Urgent requirement for channels of timely and reliable information to be developed targeting UK-born people living on the continent, say researchers – before life-changing decisions get made rashly in a milieu of rumour and speculation.

UK citizens abroad need to be empowered to make sound, informed decisions during Brexit negotiations on whether to remain in their adopted homelands or return to the UK

Brendan Burchell

University of Cambridge researchers have set out to compile a database of communication routes that will allow UK expats residing in EU nations to receive reliable, up-to-the-minute advice throughout the negotiation process once Article 50 is triggered.

The work is part of an effort to mitigate rash Brexit-induced decisions fuelled by an information vacuum that could see thousands of over-65s in particular arriving back in the UK without necessarily having property or pensions on return.

Such a sudden reverse migration could increase pressures on already overstretched health and social care services in the UK, at a time when significant numbers of key workers in these sectors may themselves be returning to EU homelands as a result of Brexit-related insecurities. 

Researchers say that fears over future rights held by UK citizens who have settled on the continent – about everything from possible legal status and rights to work, as well as access to welfare, healthcare and pensions – could be exacerbated by misinformation resulting from rumour, speculation and tabloid bombast.

They say there is an urgent need to create a ‘one stop shop’ for trustworthy information channels that cover the various types of UK migrants currently within the remaining EU: from students and young families in the cities to retirees on Mediterranean coastlines.

The research, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), will take place over the next six weeks. Researchers say the final product will be shared widely with trusted parties such as government agencies, legal charities and citizen advice bureaux, but will not be released fully into the public domain for fear of exploitation by commercial and lobby organisations.

“UK citizens abroad need to be empowered to make sound, informed decisions during Brexit negotiations on whether to remain in their adopted homelands or return to the UK,” says lead researcher Dr Brendan Burchell from Cambridge’s Department of Sociology.

“However, at the moment there is a missing link: there is no database of the conduits through which high quality information can be communicated that targets specific countries or sub-groups of UK migrants. This is what we aim to build over the coming weeks.”

The team of researchers will be scouring the internet and interrogating local charities and expat organisations to compile the most comprehensive list of information channels used by UK citizens in each of the other EU27 countries. These will include legal, health, financial and property advice services, English language local newspapers, Facebook pages, blogs, chat rooms and so on.

Last year, the BBC’s ‘Reality Check’ website reported that there are around 1.2 million UK-born people living in EU nations. Over 300,000 of those live in Spain, of which one-third receive a UK state pension.

Burchell says that talk of migratory influxes into the UK has been almost entirely limited to EU nationals during the heated debates around Brexit. Little consideration has been given to returning UK nationals from EU countries such as France and Spain – many of whom are increasingly elderly baby-boomer retirees that may not have lived in the UK for a decade or more.

“Without access to well-grounded information that updates throughout the Brexit process, the current void will be increasingly filled with dangerous speculation and even so-called ‘fake news’ from partisan groups or those that would seek to prey upon the anxiety of UK over-65s to make quick money through lowball property sales or investment scams,” says Dr Burchell.

Professor Maura Sheehan, an economist from Edinburgh Napier University’s Business School in also working on this project, believes that if panic is sparked it could lead to a domino effect in certain expatriate communities.

“Housing markets in areas along the Mediterranean coast could collapse as retirees try to sell up, but with no new UK expats looking to buy. Life savings could get swept away in the confusion,” she says. 

“Meanwhile there is no slack in UK social infrastructure for ageing expats returning en masse with expectations of support. The NHS has yet to emerge from its current crisis, there is a desperate shortage of housing, and social care is badly underfunded.

“The idea that we could see socially isolated baby-boomer expats back in the UK with health conditions, financial woes and even ending in destitution as a result of bad decisions based on misinformation should not simply be written off as so-called ‘remoaner’ hysteria.”

Anyone who would like to suggest material for the database or find out more about the project can contact the team on brexit_expat_info@magd.cam.ac.uk.

inset image by Ville Miettinen (cc: Att-SA)

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