What will happen mañana? Brexit and return migration of retirees from Spain

Brexit could prompt hundreds of thousands of British retirees to return from continental Europe, placing additional strain on the UK’s health and social welfare systems.

Jordi Giner-Monfort
30 January 2017

Benidorm, Costa Blanca, Spain. Phillip Capper/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

The question of migrants and their right to stay was a key topic of concern during the Brexit campaign. Brexiteers complained of the high number of EU migrants living and working in the United Kingdom. But Brexit may also affect British migrants abroad, especially those who moved to EU countries where they had their rights to stay and work recognised as any other EU migrants (e.g. Spain, Portugal, France or Italy).

British people living in other EU countries took health and social benefits and allowances from both their origin and receiving countries, and in many cases benefitted from the pound-euro exchange rate. In 2009, data of the British Embassy in Madrid showed that there were more than 800,000 Britons living in Spain, most of them unregistered. They were concentrated on the Mediterranean coast, especially in the provinces of Málaga and Alicante, and in some towns one in every two people were British. Bars, pubs, hairdressers, supermarkets, plumbers, electricians, gardeners and many other services are offered in English (and usually by Britons) to the British.

Even with the arrival of the financial crisis, which had a significant impact on the Spanish economy, Spain continued to receive thousands of British expats, most of them retirees. These expats did not escape the crisis, however, and as pensions started to decline from 2008 onwards academics began to speak of a possible large scale ‘return migration’, where those who once retired to Spain might decide to go back to the United Kingdom. We have seen this play out to an extent, and tens of thousands of British retirees and job seekers have since returned to the UK from Spain (The Telegraph reported that some 90,000 left in 2014 alone, but that is likely a substantial overestimate).

Economic troubles

Retirees and job seekers might choose to return to the United Kingdom for many different reasons – from poor health to homesickness – but it seems that one of the most important factors influencing their decision to stay or leave is their perceived level of economic security.

While we don’t know yet what the consequences of Brexit will be for either country or for British residents abroad, we do know that the uncertainty of the situation is fuelling a sense of unease amongst frail and elderly British retirees. The value of sterling fell after the referendum, which is already affecting the pensions of British retirees in the UK but even more to those who retired abroad. This loss of purchasing power is likely to deepen in coming years.


Aside from economic concerns, there are other issues that will affect British migrants in Spain. Healthcare is a key concern, as access to free healthcare in the country depends upon European Union agreements. Most of the retirees have their NHS health cover transferred to Spain under the S1 registration system, which allows them to see a GP in the same way that Spanish retirees do. Some of those who are not registered try to use the UK EHIC card, which is only for a temporary stay, only to find that they need to return to the UK to arrange the S1 paperwork.

Britain’s participation in both the S1 and EHIC agreements will end in the event of Brexit and new bilateral agreements with European countries will need to be negotiated if a similar system is to be in operation after Brexit. This is not unprecedented: Spain has such agreements with other non-EU partners such as Norway and Switzerland. Of course, insecurity linked to health coverage would affect especially those who are more heavily dependent on the health system, that is, the frailer and older retirees.

A 2014 questionnaire based in Marina Alta (Alicante) showed that, when asked directly, 28.7% of the respondents stated that they would return to the United Kingdom in the future, independent of economic, family-related or health issues. This data is similar to other estimations such as NatWest’s Quality of Life Index. When asked about which future situations could lead them to return from Spain, Britons suggested that there are at least three crucial circumstances: decreasing incomes (64% would return to UK); deterioration of the public health system in Spain (49% would return to UK); and increasing controls on foreigners (48% would return to UK).

Brexit is likely to lead to all of these scenarios: a probable devaluation of sterling against the euro; decreased ability to move within the Schengen area and greater difficulties in accessing the Spanish public health system for free. With this in mind, and depending on the future development of Brexit, a considerable return migration of British nationals from Spain would be possible in the coming years, maybe higher than the return movements seen in the last five years due to the financial crisis.

In the most extreme scenario, there could be between 40,000-75,000 Britons returning from Spain in a very short period of time, many more if those unregistered are counted. Most of those returnees would be frail and old, which could have a big impact on the British health and social care systems. If the return migration numbers are mirrored in the case of other countries such as Portugal, France, Italy or Bulgaria, the impact would be even higher. And of course that depopulation would mean another crisis, especially in the mostly British-populated zones as Alicante or Málaga, where net losses of population could be potentially devastating to local economy which have become dependent upon immigrants.

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