The last decade has seen more and more people move to the corners of the world to pursue new jobs and economic opportunities. Far from home, these expatriates have carved out new lives and enjoyed zipping back and forth between old and new “homes” with regularity.
But with the entrance of the coronavirus in late 2019, and its subsequent impacts on global health and business, it’s made many expats reconsider whether they want to live this far away from family and friends in their home countries, to say nothing of the appeal of potentially less restrictive movement back home. Plus, one of the usual perks of expat life – unfettered regional travel – has been deemed impossible for the foreseeable future.
Companies in sectors such as fintech, finance, shipping, oil and gas, travel, hospitality, retail and F&B are feeling the fallout of Covid-19. And affected employees may prefer to – or have no choice but to – recover lost jobs in their passport-issuing country, too.
Of course, this isn’t the first time in recent history that a large number of expats have booked one-way tickets home – the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 wasn’t so long ago, after all. However, it doesn’t make moving home in, say, 30 days any less tumultuous, especially when done during a global pandemic. (Check out our 30-day checklist for repatriation in case you need it.)
Here’s what’s happening around the region and globe that’s believed to be driving this repatriation trend:
What’s Happening in Singapore?
Singapore, long a tony haven for expats in many business categories, is taking a hit from the “sheer uncertainty” of future business, as Singapore Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said recently.
The number of expats leaving Singapore is not yet available, though some say the combination of job losses – including headcount freezes and grants given to companies to hire locals and permanent residents – plus tight restrictions on travel and movement during the circuit breaker period have contributed to many expats heading back to Australia, the United States and Europe, amongst other countries.
However, as of reporting, some outgoing expats in Singapore had been waiting weeks or months to start their journey home due to cancelled flights.
Despite all of this, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a public address on 7 June that the country was “working hard to retain and attract talent and investments to contribute to our recovery.”
What’s Happening in Hong Kong?
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, political unrest – namely, ongoing protests against Chinese rule – was an impetus for many expats to move out even before Covid-19, particularly once businesses and all schools closed last year, reported Bloomberg in February 2020. And the departures are said to have picked up even more since early 2020, as expats lament the loss of stability in the city.
In June, Time Magazine reported on the “great U.S.-China power struggle”, which was escalated when Beijing “announced sweeping new security measures that will prevent and punish any secession, subversion, terrorism or foreign interference in Hong Kong” in May. In response, America revoked Hong Kong’s “differential treatment” as it pertains to trade, commerce and politics.
Although there are no exact numbers on the expat exodus, the Time story went on to opine, “…removing the city’s special status could also diminish its attraction as a global hub. Analysts say companies may uproot from Hong Kong to Singapore or Vietnam.”
What’s Happening in India?
According to an The New York Times article in May, India set out to make the greatest repatriation of its citizens than ever before – numbering in the hundreds of thousands, as Indian expats’ lives were turned upside down due to Covid-19. Workers with international jobs and students at school were potentially stranded in the U.S, the U.K. and more than 40 other countries.
The national airline, Air India, along with Naval ships filled citizens on planes and boats. “Evacuees must pay their own fare,” reported the NYT. “A flight back from the United States costs more than $1,000. A ride on the warship from the Maldives runs about $40.”
Likewise, there has been a mass exodus from the United Arab Emirates, reported The National in June. “About 420,000 people have registered with the Indian consulate and embassy seeking to fly back to India, including elderly people, those with medical conditions, and many who had lost jobs because of the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.”
What’s Happening in the Middle East?
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia will likely shed 1.2 million expat workers by the end of 2020, according to figures published by Riyadh-based Jadwa Investment Company, reported International Investment in June. “The Ministry of the Interior also confirmed that an estimated 300,000 expats have left the Gulf kingdom so far this year, with 178,000 successful applications for Awdah, the government scheme to facilitate the departure of expat workers to their countries of origin during the covid-19 pandemic.”
In addition, the publication said, “Several Gulf countries are looking to reduce their expat populations in favour of boosting nationals’ employment in a widening of the private sector. Most recently, Kuwait’s prime minister announced he is seeking to reduce Kuwait’s expat numbers to 30% from its current 70% of the total populace.”
What’s Else is Happening?
These are hardly the only global citizens repatriating (or trying to) at the moment. Vietnam Airlines, for instance, has been run repatriation flights for U.S. citizens to San Francisco and Washington D.C., as well as to collect its own countrymen and bring them home, reported VnExpressInternational in early June.
At the end of the repatriation journey, however, expats landing in their home countries may face a whole new set of challenges, including shifts in political or economic stances, such as the U.K.’s Brexit or the U.S.’s current issues with race relations and policing. Couple that with Covid, which is still spreading unabated in some parts of the world, and being home may compound an already difficult adjustment.
“Expats often experience greater difficulty with the reentry phase than with entering a foreign culture for the first time,” explains Martin Williams, founder of Harmony Counseling in Singapore. The returning expat may not feel the same inner connection with the home country that he or she had before relocation and this can cause stress, often referred to as “reverse cultural shock,” he adds.
“Repatriation can generate a sense of anxiety or depression about going back home, especially if it accompanies a negative feeling that it is a bad outcome for his or her career advancement,” Martin continues. Such repatriates may experience a form of grief due to the loss of position or go through some social adjustment and realignment of cultural identity.
Fortunately, many companies do provide transitional support. Read about one such company based in Singapore. And find out how it actually feels to repatriate from expats who’ve recently done it.
By Andrea McKenna Brankin, June 2020
Andrea McKenna Brankin is a journalist and author from the United States who lives a full life with bipolar disorder. Her book, Bipolar Phoenix, is awaiting a publishing contract. She is also currently a volunteer at the HCSA Dayspring Residential Treatment Centre for teen girls in Singapore, providing befriending-family support, therapeutic writing and rugby coaching.
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