Trapped by draconian Covid-19 rules and growing prejudice, many expats say ‘I just want to go home’

Oct 3, 2020 | 5 comments

By Liz Rowlinson

Last month Tara and her family moved into a new home in rural Dorset after 12 years as expats in Singapore. Her banker husband had got a job back in the UK and within six weeks she “moved mountains” to extricate themselves from one life and create another — most urgently, a home to rent and school places for their three children.

The lure of the dream expat life had faded, says Tara, 38, who did not want to give her real name.

“Trapped on an island by the draconian quarantine rules meant that ease of travel — one of the main reasons for being there — no longer existed,” she says, referring to the 14-day period that inbound travellers are required to stay in a government-assigned hotel, at a cost equivalent to £1,127 a person.

“The rise in anti-foreigner sentiment was another factor,” she says, which she blames on increased competition for jobs caused by the economic downturn.

She is not the only economic migrant — someone who moves abroad to take up a job opportunity and is commonly referred to as an “expat” — opting to return home due to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Workers from Ireland, New Zealand, the US and Germany have been rethinking their living arrangements. But whether it is elective or unwanted, repatriation can be a tough experience.

In a recent survey of its global customer base, estate agent Knight Frank found that nearly two-thirds of expats (64 per cent) said that lockdown had influenced their decision to buy a property in their home country.

Of those, about 29 per cent said they were moving back full time, with 57 per cent seeking a home that they can use in the future, perhaps during a second wave of the virus.

“Time spent in lockdown has underlined the importance of family for many and focused their minds on the type of lifestyle they want to lead,” says Victoria Garrett, Knight Frank’s head of residential in Asia Pacific.

“For expats with older parents back home or young children heading to boarding school abroad — and the prospect of a potential eight- or 12-hour flight to reach them — the pandemic has meant many are rethinking their long-term plans.”

For Nina Hobson, 38, a British-born expat who has lived in 13 countries, the “chaos” of the pandemic might force her home. She’s in the middle of relocating from Santiago in Chile to Quito in Ecuador.

“Our relocation agent got Covid so we have struggled to get accommodation, the schools are closed until 2021, and we are quarantining,” says the mother of three whose Spanish husband works in finance. “I love living abroad but now I just want to go home.”

The pandemic has also brought an end to expat life for Chara Richterberg from Lafayette, Louisiana, who has moved across four continents through her husband’s job in oil and gas. Until March this year, they had been living in Aberdeen, Scotland.

British expat Nina Hobson has lived in 13 countries: ‘I love living abroad but now I just want to go home,’ she says.

“The older we get, the more important it becomes to be closer to home, and we did not want to be stuck halfway across the world, away from elderly parents and with such uncertainty about air travel,” says the 43-year-old. “Moving to Houston [Texas] for his job has been lonely for me but, wherever I am, I eventually find my own people.”

According to the Knight Frank survey, the four main drivers for expatriates looking to return home were: being close to family, a new job offer, a better healthcare system and education.

The German healthcare system has been a key factor for Sabine (who prefers not to give her full name) and her Parisian husband Patrick, to change plans because of the pandemic.

Sabine, a former engineer from Hamburg, made a life in France 31 years ago with Patrick running bed and breakfast properties in Avignon, in south-eastern France. They are now selling up to move to Germany.

“Eighteen months ago, we had planned to move to Australia with one of our three daughters, but we decided it was too risky because of the structure of their healthcare system and ongoing air travel restrictions,” says Sabine, 54. “The possibility of another wave of coronavirus means we will stay in Europe now.”

In New Zealand, emigrants have been returning for some time. July 2020 was the 12th consecutive month that had a net gain of New Zealand citizens, according to official statistics. This is a reversal of the historical trend, which tends to see more New Zealand citizens depart than arrive.

Hong Kong’s recent social unrest and job losses in the wake of Covid-19 have led to expats leaving.

Ireland is another country whose citizens are returning. The latest figures from the Central Statistics Office show that 28,900 Irish nationals went back to live and work in the year to April 2020 — the highest number in 13 years.

The Department of Foreign Affairs fielded about 8,000 inquiries from Irish people abroad seeking to return between March and September.

“Ten per cent of our new-build home sales in Dublin have been to [returning] expats,” says Ray Palmer-Smith of Knight Frank’s Irish office. “Most are cash buyers, but there are specific ‘home to return to’ mortgages available for Irish expats [who buy] before making the move.” EBS bank is one such lender offering these products.
Nothing’s changed — but you

Being prepared mentally as well as financially makes the whole repatriation process easier, says Carole Hallett Mobbs, 55, who found returning to the UK harder than any of the many other moves she made as the wife of a diplomat.

“When we left Tokyo after the earthquake in 2011, not being able to get the closure from properly saying goodbye to everyone made it harder to mentally move on.”

She says that even in normal circumstances, moving back home can be tough for expats, even when it is voluntary.

“It’s a reverse culture shock. When you move to a new place you are getting a constant adrenaline rush from new experiences or cultural differences every day. Everything is fresh and exciting. But when you go home everything is perhaps too familiar. There’s nothing to surprise.”

Her words echo those of F Scott Fitzgerald’s Benjamin Button. In the film of the book, he says: “It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed is you.”

She struggled to adjust to life back in Northampton two years ago and now advises other families about schooling options through her website,
Less recruiting from abroad

“Many multinational companies are questioning whether they need to recruit from abroad now — and pay the hefty expat relocation packages for whole families — when they could instead use local people,” she says.

Oxford Economics estimates that 10 per cent of residents in the UAE could leave if jobs are cut while, in Singapore, increasing unemployment has led the government to encourage local hiring, including increasing the minimum monthly salary to be eligible for a foreigner employment pass to SGD 3,900 (£2,215) from SDG 3,600 (£2,045).

Televised comments by the minister of foreign affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan, will have made some expats question their welcome: “The only reason we have foreigners here is to give an extra wind in our sails when the opportunity is there,” he said in July. “Now we are in a storm, and we need to shed ballast.”

In 2016, Hong Kong had about 690,000 expats — roughly 9.5 per cent of its population — according to census data. But after rising political tensions between the US and China, and the social unrest caused by the controversial extradition bill and new security law, the economic fallout from Covid-19 has been the “final gut punch” for expats thinking of leaving, says Simon Smith, senior director at Savills Asia & Pacific Research.

“Many expats are involved in the financial services sector, which has been hit hard,” he says. “Hong Kong is a very expensive place to live if you haven’t got work.”

While there are no official numbers available yet, he points to the decision last month to lower the minimum quota of non-Hong Kong students at the territory’s international schools from 70 to 50 per cent — most likely because many have not been able to meet that quota — as a key indicator of the number of expats leaving.

Smith predicts that luxury residential rental rates will mirror the fall in office rental rates, which in the Central district have fallen 10.8 per cent so far this year. Landlords are more willing to offer longer rent-free periods and early handovers as incentives, he says. “Short lease terms of one year are also becoming more common.”

The pull of better employment opportunities has been a factor in Jane’s return to the UK after 15 years in the Dordogne, south-west France, in August. She has started a new teaching job in Hampshire and has found returning there rewarding — so far.

“Viewing it with fresh eyes, I have fallen back in love with the UK, despite it being a very different place to the one we left,” says Jane, 51, who did not want to give her real name. “We have returned with an alternative perspective about healthcare and education systems but luckily our 12-year-old daughter (who grew up in France) is also excited about her new home.”

The main difficulties she has faced have been practical: setting up a new home without being able to open a bank account (Hallett Mobbs advises departing expats to keep an account in their home country), lacking a credit history and having no proof of address to apply for services.

Returning during the pandemic meant logistics were doubly tricky for Tim and Lynda Wheatley, who came back to the UK as it locked down in March, after 21 years in Cyprus and, before that, 13 years in Germany.

“When you have been away that long you are not returning to a life, but the hardest thing of all was to forge new social ties when we couldn’t meet people properly,” says Tim, 76, a former RAF officer.

Hallett Mobbs agrees. “When you move abroad you are welcomed into an expat bubble, through social groups or the international school, but when you arrive back home you feel as if you’ve been dropped like a hot potato.”

Tara doesn’t feel quite so alienated. “I can’t wait to go to Waitrose,” she says. “I’ve found out a few other people from Singapore have moved to the area too.”

Credit: The Financial Times