Belgians Abroad

In 2013, foreign consulates’ records report the registration of 381.452 Belgians. “If you cross-reference this number with the statistics of the countries of destination and the UN, you get a total of approximately 500.000 Belgians abroad”, says demography professor Michel Poulain.


One in twenty Belgians lives abroad

The past decennium the number of registered Belgians abroad has risen from a meager 300.000 to over 380.000. The increase applies to nearly all countries except for Venezuela, Tanzania, Nigeria and – not surprisingly – Syria and Libya.

“In the nineteenth century a lot of Dutch speaking Belgians left for the US, Argentina and Brazil, due to economic reasons”, states demography professor Michel Poulain, renowned internationally for his expertise in migration statistics. “Belgium was an emigration country until World War I. That is different now. But when you cross-reference the numbers given by the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the UN statistics and those of the countries of destination, you see that still almost half a million compatriots live abroad.”

One in twenty, is this a large or rather small amount of people?
Poulain: “Neither. Countries such as Moldova, the Comores or Cape Verde have more citizens living abroad than at home.”

Since Poulain retired from the UCL university, he has been working as a researcher for the University of Tallinn. He has a second residence in the Estonian capital. “I was recently myself asked to register at the Belgian embassy in Tallinn and I intend to do so. But not everyone gets registered. This is why on the one hand the statistics, recorded by Foreign Affairs of the total of registered Belgians, are much lower than the actual number. On the other hand, the reported number could just as well be an exaggeration, as it also includes the registration of Belgian children or grandchildren who have no more ties with their native country. Is it useful for Belgians to get registered at the embassy? That is the main question.”

Registration is not mandatory. According to the website of Foreign Affairs, it is, however, “strongly recommended for practical reasons”: “You may be able to obtain an identity card or consular certificates (e.g. residence certificate, certificate of nationality and so forth), more effective humanitarian aid in emergency, or renew a passport more easily, etc.”

One in five Belgians living abroad is under the age of 18. The male/female ratio is fifty-fifty. A few countries report more Belgian women than men: Italy (62% women), Greece (59%), and Turkey (54%). The opposite, where Belgian men make up the majority of emigrant Belgians, can be found in Thailand (71% men), Vietnam (70%), the Philippines (64%) and a few Eastern-European countries.

Emigrating Belgians’ top 20 countries of destination

Of the registered Belgians abroad, 94% live in one of the top twenty countries of destination. The most popular on the list is France, with 133.066 Belgians, followed by the Netherlands (32.623) and Germany (24.634). It is no coincidence that countries which border Belgium are the first choice. “Proximity is indeed an important factor,” says professor Poulain. “The shorter the distance, the more possibilities for migrating – because it is more cost-efficient. Aside from physical proximity, the sociocultural gap also matters. The majority of Belgians in the Netherlands are Flemish, in France most of them are Walloons.”

England (18.846) and Germany (24.634) are less favoured. Poulain: “For England, again, the distance is the main reason. You’d have to cross the Channel. Also sociocultural difference plays a role. For Germany – which houses three-quarters less Belgians than France – the historical factor, the perception of two world wars, is significant. Moreover, only the citizens of the East Cantons (Eupen-Malmedy) have German as their mother tongue.

Business and pleasure

According to Poulain, the presence of the United States, Luxembourg and Switzerland in the top ten is due to those countries’ status as international businesscenters. Poulain: “The reported total for Luxembourg is an underestimation, and would in fact be much higher (30-40.000) if you take into account the number of Belgians working in Luxembourg, but living in Belgium.”

“Other destinations are popular because of tourism: Italy, Spain and Portugal. It is mostly retired Belgians who settle there. Here also, the numbers given by Foreign Affairs are presumably an underestimation. Belgians who go to Spain for no more than six months a year are not accounted for in the statistics.”

For Morocco and Turkey (17th and 18th place in the top twenty), professor Poulain states, there is also a tourist migration. “Although you do have the issue of dual nationalities here. For Belgium, the inhabitants with dual citizenship are considered Belgian citizens.”

Emerging countries

As for the BRICS countries, India (800 Belgians), China (1.500) and Russia (500) are missing from the top twenty. China is currently on the rise: the number of registered Belgians in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong has tripled since 2004. The smaller emerging countries, such as Turkey and Peru, have been seeing a tripling of Belgians over the past ten years. South-Africa (more than 8.000) and Brazil (almost 4.000) are included in the top twenty, mostly because of historical and cultural reasons rather than economical ones.

Belgians abroad: no taxation without representation

“In election time, the number of Belgian expatriates is important,” says constitutional law professor, Hendrik Vuye, from the University of Namur. “Any politician would go after that many votes. It’s perhaps not a major influence, but nevertheless a marginal one – and for a political party a seat in Parliament is all that matters.”

Belgians abroad can vote in many different ways: they can vote, in person or by proxy, in a Belgian province or at a diplomatic post or consulate. Even voting by mail is possible.

In 1998, the electoral Code was modified to grant Belgians resident abroad the right to vote. Vuye: “It wasn’t obligatory then, and there were still a lot of conditions. Few Belgians – twenty at the most – employed their right to vote in the elections of 1999.”

Compulsory voting soon followed – although not always easy to enforce practically. In the 2003 elections, 113.987 Belgians abroad cast their votes.

Butterfly Agreement

In 2011, the procedure was changed by the sixth state reform, in Belgium known as the Butterfly Agreement. Vuye: “The Butterfly Agreement introduces objective criteria, disallowing votes which have no concrete foundation : there has to be an objective link between the expatriate and the province in which he casts his vote. This is often the last known primary residence or place of birth. Before this, a lot of votes were cast in Halle-Vilvoorde. Now the voting will be spread across the entire country.”

It is important to note that Belgians abroad can only vote in federal legislative elections, not in local, provincial or regional elections. Vuye: “No consensus has been reached on this. PS (Parti Socialiste) is against it, because MR (Mouvement Réformateur) would get more votes from French-speaking Belgians abroad. When Elio Di Rupo took a break on election night in 2007, his political party PS had one more political seat than the MR. Four hours later, he woke up and was suddenly three seats behind MR. While he was asleep, the votes from Belgian expats had been counted.”


Whether Belgians abroad have to pay taxes in their native country depends on their specific situation.

“In theory, Belgians residing abroad, do not owe tax money in their native country,” says Francis Adyns, spokesperson for the Federal Public Service Finance. “But it’s not as simple as just saying ‘I’m staying abroad, and that’s that’. The relative legislative draft is short but extensive. Electricity and water bills are good indicators as to where a person is residing primarily. And this is often the basis of a ruling by a judge.”

If both partners are living and working abroad, with their family, they would not owe any taxes. Unless they’ve retained their financial domicile in Belgium. This is “the place from which an owner manages his goods or oversees management”, or “the place where a person’s business’ headquarters are.”


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