The Perfect Life for International People? What Surveys Reveal about Life Abroad

Wish you were here?
Wish you were here?

Today’s post is from Margit Grobbel of InterNations

Back in middle school, my classmates and I used to make up a game called “Anywhere but here” to while away the time during cover lessons and study hall. It involved closing your eyes, flicking through an atlas, and randomly pointing your finger at a map. Then you had to invent an elaborate story about your life in wherever you would end up.

Obviously, most adults contemplating a move abroad would want to make a more informed decision. Expat surveys and country rankings are a handy way of comparing potential destinations and getting an idea of what the quality of life, cost of living, etc., is like. But can such surveys actually tell us where life is best for expatriates?

As the world’s largest online community for expatriates, we kicked off the Expat insider Survey 2014 to gain insights into what daily life abroad is like for our international member base. We were particularly interested in seeing how satisfied they are with their respective destination.

A pivotal part of the survey report consists of a comprehensive country ranking, based on participants’ ratings of various factors, from leisure options to childcare costs. However, once we finished analyzing the data and compiling the ranking, some results rather surprised us, sparking heated discussions on our social media channels as well.

The highest-ranking expat destination on our overall index turned out to be Ecuador. The third place went to Mexico, ahead of such presumed favorites as Switzerland, Singapore, or Australia.

At the InterNations office, we hadn’t really given much thought to Ecuador, beyond its great reputation among trekking enthusiasts and wildlife watchers. As for Mexico, we were aware of local issues with personal safety, violence, and the impact of organized crime.

Such seemingly counter-intuitive results prompted us to take a closer look at our data. The areas where Mexico (or Ecuador, for that matter) do particularly well mainly include the “soft” topics featured in our ratings: how welcoming a country and its culture feel to new arrivals, how friendly the people are, or how easy it is to make new friends abroad.

When it comes to the “hard” facts, like working hours or medical care, our respondents’ subjective ratings are less strikingly different from what objective statistics would suggest. Let’s take just one example:

We asked the participants to judge the quality of education in their current country of residence. In this category, Mexico ranks 20th out of 34 countries altogether. If we counted only the OECD member states in this rating, Mexico would rank 15th out of 21.

The OECD Better Life Index, on the other hand, uses several statistical sources to assess the quality of education: the number of years spent in education, the percentage of the population that has completed upper secondary school, and the PISA test results.

Here Mexico sadly comes last out of 36 countries. If we included just the OECD member states also featured in the Expat Insider ranking for quality of education, Mexico would still be last out of 21 destinations.

The subjective assessment in our survey is thus somewhat better than what the statistics suggest. However, our survey population is not representative of the average Mexican citizen.

Our data for Mexico reveal that expat parents are very likely to have an academic degree themselves and to send their children to private schools. It might be reasonable to assume that socioeconomic factors could compensate for some potential disadvantages when it comes to the quality of education, or the quality of life in general.

What really boosted the overall ranking of both Mexico and Ecuador, though, was the respondents’ high personal satisfaction with life abroad. Its impact is partially a methodological issue, as this question was assigned disproportionate weight in the factors contributing to the country ranking.

Interestingly, however, this observation also tallies with life satisfaction in the OECD Better Life Index. Though Mexico doesn’t perform particularly well in areas like safety or income, its life satisfaction score of 7.4 out of 10 puts it among the top 10, on a par with Australia, Sweden, or the Netherlands.

While we can’t explain the somewhat baffling contrast in the OECD index, we can hazard a guess as to why our expat respondents in Mexico might be so happy.

Our survey population in Mexico skews rather differently from the global average with regard to various characteristics. They are noticeably older than the average respondent (by about five years), and they include a disproportionate number of US nationals.

Moreover, there’s a high percentage of people with dual citizenship, who are Mexican due to family background, marriage, or naturalization. Over 80% of respondents also state that they have at least fairly good Spanish skills. Factors like these would mitigate the impact of culture shock and the potential sources of frustration with living abroad.

We have used a fairly broad definition of “expat” that includes people from all walks of life who have chosen to live and/or work abroad. In Mexico, the “typical” expat (a senior employee or manager on a foreign assignment) is actually rare among our survey respondents. They rather feature a fairly high quota of retirees, teachers, or expats in various forms of self-employment. Their choice of destination was probably not subordinate to the demands of their career.

When we look at the reasons they give for moving to Mexico, these imply a certain degree of personal freedom as well. Participants say that they enjoy living abroad in general or that they were looking for a place with a lower cost of living; that they have always wanted to live in Mexico, or even that they moved for love.

Therefore, it’s not all that surprising that four in ten respondents in Mexico consider staying forever, compared to a global average of one in four.

This case study leads us back to our original question: Do expat surveys tell us where life is perfect for expatriates? Maybe they tell us it’s time to rephrase the question: Where is life abroad perfect for whom?

Useful links

OECD Better Life Index

Happy Migrants Day!

Click to see the publication
Click to see the publication

Manila’s main airport is rarely a quiet place. But it will be even busier than usual over the next week as some of the Philippines’ 10 million or so emigrants head home for the holidays. When they land, they’ll get the red-carpet treatment – literally. In a tradition dating back to the 1990s, returning Overseas Filipino Workers get to walk down red-carpeted lanes and are promised speedier processing at immigration and customs. They can also look forward to raffles and prizes and even a visit from the president. “This is the government’s tribute to the heroism of OFWs who come home during Christmastime to be with their families,” an official explained.

Emigrants are on the mind of many at this time of year, and not just because of holiday homecomings. For today – December 18 – also brings International Migrants Day, marking the anniversary of the adoption of – big breath – The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrants Workers and Members of Their Families.

Of course, it doesn’t take a special day to draw attention to migration – the topic is rarely out of the news. Just this week, for instance, we learned that two-thirds of Germans think immigrants “cause problems”; that at least 20 immigrants are feared dead after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean; and that there’s a rising level of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.

There’s a negative feel to much of what the media says about migration. Less often reported – and surely worth noting on this of all days – are the positive stories. Did you know, for example, that migrants head up just over half of Silicon Valley start-ups? Migrants are also behind many household names in computers and technology – think of Sergey Brin at Google, Jerry Yang at Yahoo!, Pierre Omidyar at eBay. They’re also strongly represented in the arts and popular culture – think of Joni Mitchell, Junot Diaz, Rihanna. (OK, you can stop thinking of Rihanna now.) It’s no wonder that the authors of a book on migrants – and the source of most of these factoids – entitled it Exceptional People.

Away from the star names, migrants contribute to development. Worldwide, they sent home an estimated $325 billion in remittances in 2010, far more than what OECD countries gave in assistance to developing countries. As we noted recently here, their role as a source of ideas, innovation and investment through diaspora networks is also increasingly recognized. And, of course, they contribute to the economies of their adopted countries: A 2007 report from the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers estimated that immigrants contribute about $37 billion to U.S. economic activity every year.

Still, there’s no denying that, in many OECD countries, immigrants aren’t integrating as well as they could do. That doesn’t just mean “fitting in”; it also means the extent to which they match, or even exceed, locals in areas like employment, earnings, health levels and education. Failures in integration carry a high economic and social cost, which helps to explain why governments in OECD countries are increasingly interested in the subject. It was also recently investigated by the OECD in Settling In, which looks at the performance of immigrants in several areas, including household income, work and civic engagement.

Some of the factors behind success or failure to integrate are obvious. For example, countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada that essentially select most of their new immigrants tend to attract better-educated people, who, in turn, tend to integrate better. Other factors reflect everything from language ability to how long immigrants stay in their adopted countries. And, unfortunately, some of the factors relate to discrimination and racism. Numerous experiments have shown, for example, that employers are often more likely to choose a CV with a “native,” rather than a “foreign,” name.

Given the signs of tension over immigration, there’s likely to be growing pressure on governments to make a success of it, both for migrants and the countries they settle in. Understanding the reasons why migrants succeed – and why they don’t – will be an important part of that effort.

 Useful links

OECD work on international migration

OECD Insights: International Migration – The Human Face of Globalisation

Migration slumps in recession

Click on the image to read the book

A new international study offers further evidence of the recession’s impact on migration – some countries appear to be seeing very sharp falls in the numbers of new arrivals while the job prospects of existing migrants continue to take a hit.

 The report, from the BBC and the Washington D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, suggests there have been big falls in the numbers of EU citizens travelling to work in other EU countries. They’re down by about two-thirds in Spain and by about 60% in Ireland, it estimates.

Indeed, says the report, some EU countries may be seeing a reversal in migration, with more people now leaving than arriving. “Anecdotal reports of young Irish men leaving for other English-speaking countries such as Australia are becoming increasingly common, evoking the possibility of a return to Ireland’s historical roots as an exporter of people,” it states. “The same is true (though to a lesser extent) of Greece, another former country of emigration that had been transformed into a country of significant immigration in the 1990s and 2000s.”  But as the report stresses, these apparent trends are still anecdotal; it will take some time before they’re verified by national and international statistics, such as the data compiled by the OECD.

 Some countries also appear to be seeing big falls in non-authorised – or “illegal” – migration. In the United States, the Pew Hispanic Centre estimates that there were two-thirds fewer non-authorised immigrants each year between 2007-2009 than in the first half of the decade.

 The BBC/MPI study also looks at the impact of the recession on migrant employment, and reports that young immigrants have been hit particularly hard. In Spain, it says, 41% of young immigrants are out of work and in Sweden 37%. As an OECD report  noted earlier this year, the recession is going to make it even harder for migrants to get a firm foothold in the workforce: “The integration period for immigrants is often long and the current downturn contributes to turning back the clock.”

 Has the recession sparked a change in governments’ attitudes to migration? There’s evidence it has. According to research by the Dallas Federal Reserve, “advanced economies from Australia and Western Europe to developing countries such as Thailand and Kazakhstan adopted policies ranging from keeping new migrants out to encouraging resident migrants to leave”. Changes have included tighter numerical limits on immigrants, providing migrants with fewer opportunities to renew work permits and round-ups of unauthorized immigrants.

One surprising finding: The recession has had only a moderate impact on remittances – the money migrants send home to their families. The World Bank estimates that officially recorded remittances worldwide fell 6% in 2009 compared with the previous year to $316 billion. But it expects them to rebound by about the same percentage in 2010 and to rise by just over 7% next year.

Useful links

OECD work on migration and on employment

 OECD Insights: International Migration

 OECD Insights: From Crisis to Recovery

A berry bad summer

Click on the photo to see why they like berries

Vietnamese farm-workers recently locked up their bosses to protest against low pay and hard working conditions. Their action might well have gone unnoticed except for one thing: It happened in Lapland.

What were Vietnamese workers doing in northern Sweden? Picking berries, or trying to. Every summer, the Nordic forests fill up with delicious fruit – blueberries, lingonberries and the amber-coloured cloudberry. Collecting them is a favourite summer pastime, and, thanks to the “right to roam” allemansrätten law, people in Sweden are more or less free to pick berries wherever they find them.  


But in recent years, this tradition has become commercialised, with thousands of foreign workers flying in to reap the wild harvest. In the past, many were rice farmers from Thailand. They planted their rice in June, travelled to Sweden for the summer berry season, and then returned home to harvest their own rice crop in the autumn. As Bertil Lintner writes, the work was hard but lucrative, with workers bringing home between $2,850 and $5,700 – “much more than a doctor or other well-paid professional back in Thailand”.

Lately, however, the annual trek has become less rewarding. Travelling to Sweden has become more expensive and the berries are harder to find. One picker told the Bangkok Post that he used to be able to find wild berries within 20 kilometres of a town centre. But these days he has to drive 100 to 400 kilometres. In part that’s just because some years are good for berries and some are not. But it also reflects growing competition.    

Problems came to a head this summer with the arrival of workers from China and Vietnam. Not only did they hit a bad summer for berries but, according to locals, many were spooked by the mosquito-ridden northern forests and had little farming experience.

 The workers also complained of impossible targets. One of them, Le Thi Hong, said the recruiting agency had promised workers they would be able to pick between 60 and 120 kilograms of berries a day, Västerbottens Folkblad reported. In reality, he said, they were lucky if they could manage 10 to 30 kg. Workers had mortgaged their homes to travel to Sweden, he added, and risked losing them if they didn’t meet their targets. Discontent led the Chinese and Vietnamese pickers to stage a series of protests over the summer, including locking up their bosses and going on a 15-kilometre night march.

The story is unusual but, unfortunately, not all that rare. Fruit-picking can provide useful, short-term labour, but it’s also often rife with scams. Many pickers are hired by contractors and may have to pay relatively high up-front fees, which they can only earn back by meeting quotas. Many also are seasonal workers, and so may have limited protection under labour laws. (And, while there’s no suggestion of forced labour in Sweden, in the worst cases farm-workers – both locals and migrants – may effectively be slave labour, as this ILO report discusses.)

Sweden has tried to protect the pickers by issuing warnings about scams through its embassies and imposing a minimum wage. Local unions, however, say more needs to be done. But in reality there’s probably only so much the government can do: So long as hiring agencies in the pickers’ home countries create unrealistic expectations, would-be fruit pickers are going to be open to exploitation. Back in Sweden, there have been calls for a boycott of commercially picked berries to show support for pickers who have been unfairly treated. But, as Isabel Conway comments, the idea of giving up their beloved berries “may be a sacrifice too hard for many Swedes to swallow”.

 Useful links

OECD Insights: International Migration

 OECD work on international migration

Social issues (including migration) at the OECD iLibrary

The International Labour Organisation

Migration and asylum policy in Sweden (government website)

BBC debates the skills gap

Click on the image to go to the BBC World Debate home page

By the end of next year, around 15 million new jobs will be needed to get OECD countries back to pre-crisis levels of unemployment. That’s the “jobs gap” .

Paradoxically, there’s also a “skills gap” – a shortage of qualified people to fill job vacancies. According to David Arkless of  Manpower Inc., companies in Europe have around three million unfilled vacancies. Why? Despite high unemployment, they still can’t find the right people.

Arkless was speaking on the BBC’s World Debate, which was recorded on Wednesday at the OECD in Paris to coincide with the release of the Organisation’s annual report on jobs and unemployment.

The debate offered a fascinating insight into the skills shortage at a moment when the issue is being eclipsed by unemployment. But as OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría pointed out, “thinking about skills now is an act of foresight”. If we wait to act until economies recover, it will be too late.

Education and training as an investment in the future will be key. But, as Sharan Burrow, head of the international labour body ITUC, warned, this could be at risk as governments seek to cut back on spending. “If we don’t invest in education, we’ll be having this same debate in 10 years,” she said.

Just days before the release of the OECD’s annual survey of international migration, the panel also discussed whether countries should ease migration for skilled workers. Manpower’s Arkless pointed out that, in many cases, “the people who can fill jobs are in the wrong place with the wrong skills”. So, does it make sense to let them move more freely to the right place? In theory, yes. But in practice, as presenter Nik Gowing pointed out, that can face real political obstacles: “How do you persuade politicians to argue for skilled immigration in a time of unemployment?” he asked his panellists.

To hear what they had to say, tune in this weekend to The World Debate on BBC World at these times.

Useful links

OECD work on employment, on education  and migration

OECD Insights: From Crisis to Recovery

OECD Insights: International Migration

Mama mia! Three more countries quit Euro

Shock waves reverberated around the airwaves yesterday when it emerged that Andorra, the Czech Republic and Montenegro were pulling out of this weekend’s Eurovision Song Contest. This came as a further blow to the beleaguered competition, following Hungary’s  decision earlier this year not to take part at all.

Markets reacted calmly for once, with the 10-year Czech bond actually gaining slightly in early trading, but there’s no cause for complacency.

First though, a few words of explanation. In our increasingly globalised world, geography means less and less, and not just for firms but for multilateral organisations too. We’re no longer surprised to discover that Turkey is in the North Atlantic according to the people who make maps for NATO or that Israel is in Europe according to soccer’s ruling body FIFA, so why not Morocco and Azerbaijan for Eurovision?

In fact, the “Euro” of the title refers to a body of the European Broadcasting Union, and in this case covers countries that are associated with Eurovision’s pooled media services. News broadcasts around the world rely on the group’s networks to get the stories from the journalists on the ground to the studios, and many countries such as Libya that are eligible for the song contest have never participated.

The “Song” in the name is much harder to justify, indeed critics say it should always be in quotes. The ESC’s defenders say this is unfair to past winners such as La, La La, Boom Bang-A-Bang, Ding-A-Dong, or Diggi-Loo Diggi Ley, and point out that the Contest has provided the springboard to international success for nearly two groups, following ABBA’s 1974 win with Waterloo.

Why are so many pulling out? The answer is the recession. True, sending a man in a glittery leather suit to a concert hall doesn’t cost much in terms of TV budgets. But Eurovision is a rules-based organisation and the winning country has to stage the next competition. This year’s host city, Oslo is paying 25 million euro, compared with around 33 million in Moscow last time.

An OECD study  found that such events could act as a catalyst for local development, thanks to improved environment, infrastructure and amenities, global exposure, increased visitor economy and tourism, trade and investment promotion, employment and social and business development.

So why are participants so scared of winning the Eurovision Song Contest? Judging from the experiences analysed by the OECD, it’s because there is little time to plan or integrate the event in local development strategies, and practically none of the audience actually come to the real event anyway.

People watch it on TV and can vote for the songs they like. This means that countries with large diasporas have a better chance of winning since they get votes from the places their migrants have settled in. Could this be another victim of the crisis?

The OECD expects the numbers of legal migrants to fall due to the recession. During a conference to mark the First European Day for Border Guards, Frontex, the European border agency said that a third fewer people were detected attempting to cross external land and sea borders of member states in 2009.   

Useful links

OECD LEED Programme (Local Economic and Employment Development)

OECD Communications Outlook 2009

The OECD is organising a conference on the evolution of news delivery on 21 June 

OECD Insights on International Migration

Migrants and the downturn

In an interview with La Croix newspaper (in French), the OECD’s Jean-Christophe Dumont looks at how the downturn has been affecting migrants. One major issue is unemployment – in a downturn, immigrants are more likely to lose their jobs than locals. Despite this, emigrants don’t appear to be returning home in large numbers. In part that’s because job prospects back home may be as bad as in emigrants’ destination countries. But it’s also because emigration is often a long-term project involving big adjustments like resettling families, buying property and so on. Most people would think twice before undoing such changes.

Still, the slump has had a noticeable impact on one area – remittances, or the money emigrants send back home. According to World Bank estimates, they’ll be 6% lower in 2009 compared with 2008. As it’s likely to be several years before remittances return to pre-crisis levels, many developing countries will face a continuing shortfall in this important source of income.

Useful links:

International Migration: The Human Face of Globalisation

OECD work on migration