An article published in SUR in English on 27 January referred to an 'exodus' of British residents from the Costa del Sol. The report quoted the most recent statistics available regarding numbers registered on their local town hall's 'padrón', or population census, however the figures generated a number of letters and comments from readers, highlighting the mixed messages that foreign residents have received from their local town halls.
Residents who have been in Spain since before 2009 will probably have been told that once they had registered on their local padrón, they did not have to update the information. However others may have been told that they do need to update their details, anything between every two and five years.
Antonio Requena Segovia, who heads up the Malaga office of the Spain's Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE - national statistics institute), confirmed to SUR in English this week that since 2009, foreign residents coming from other European Union member states have been required to update their details every five years.
Residents from non-EU countries are asked to renew every two years, in line with their residency papers. In both cases if they fail to do so, their names will be removed.
Previously, foreigners, like Spanish residents, were kept on the register permanently once they had registered.
The 'exodus' headline came from the latest statistics released which revealed a significant drop in British people on the town hall register, or padrón.
The institute releases data on the country's population at the beginning of every year and shows trends in Spanish nationals as well as foreign residents.
Malaga province is home to Spain's second largest British population after Alicante, with 49,526 registered in 2015. In total 239,810 Brits were registered as living in Spain in the same year.
The 2016 INE report, which shows data from 2015, revealed that 5,240 British people had been removed from the padrón and that 8,093 foreigners in total had been taken off across the whole of Malaga province.
As the statistics predate Brexit, there is only anecdotal evidence of British people returning to the UK due to fears over the consequences of the UK leaving the EU.
According to Requena, who is based in the INE offices in Calle Puerta del Mar in the centre of Malaga, it is "impossible" to know all the reasons why people don't update their details on their local council's register.
"Many people naturally drop off the register because they die," he said. "Due to the fact that Malaga is home to many foreign pensioners, one of the key factors in this drop is, obviously, that people pass away."
According to the latest INE statistics, the average age of a British national living in Spain is 52, compared with the average for all foreign residents falling into the 30-44 age bracket.
Impossible to track
If foreign residents move to another place in Spain and register with their new town hall, they are automatically taken off the previous padrón but do not disappear from national statistics.
"Nowadays, technology is very advanced and we can keep track of people who move within the country. The problem is when people leave the country and don't tell us, or we are not informed of a death," explained Requena.
He said that there is no way of knowing whether people have really left the country or simply not, for whatever reason, contacted their local council to update the information.
Since 2009, many town halls in Malaga province have run renewal campaigns, to remind foreign residents to update their information.
This is generally done in the form of a letter which will be sent to the postal address which appears on the padrón.
However, as Jacky Gómez of the foreign residents' department at Nerja Town Hall points out, "Many people move and don't give us their new addresses, so the letters never reach them."
The initial letter is generally sent out several months before the renewal deadline, with a reminder if there is no reply after a set date.
Additionally the town halls publicise their padrón campaigns in the local media to reach residents who may not have received their letters.
Antonio Requena said that dissemination of information about the padrón "depends very much on the town hall".
"Some are very good at collecting the information and running campaigns and others are not," he added.
Malaga's INE works very closely with the local councils across the province in order to collect the information and to help them to ask foreigners to register and renew. The INE chief insists that his team is making sure that town halls keep their registers up-to-date. However, he points out that the renewal process has only been in place for eight years and if people are only contacted every five years it will take some time to really be accurate.
Not a legal requirement
Although registering on the padrón is not a legal requirement, people are strongly encouraged to do so as population numbers relate directly to the amount of central government funding towns receive for services such as medical centres, fire stations, schools, cleaning and other municipal facilities.
Take the case of Nerja for example, which has a population of around 21,000. If the population registered on the padrón remains above 20,000, the town is eligible for more funding for core services. Should the population drop below the limit, it is likely to lose key facilities. As Requena pointed out, foreigners who use these services should be part of the head count.
Registering on the padrón, he explained, has nothing to do with paying taxes and it doesn't cost anything to register. He said he has been made aware of the concerns and rumours that go around foreign communities that being on the padrón means that a foreign resident will be required to pay more taxes, which, he said, is "absolutely not true".
While the police do have the right to consult town hall registers in the case of a foreign resident being arrested or involved in some way with a crime or incident, the information doesn't automatically get shared with the police or any other body, other than the INE.
Town Hall foreigners' departments across the province have reported mixed foreign population fluctuations in recent months. Nerja saw 20 new Britons moving into the town and registering on the padrón in February alone, according to the foreigners' department, although the town has seen an overall drop in the number of foreign residents.
Joanna Drozdowska, who works at the foreign residents' office in Benalmádena, said that she has noticed a "big drop" in numbers of British residents. "People are afraid and are selling their properties because of Brexit," she said.
Vélez-Málaga's census and padrón department also confirmed that it sends letters some time before a foreign resident's registration is due to be updated. A reminder is sent out if the renewal hasn't been carried out before the five year limit is up.
Requena concluded by saying that since 2009, the INE has been working closely with town halls to ask foreign residents to remember to update their details every five years.
Town halls are required to find the human resources to carry out the work and that the annual campaigns are "important". He said that it is a "big cleaning project", which he recognises will take time but says it is "necessary so that towns get all the services they need".
While INE statistics suggest an 'exodus' of Brits, the reality is more complicated than people simply leaving Spain. However, what is clear is that those who do live in Spain for at least three months of the year are advised to register with their local town hall.