January 16, 2020 / 11:29 AM / a month ago

Germany's other migration wave: the pensioner exodus

SIRAKOVO, Bulgaria (Reuters) - As retirement neared a decade ago, German butcher Waldemar Hackstaetter took stock of his finances and concluded he and wife Hildegard couldn’t afford to remain in their home country.

Waldemar Hackstaetter and his wife Hildegard chat with their neighbour Brigitte Haager-Horn in their house in the village of Sirakovo, Bulgaria, December 13, 2019. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

So they moved to rural Bulgaria, where they knew their combined income of 1,200 euros ($1,340) would buy a lot more.

“The month stretched further than our pension did (in Germany) and we didn’t want to become a burden to our children,” 78-year-old Waldemar said.

If the Hackstaetters were pioneer emigrants, they are now part of what is slowly becoming a diaspora.

Since they left, Germany’s economy has prospered, drawing a steady flow of immigrants that peaked with over a million who crossed its borders at the invitation of Chancellor Angela Merkel during the refugee crisis of 2015.

Over the same ten years, numbers of German retirees persuaded by poverty to move the other way have risen as much as eightfold.

While modest in absolute terms, the trend is clear. In 2002, 107 Germans were getting their state pensions wired to Bulgaria. By 2018 it was 652. The equivalent increase in Thailand was from 671 to 5,415.

Many, like the Hackstaetters, will have emigrated for economic reasons, and growing numbers of pensioners in Germany are now living below the poverty line.

That loss of purchasing power has been a factor in the flood of elderly citizens - a traditionally loyal conservative voter base - who have ditched Merkel’s mainstream alliance for more radical parties, weakening her position as head of government.

Others in that category interviewed by Reuters here cited the perception that asylum seekers were getting more financial support than pensioners.

In the 2017 national election, one in ten voters in the 60-69 age group deserted the chancellor’s CDU/CSU conservative alliance and one in 12 switched to the far-right AfD.

A row over state pensions has come close to dismantling Merkel’s coalition with the center-left Social Democrats. In November they agreed to create a “basic pension” for people who have been employed all their working lives.

But that truce appears fragile, and the debate over pensions is expected to be a pivotal factor in the next national election earmarked for 2021.

While German pensions have outstripped inflation over the past decade, inequalities have also grown. The proportion of pensioners living in poverty rose to 19% last year from 16% in 2017, federal data shows.

“HOME IS WHERE I CAN AFFORD”

“For me, home is where I can afford to live, and I can’t live in Germany,” said Waldemar.

Sirakovo, the village where he and Hildegard settled, has drawn other elderly Germans while many of its younger Bulgarian residents have left to work abroad.

So Germany’s economically driven pensioner exodus mirrors, albeit on a far smaller scale, the flows of young migrants from poor to richer countries, with both groups often facing uncertain futures.

Joerg Dunsbach, a German Catholic priest who ministers to compatriots in Thailand, speaks sadly of those who die unmourned after emigrating on retirement and losing contact with their families.

“Every year, 40 to 60 German, Swiss or Austrian citizens die here alone, almost all of them pensioners,” he said.

But in Sirakovo, the good life goes on.

Slideshow (4 Images)

The Hackstaetters’ German neighbor, Brigitte Haager-Horn, has come round for drinks.

“I find it ...a terrible sign of impoverishment that so many pensioners can’t manage in Germany,” she said.

“But I’m very grateful to be here. This year I’ve managed to make my first batch of homemade wine, and my first rakija (brandy),” she said. “Cheers!”

Additional reporting by Miroslav Roussinov; Writing by Thomas Escritt; editing by John Stonestreet

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