Briton David Frost looks on from his balcony during an AFP interview in Malaga on March 27, 2017. 
The country is home to just over 300,000 Britons, with the figure rising to around one million counting Britons who live only part of the year in Spain. British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to invoke Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty tomorrow  triggering two years of Brexit negotiations, a divorce that has anxiety running high among this huge expat community. / AFP PHOTO / JORGE GUERRERO / TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DANIEL SILVA        (Photo credit should read JORGE GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images)
© AFP

Britain is urging hundreds of thousands of UK citizens living in the EU without registration documents to take action to guarantee their post-Brexit residence rights.

Diplomats estimate that up to 50 per cent of UK citizens living in some of the EU countries with large British communities have not complied with local legal requirements to register as residents from another EU country.

Britons who have not obtained legal permission to reside in the EU could face difficulties proving they have a right to stay after the UK leaves the bloc.

“There may well come a point in this process where British citizens who wish to continue living in Portugal after we leave the EU will need the right documents to demonstrate their residence status,” said Chris Sainty, the British ambassador to Lisbon.

Current residency rights for Britons in the EU and EU citizens in the UK are expected to apply until December 2020, when a planned transition period is scheduled to end. But those rights could change as early as March next year if Britain leaves the EU without an agreement.

“In either scenario, I think it’s self-evident that people should have their paperwork in order,” said Mr Sainty. “In Portugal, registering is a legal requirement.”

Freedom of movement rights guarantee all EU citizens the right to work and reside in other EU countries. But national governments require people from elsewhere in the bloc to register with local authorities and acquire residence permits. In many EU countries, registration is also required to access healthcare and other services.

A total of 22,500 Britons were legally registered to live in Portugal in 2017, according to the country’s border agency. However, the British embassy estimates the real number of Britons living in Portugal to be between 45,000 and 50,000, with as many UK residents not having registered with local authorities as those who have.

More than 320,000 UK citizens live in Spain, according to Spanish government figures for June 2018, by far the largest British expat community in Europe. Some analysts, however, estimate the real number could be at least double that figure because large numbers have not registered with the local authorities.

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“We know there are significant numbers of unregistered British citizens, but we don’t have a reliable estimate of how many,” said a British embassy spokesperson in Madrid.

About 45,000 British citizens live in Greece, according to the Greek authorities. Many are not registered, particularly those working in the country’s large informal economy. “If you get a regular job, your employer should ensure you’re registered, otherwise there’s not much incentive [to do so],” said one Greek official.

Diplomats say many UK citizens are not aware of the legal requirements to register as residents, while penalties for not doing so are low. Others cite language difficulties. Feedback also suggests some Britons are often more concerned about how Brexit will affect their healthcare and pension arrangements than their residence status.

Daisy Samson, a British social media marketeer who has lived in the Algarve for 15 years, has not renewed her residence permit since it expired five years ago.

“As someone who has bought a property and paid taxes in Portugal for many years, I don’t believe I need another piece of paper to prove I’m an EU citizen with the right to live here,” she said.

While most retired expats had registered, she said, “it just doesn’t come on to the radar of a big demographic of younger [British] workers who think they can come and go as it suits them.”

Britain and the EU have given mutual assurances on citizen rights after Brexit, with Theresa May, the British prime minister, saying EU citizens resident in the UK before March 29, 2019 would be able to stay regardless of the outcome of the negotiations. EU countries are expected to reciprocate.

“Based on the wide range of conversations I’ve been having, I believe it’s unthinkable that the Portuguese government would not reciprocate whatever arrangements were made for EU citizens in the UK,” said Mr Sainty.

Portugal’s home affairs ministry said it was preparing a public information campaign on the impact of Brexit, “with or without an agreement”, that would “explain the advantages of acquiring residency rights in order to fully benefit from them post-Brexit”.

A total of 3.8m EU citizens were living in the UK at the end of 2017. The United Nations last year estimated that 1.3m UK citizens were living in other EU countries.

Efforts to alert UK citizens of the need to register have been stepped up since the British referendum on EU membership in June 2016. Embassy staff have held more than 100 outreach events in Spain, for example, and visited dozens of regions in Greece and Portugal.

Embassies are also urging people to sign up for email alerts and consult country-specific information at gov.uk.

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