The French word “émigré” specifically refers to people who leave their home country for political reasons, a self-exile of sorts. In that sense, it’s a very different term from “immigrant,” “expat” or “nomad.” In history, émigrés have fled abroad to escape from revolutions in France, the United States and Russia. Many aristocrats escaped war-torn European countries amid the chaos of the Second World War. In the early 1920s, cities such as Shanghai and Paris were havens for émigré communities. Now, a century later, political changes have created a new wave of émigrés. I call them digital émigrés.
For example, 2020 has brought an unprecedented rise in American citizens leaving the United States to seek new lives abroad. In fact, the number of Americans who gave up their US citizenship skyrocketed to 5,816 in the first half of 2020, compared with 2,072 in all of 2019, according to research from New York-based Bambridge Accountants.
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This trend has been accelerated not only by America’s poor handling of the pandemic, but also the rise of Trumpism and more generalized far-right political attitudes, plus uncertainty about health care and worries about newly emboldened militia groups across the country. Those who leave may include parents looking for safer countries to bring up their children or members of marginalized groups worried about the rise in racist political ideologies.
Across the Atlantic, a similar dynamic is happening in the UK. Brexit has been a massive push factor for British digital émigrés. The number of British citizens moving permanently to European Union countries rose by 30% since the 2016 referendum. According to research, half of this number decided to leave within three months of the original vote. By now, some will already be almost eligible for citizenship in their destination country, which in some cases takes a minimum of five years.
Other Brits fled at the last minute, during the transition period of 2020, while their EU rights were still valid. At the time of writing, some are still planning an escape before the end of 2020. There has also been a 500% increase in British citizens who have taken up citizenship of one of the 27 EU countries. This is a predictable response to the actions of a UK government forcibly removing people’s long-held rights.
These trends in both the UK and US indicate that people are no longer prepared to tolerate the consequences of damaging political decisions. In the past, it was harder to uproot one’s life and leave for another country. For starters, international moves require having a source of income, which can be challenging to find when you don’t speak the language, don’t have connections and aren’t familiar with the local culture.
Fortunately for 21st-century digital émigrés, the rise in remote working, and particularly in doing business online across borders, has provided the necessary freedom to make rapid international relocations. What’s more, the pandemic has boosted this trend by further legitimizing online working, compelling more employers to accept it as the norm. Countries needing immigration have seen the remote working trend as a golden opportunity to attract skilled professionals to their shores. A number of countries, including Estonia and Bermuda, have introduced digital-nomad visas. Others, such as Portugal and the Czech Republic, have special pathways to residency for foreigners who generate income from outside the country.
In the case of Portugal and, more recently, Greece, generous tax breaks are available for those who make money online. For those countries, the beauty of the setup is that the foreigners’ money can help revitalize the local economy without taking jobs on the ground away from citizens.
Indeed, the digital émigré trend is gaining such momentum that governments are beginning to take notice. If a large number of educated and skilled citizens leave their country permanently, taking their tax money with them, it could have severe implications for that country’s economy. Perhaps governments should keep this more firmly in mind when they decide to enact policies that deprive people of important rights, such as the freedom to live, work, study and retire across European Union countries.
Governments should tread carefully in this “digital first” world, where borderless working is rapidly becoming the norm. Remote working and online business empower digital émigrés to vote with their feet. These highly educated and skilled professionals can easily relocate their entire lives to destinations that more closely match their values, goals and lifestyle choices.
*[To find out more about, visit Digital Émigré.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.