Friday, 11 March 2011

Migrant or Expat?

I've been doing a lot of reading up on migration lately. I work at the Centre on Migration Policy and Society (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford and we are in the midst of preparing to launch a website focussing specifically on UK migration issues. I'm currently editing a pile of briefings on migration-related so am rapidly becoming informed about all aspects of the debate.

It's a slightly odd experience, because I've been faced with the fact that 1) the UK government considers me to be a migrant, and 2) according to public opinion I'm not particularly welcome here.

Personally, I don't think of myself as a migrant. When I lived overseas with my family we were always called expatriates, and I identify pretty strongly with that description. Expatriate (or expat for short) defines me in relation to my home country, whereas migrant defines me in relation to my country of residence. I've had a much longer relationship with my home country, so still think of myself in those terms. Perhaps eventually my relationship with my current country of residence would start to take priority, but it hasn't happened yet. Anyway, I don't know if we will stay in the UK, so I'm not ready to change my relationship with the US quite yet.

With respect to not feeling particularly welcome here, I always did sense a slight amount of resentment toward me as an American. Or rather, there seems to be a degree of contempt toward America in general - I just tend to take these things personally. Examples of this include making fun of American English and assuming that America doesn't have any history because we don't have any old buildings. I always assume that people make fun of other people due to feelings of inadequacy, so I try to be charitable, but it does get boring after a while.

But I didn't quite realise how opposed to general migration (and not just Americans) the UK public seem to be. There has been a lot of discussion on this topic in the press since the publication of the most recent Transatlantic Trends survey comparing migration attitudes in Europe and the Americas, but here is a flavour from today's Telegraph: "British 'most concerned' about immigration."

It could be that British people are more concerned about immigration because they live on a small, densely populated island. But if it is just about overpopulation, why isn't there more discussion about family planning or the uneven distribution of the population? It would probably help relieve population density in the south if more people moved to Scotland and Tyne & Wear (two of the most underpopulated areas of the country). I know the weather is pretty crap up there, but these could be more attractive places to live if there were better employment opportunities. Shouldn't the focus be on developing more jobs in depressed areas, rather than on reducing the workforce?

I have started to suspect that concerns about migration have more to do with the changing racial makeup of the population, rather than with overpopulation (hence the everlasting discussion about "what it means to be British"). So as a white American I'm probably not that unwelcome after all. Not that that makes me feel much better. Personally, I prefer not to be surrounded exclusively by white people. If nothing else, a diverse population means the food is SO much better (which is no minor consideration, particularly in this the first industrialised nation in the world, with all the attendant reduction in food quality which that implies).