Growing numbers of Finnish pensioners are spending their winters in Thailand. The country is even seeking to attract pensioners with its special Retirement Visa scheme.
In the dark winter months, many Finns dream of sun, palm trees and turquoise seas. However, few have the opportunity to escape their daily toil. The thought may occur to them that upon retirement, they should pack their bags and fly away to warmer climes.
According to Senior Researcher Mari Korpela from the University of Tampere, the lifestyle migration of Finnish pensioners is an emerging trend. Korpela recently worked on the EURA-NET research project that investigated temporary migration between Asia and Europe. Among the various types of migrants, she interviewed Finnish pensioners who repeatedly spend a part of the year in Thailand.
The pensioners Korpela interviewed spend at the most six months of the year in Thailand, which means that they are still entitled to public health care in Finland and the benefits afforded by Finnish social security. Many also emphasised that they want to spend their summers in Finland.
“Sometimes the media and research literature call such lifestyle migrants snowbirds because they leave in the autumn and return in the spring. They are citizens of wealthy industrialised nations who move to countries with warmer climates and lower living costs in the hopes of finding a better quality of life and a more laid-back lifestyle,” Korpela says.
The italicised quotations below are from the research interviews Mari Korpela conducted with Finnish pensioners.
“It’s warm and you can wear shorts outside already in the mornings.
You don’t have to wear socks; you just wear sandals for six months.”
Thailand has even established a special visa category for elderly migrants. The twelve-month Retirement Visa is for people who are 50 years old or older, are in reasonable health and have a decent income. The visa allows them to reside in the country but does not give them the right to work or use public health care services.
“Countries such as Thailand see a niche in lifestyle migration and intentionally lure these well-to-do, healthy pensioners to come spend time in the country.”
The lifestyle migrants usually visit the same city or village year after year. Even though living in Thailand offers the pensioners a new social environment, research shows that their contacts with local people remain rather superficial.
The life of Finnish pensioners in Thailand seems to revolve around other Finns or foreigners. One reason is the lack of a common language; none of the people Korpela interviewed spoke local languages.
“In Thailand, we have the Finnish Society and they are quite active.
There are various hobby clubs and we go on trips together.”
“They do not have very much in common with the locals. The people who move to Thailand from Finland are looking for a more relaxed lifestyle whilst the locals work and thus live different everyday routines,” Korpela explains.
Many of the pensioners Korpela interviewed felt the need to justify and even defend their lifestyle choice. They talked about health reasons, their long careers in Finland and the fact that living in Thailand is so cheap that anyone can afford it. Their philosophy was that anyone can go anywhere they want.
“I have tried not to boast about anything. I don’t want to hear people being jealous.
Many think that it is so expensive that only the rich can afford it.”
“Even though such lifestyle migration has become a middle-class pursuit, it still does not concern all citizens. In addition, Finns can go to Thailand because they have Finnish passports, but travelling with many other passports is not as easy or even possible at all,” Korpela remarks.
Korpela’s research highlights global inequality. At the same time as people from rich, industrialised countries seek a more relaxed lifestyle in the south, Asians move to work in foreign countries such as Finland.
Temporary migration is a hot potato in European politics.
“It has been claimed that temporary migration would solve all the problems; there is an occasional lack of labour in Finland, we bring in people to work, our economy benefits and the people earn money, learn new skills and when we no longer need their input, they leave.”
Korpela says that the starting point of the EURA-NET project was to find out whether such policies work and what temporary migration means in practice: what consequences does it have for people’s lives, how do they experience temporary migration and what problems might it involve?
“Reliable statistical information about temporary migration does not exist. Nor is there information about whether the policy goals set for temporary migration are achieved, and the opinions of the migrants are an uncharted territory. Our data, like other available research, showed that the phenomenon involves many problems and drawbacks, even though some people also benefit. For some, temporary migration may be a nice gap year, whereas others would like to migrate permanently but can only get a temporary residence permit.”
The EURA-NET research project
The research project was funded by the EU’s 7th Framework Programme and it runs from February 2014 to January 2017.
The research, directed by Professor Pirkko Pitkänen at the University of Tampere’s School of Education, investigated the temporary cross-border migration of people between Europe and Asia.
The multidisciplinary project included about thirty researchers from twelve European and Asian countries.
The aim was to analyse – among other things – how laws, regulations and international agreements affect people’s temporary mobility and how the temporary migrants experience their circumstances.
Text: Susanna Siironen
Picture: Jonne Renvall