The invisible expat

9th July 2004, Comments 0 comments

An attempted census this year of Americans living abroad has come up with one major finding: they don't want to be counted. Just why do so many expats of all nationalities prefer to remain off the records?

In a trial census carried out over the first six months of 2004, the US government has been attempting to count its citizens currently living in France, Kuwait and Mexico.

Of an estimated 112,000 US expats in France, only 3,000 took part in the census

The experiment, which closed on July 2, was decided for no sinister reason; it was set up to simply see how effective it would be to include Americans residing abroad in the nation’s next 10-year head count.

But an overwhelming majority of US citizens living in France have given the voluntary pilot census a very wide berth, with more than 97 percent ignoring it. Out of an estimated population of 112,000, only 3,000 registered..

This was despite a coordinated information campaign in the media and official agencies, and with the support of various US expat organisations like the Association of Americans Overseas, the Association of American Wives of Europeans and the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas.

Importantly, census results decide how much cash each US state gets and how many representatives a state sends to Congress.

Census officials say many expats were worried about the data reaching the taxman

As the world remembers from the last closely-fought US presidential election, every vote counts – and since American expat votes are counted in the last state he or she lived they could well become be crucial to the next election.

"We thought we'd get many more responses than we've received," admits Census Bureau spokesperson Kim Crews.

Perhaps the Bureau shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, governments everywhere are struggling to get citizens to vote in respectable numbers. It was bound to be even harder to sell the urgency of taking part in a feasibility test for a census.

But lethargy and disinterest aren't the only factors in the dismal result. "Some people have also been concerned about the confidentiality of the information," says Crews.

Civil liberties groups believe citizens more readily volunteer information if they understand their rights in relation to its use. "The trouble is that the American constitution doesn't have a data protection act," says Barry Hugill, spokesman for British rights group Liberty. "It has been very well documented that information collected for one purpose has been used for another."

In the US census test, Crews' department has heard Americans were particularly worried about the data being shared with the Internal Revenue Service. "We're prohibited from disclosing information to any other state department by the law Title 13," reassures Crews.

There are more and more 'legal illegals' who choose to remain anonymous

But clearly, many potential respondents weren't taking the risk. And Americans aren't the only ones who shun official registers to avoid paying their dues.

Isamar van Hilten, who runs relocation agency Partners in Relocation in the Dutch town of Leerdam, says while she helps above-board expatriates complete the paperwork necessary to work in the Netherlands, there are many British consultants who are taken on by big companies and never registered.

"They don't register for a social security number in what is effectively their country of residence and treat themselves like a commuter, so that they don't pay tax here," Van Hilten says.

It's difficult to put a figure on the numbers of these "invisible" expats, but she says in some companies not a single contractor is registered. "There is collusion between the British agencies who hire them and the Dutch companies who don’t therefore pay social security for them," she adds.

Van Hilten, who is also a partner in Expat Links, which gives advice in 11 European countries, including the Czech Republic and Poland, believes there is a growing phenomenon of unregistered workers throughout the 25 EU member states.

"There are more and more of these legal, but illegal, EU citizens who often benefit by not being known to any government," she says.

Other elusive expats include those who intend to apply for citizenship in a particular country when they are eligible. They don't de-register if they go home or to another country to work for a limited contract because that would interrupt their period of residence.

However, while some people are hiding abroad for tangible financial or citizenship gains, there is another group of "invisibles" - EU citizens simply turning their back on the bureaucratic requirements imposed on them in their host country.

Twenty-four-year-old French woman Ludivine Blanc (not her real name), decided not to apply for a resident permit when she went to spend a year working in Andalucia in Spain.

She knew she was supposed to apply for one if she intended to stay more than a month, but was put off when she learnt from other EU nationals of the steps involved in applying for it - and that it would only arrive some three or four months later.

"The authorities in the town I'm in make you queue up like cattle just for an appointment to get the residency," she says. "EU citizens wait with people who have been queuing up for visas to enter the country since 6am."

"I felt I wasn’t abiding by the rules, but I said to myself that I wasn't illegal either – after all, I had an employment contract and was paying taxes. If I’d been stopped by a policeman and asked for a residence permit, I would have shown my French passport and said I was on holiday!"

Van Hilten isn't surprised that Blanc and other expats, who are in all other respects honest, hide from the foreigners’ office: there are plenty of horror stories. "I have a lovely Scottish couple as clients, who have been married for 30 years, but an audacious Dutch civil servant has just told them their marriage certificate isn't legal," she says.

"I understand because I’m an expat with a document problem myself. I was born in Venezuela and not issued with a birth certificate, so I can't marry my partner of 10 years. I have a passport, a social security number and pay taxes, but as far as the Dutch authorities are concerned I don't exist."

For Van Hilten, the paperwork across the EU needs to be cut for expats. "There's a crazy fondness for documentation at the moment," she says. "Tell them you're divorced and they want to see the divorce papers, they want the date of birth of your parents… What's the purpose and what are they doing with all this information?"

9 July 2004

[Copyright Expatica 2004]

Subject: Life in the Netherlands, Holland, France, US census, expats

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