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Trapped Abroad

Many expats venture abroad without really thinking too far into the future. “I’m taking a job for a couple of years in (insert far-flung place). It’ll be a great adventure for the kids.” That’s fine, and indeed, planning too far ahead is just asking for trouble in my opinion. However, a surprising number of expats end up “trapped” abroad for various reasons.

What if you switch jobs while in the foreign country? The new organization might not have a “home” office, meaning that if you want to go “home” you either have to find a job while still out of the country, or face going back unemployed. Alternatively, you might grow to hate the job you have, but your visa ties you to your company and your job “back home” no longer exists. Trapped.

A very common situation is that the kids attend a local school and get too far into the education system to be moved at present. (With one child in college and another in high school, that would be my situation were I to think about moving.) Or, the kids just like where you now live even if you don’t.Is it fair to rip them out of their happy little lives just because you’re not having the time of your life?

Another family “trap” is that your grown-up kids are totally immersed (if not citizens) in your new country, and for you to go “back home” would mean leaving them. Eventually it means that although you’re living at “home”, your real family (i.e. children and grandchildren) is on a different continent.

Another common “trap” is financial; many people simply cannot afford the move back home, especially when the move abroad cost an arm and a leg in the first place. Emigrating costs money even if you don’t use an agency – the fee, moving costs, and initial set up costs alone can set you back thousands. If you buy property once settled in your new country, it usually has to be sold before you go home, sometimes at a loss, depending on house prices. People who have spent a long time outside of the UK for example, often find they simply can’t afford to get back on the property ladder. I know several people who are “saving up” to be able to return to England.

And then there are the problems that arise when expat couples divorce, the biggest one usually being over child custody. There are obvious problems if only one parent is an expat – You’re married to a native and your children have been brought up there, or at least are comfortable in that country. Legally, you cannot simply take your children “home”. Without permission from the other parent, that is classed as child abduction and many countries will return the children to the original country if there is a dispute. (See this Expat Focus article for details.) The abduction possibility can also arise even when both parents are expats. One mother I know has only recently been able to return to her home country with her children, because her expat ex-husband liked his lifestyle and wouldn’t give permission for the family to leave. In many countries, (or states, in the USA) you cannot remove children without the permission of the other parent, even if said parent isn’t a citizen of that country.

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In another desperate situation I know of, a young mother returned to Ireland without her only child because the father wouldn’t give her permission to take the child legally. The young woman, worn down by the constant fight for child support, had no legal right to work in her host country and was forced to go home to be able to support herself. Another unmarried woman I read about was forced to leave her child in the United States and return to the UK for cancer treatment. With no health insurance and no money, the treatment was unavailable to her in the States and her partner wouldn’t allow her to take their child to England. While these two women clearly weren’t “trapped” in their respective countries, the decision to go home was a traumatic and desperate one.

While I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should all stay in our country of origin and never venture out into the world, be aware that the longer you stay away from “home”, the harder it can be to return.

Toni Summers Hargis is the author of "Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.

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