In recent weeks, the Foreign Office has voiced concerns that thousands of Britons retiring to a life in the sun risk seeing out their days in relative poverty and poor health due to inadequate preparation for their future lives abroad.
Around 13 million British nationals live abroad, a number that increases annually by an estimated 350,000, according to government statistics. Fears over the well-being of some of these expats have been raised ahead of a new study of British migration trends by the Institute of Public Policy Research, due out next month.
"We've been getting a lot of feedback from our posts in Spain, Greece and Portugal that the welfare of some older retirees is becoming a major issue," explains Steve Jewitt-Fleet, head of the Consular Communications Team at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), which advises Britons on the services available to them when living and working abroad.
"The 1980s were a popular time for migration and to Spain in particular," says Mr Jewitt-Fleet. "Many Britons moved abroad in their sixties and reasonably hale and hearty. That population is now in its eighties and experiencing exactly the same sorts of problems they would have experienced in the UK. Many viewed the move as an extended holiday and one that would absolve them of such problems."
Mr Jewitt-Fleet says the FCO is hoping to raise awareness not just among the group he refers to as the "pioneer retirees" of the 1980s, but also among the increasing number of younger Britons choosing to live abroad. "One of the biggest problems our staff abroad are facing is the lack of awareness over the provision of public healthcare," he says. "Ask yourself whether you can you afford to fly home should you need [extended] treatment not available overseas. With hindsight it sounds quite obvious, but even if you move to a British enclave you still need to deal with local authorities - so you do need to learn the language."
FCO consuls provide information on a range of welfare services available in the European Economic Area (EEA). Those entitled to a UK state pension, for example, or those on long-term incapacity or bereavement benefit, may be entitled to free or reduced-cost medical care in some European states.
Across much of the Continent, care of the elderly and infirm still falls to the extended family and as such, some expatriates often find themselves isolated. "British retirees need to realise that not many European countries have welfare provisions like the UK," says Bruce McIntyre, British consul to Malaga, one destination where the problem is particularly pronounced. "There are often no old people's homes, no district nursing or community care. We provide help where we can, but there are a few steps you can take to ensure that it doesn't come to this."
British television is awash with programmes championing both the lifestyle benefits abroad and the ease of investing in property overseas. But it's a case of buyer beware, says Mr Jewitt-Fleet. "If you buy a brand new villa you need to make some provision for maintenance and do the same searches on a property as you would in the UK." One legal oversight by increasing numbers of buyers is not making a will. Should you die abroad without having made one, the legal implications for your family back home can be significant, and France is just one example of a country where the laws governing death duties are incredibly complex.
Another key failing is lack of financial planning. "You need to allow for inflation and exchange-rate fluctuations, explains Mr Jewitt-Fleet. "The Department of Work and Pensions can give you a state pension forecast [your pension entitlement based on National Insurance contributions] and most countries in the European Economic Area will allow you to open a non-resident bank account.
"The last thing we want is to put people off retiring abroad but you need to know what you're letting yourself in for."
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