for television series about the daily lives of emigrants. The private television channel VOX was the first to exploit this trend with a 2006 show entitled Goodbye Deutschland! A book of practical advice for those planning to leave was also published under the same title last year. The fact that many emigrants are highly qualified is particularly bad news for the German government. "The brain drain is a highly dangerous phenomenon. In four years, the German economy will have 330,000 unfilled vacancies for third-level graduates," warns Reiner Klingholz of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. Already one in seven scientific theses written by a German is presented in the United States, and three of Germany's current crop of four Nobel prize laureates have opted to live on the other side of the Atlantic. There are plenty of volunteers willing to replace people who are leaving, but the majority of immigrants to Europe are unskilled workers. As a result, the state is doubly penalized: it loses the investment made in the training of experts who opt to live elsewhere, and at the same time it must finance language classes and skills training for immigrants.