Moving to another country could be an exciting opportunity for your family but before you pack your bags, it pays to do your research. Jill Misson reports…
There’s so much to think about before an overseas posting and a lot has changed in recent times. Along with the pandemic, we’ve seen the drawdown from Germany, Brexit, and changes to how and where the British armed forces conduct their training. The question is, does joining your soldier for a stint abroad still hold the same appeal?
In the latest Overseas Survey 1,194 army families told AFF how they feel about postings outside the UK and the majority said they would go on another overseas assignment. “Families generally volunteer to go overseas to improve their quality of life or to experience different cultures and adventures,” says AFF’s Overseas Manager Esther Thomas.
However, many of you felt ill-prepared to make informed decisions due to a lack of up-to-date information. The pressure on finances was a key concern and some of you said that Local Overseas Allowance (LOA) doesn’t offset the cost of living compared to the UK. It was also clear from the survey that there are some misconceptions about what LOA is for – it’s not meant to cover childcare costs or compensate for lack of spousal employment for example.
Esther adds: “You need to assess the trade-offs between opportunities and limitations, depending on your family dynamics, stage of life and career goals – you can’t presume that just because you had a great time overseas ten years ago it will be the same next time around.”
Finding out more
Your research into a potential posting should be thorough – see our article on page 20 of Army&you spring 2022. Check out the families federations’ websites and any location-specific sites, plus you can download Overseas Location Guides from the iHIVE.
Some soldiers face tough decisions over whether to go overseas unaccompanied. Single parents and dual-serving couples need to check the childcare available and unmarried couples who live together in the UK may not have the same options.
Sergeant Alistair Smith, a member of the Army LGBT+ Network and Fighting With Pride, says certain postings are more difficult for same-sex couples: “It can be problematic to serve in places like Africa where the culture doesn’t accept the LGBT+ community, also the Middle East and Brunei where homosexuality is illegal and punishable.”
Families responding to AFF’s survey would welcome an in-person brief on arrival. In Kenya, a member of welfare staff meets each new family to tell them about the area and amenities. A further welcome brief coincides with the weekly coffee morning. BATUK has Isolated Unit Status as Nyati Barracks is three-and-a-half hours from Nairobi City, and families can find it frustrating having to drive so far to go shopping or for some types of medical and dental treatment.
Nevertheless, Unit Welfare Officer Major Mike Robb says it’s a great place to be posted with opportunities for adventure training and travel: “Families can go on safari and they’re entitled to new respite provision, which assists them towards the cost of visiting these amazing locations.”
An overseas posting is no guarantee of sunshine; you’ll need to wrap up warm in Norway, where Zoë Herron is enjoying life. She says: “The weather can take a while to get used to and in the winter months it can be very dark but I’ve been hiking, swimming in the fjord, kayaking, skiing and ice skating on a frozen lake.”
The heat of Brunei was waiting for Natalie Kelsey (pictured with her family in main photo). She says: “We only had eight weeks’ notice but a little more research may have told us that life wouldn’t be all tennis and cocktails!” Although COVID has curtailed travel plans around Asia, there’s a strong sense of community spirit and plenty to see on the doorstep.
Natalie adds: “We are fascinated by life in the tropics, whether that’s monkeys jumping on our trampolines, the monitor lizards scurrying through the gardens, the crocodiles that can be spotted on the local golf course, or the magical hornbills that glide overhead around sunrise and sunset.”
However, the cost of living is high and the eight-hour time difference to the UK makes communicating with family difficult. Spousal employment is also in short supply.
Natalie adds: “There are very few jobs within the garrison for spouses, and most roles pay less than UK minimum wage, despite the cost of nursery care in Brunei being equivalent to the UK.”
Going overseas comes with big financial considerations including the potential loss of a second income with spouses having to put their careers on hold. Esther Thomas says: “We are receiving many more enquiries about working overseas as families try to balance the books.
“If you wish to work remotely overseas you’ll need to rigorously research the wider implications. Your employer will have considerations too, such as insurance, liability and their own tax position. You can find information on the AFF website.”
Kasia Lee-Mikus couldn’t continue her role overseas and found a different job locally. She explains: “I’m working overseas but my heart isn’t in it, it’s not what I trained to do. I would love to return to my previous role and I’m concerned what damage two years being here will do to my CV.”
Although families felt communication on the pandemic had been effective, the survey showed they felt uninformed about the impact of Brexit. Sarah Taylor, a Community Liaison Officer (CLO) in Germany says: “The lack of a residence card has meant that children travelling alone back to boarding school in the UK have been stopped and questioned at border control, and some people have had issues with importing cars back to the UK.”
Helen Wallace, the CLO in Milan, says: “Post has become a complete nightmare and there’s also a whole new process of getting visas for EU spouses which is very time consuming.”
Caroline Crewe-Read is living in the south of Italy. She says: “It’s a beautiful and diverse country which offers huge opportunities for travel, and for learning a new language and culture, but I’ve been surprised at just how challenging this posting has been and I’m not alone.”
Naples is not an easy a place to live, she explains: “The dangerous driving is notorious and whilst the city and its people are known for their warmth and hospitality, the region has high levels of unemployment and crime, so you live with a heightened sense of security, which can be draining.”
Some parents have to consider the logistics of supporting children at boarding school in the UK. Families receive a contribution for School Children’s Visits (SCVs) but for shorter half-term holidays, children may choose not to return ‘home’ if they have to travel long haul. There is provision for reverse SCVs, but only for one parent.
Other factors include younger children flying alone. Caroline says: “The lack of unaccompanied minors’ services with most airlines has made travel much more challenging.”
You can visit the UK to escort your child back at public expense, but again, the provision is only for one nominated person. The onus is on you to find out what’s available for your location.
Bettina Jordan-Barber is on her third overseas posting. She says: “Without doubt, the biggest friction is the process of moving – a vast administrative burden that service families have to absorb. “We always have to pay out for expenses and claim back later, so we are constantly owed money.”
Note that in some circumstances, you may be able to get advance of pay to help with this issue, so AFF encourages you to speak to your unit admin team.
Raising your concerns
AFF Policy & Research Director, Michelle Alston emphasised that several key concerns from the survey need to be addressed: “We’ll use this evidence to raise the issues with the MOD and chain of command and push for positive change.” The survey evidenced that additional financial expenditure remains a key challenge. “Whilst AFF understands that the full impact of the recent LOA changes, both positive and negative, will take time to be understood, we urge the army to monitor the effects of the new allowances,” she says.
AFF would also like to see information provided that is up-to-date, in clear and accessible language, giving a realistic view of challenges and experiences in specific locations. Michelle adds: “This will empower families to have the information they need to prepare for their move.”
Col Leigh Drummond, Assistant Head Personnel Services, responded to the survey: “The feedback from our people and their families is crucial in ensuring our policies are fit for purpose and that we have communicated them effectively.
“The fact some of these issues are recurring themes is undoubtedly frustrating and we continue to work with AFF to help prioritise what we, the army, needs to address to improve our people’s lived experience.”