I am an immigrant and we are all to some extent migrants: Mobility and migration in the 21st century

It's been 18 months since I posted to my blog. A lot has happened. The New Year in 2019 feels like an approproate moment to start posting again. Here's a short comment on migration and mobility in contemplation of a recent research report in the IUSSP Newsletter today.

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Reading this research report on 21st century mobility and migration patterns prompts me to ask myself whether what we are seeing in the 21st century is 'new', in the sense that human migration and mixing across the Earth's surface have been a 'thing' for more than 100,000 years* already and the reasons for people to move and mix (and move and mix again) have always been as various as the conditions under which people live, and are therefore hugely complex. Indeed, migration is an important part of what it means to be human; if anything, fixed settlement and even the concept of 'family' are probably the 'new' phenomena, given that agriculture is only 10,000 plus years old.

What is perhaps new - at least given our own rather limited time hoizons - is the preparedness and capability to move often, to third and fourth destinations, to view one's current location and life-purpose as a way-point rather than a destination, to move back and forth frequently, to move between multiple residences in different countries and continents, for families to establish more dispersed spatial relationships, and therefore for individual and familial mobility to involve a greater number of journeys and be more complex in their aggregate.

These patterns, I think, are what conservatives in receiving communities in developed countries around the world are finding it hard to acknowledge, understand and accept. This is perhaps because they tend to view (judge?) established settlement and continuous living as a close family unit within a single community as a normative 'good', and departure from those patterns as perhaps a 'bad'. Hence Theresa May's 'citizens of nowhere' speech to the Conservative Party’s annual conference in October 2016.

Over the longer term, the recent increase in the number of migrants is really roughly equivalent to the increase in world population overall, so the proportionate increase isn't large. However, what the authors might point out is that resident European populations have not increased much in recent decades, even declined in some countries. So the increase in migrant numbers, while roughly reflecting overall global population increases, ends up being a significant proportionate increase of incomers for European citizens and governance systems to absorb. Moreover, the authors do emphasise that displaced migrants as a proportion of migrants overall is rising. Tie these to an increasingly individualistic, even libertarian, European society and politics, and resentment or conflict are potential outcomes.

I am an immigrant

My own story is interesting in this respect, I think. I’m a British citizen living in Sheffield for around 20 years and I’m a father in full-time paid employment. On the surface at least, I conform to conservative norms about settlement, community, family and more. However, I’m not just descended from migrants from long ago - I am an immigrant. I was born in Kenya. And I’ve migrated since then; first to the UK, then to Spain, then Japan, then back to the UK. To who knows where next?

When my parents returned to the UK I didn’t. Not because I didn’t go with them, but because I hadn’t lived in the UK in the first place! Britain was a brand new country of residence for me. I didn’t ‘return’. And I didn’t volunteer it, since I was a young child wholly dependent on adults. It would be easy to gloss over the fact that I was at the time effectively a displaced migrant by arguing my parents were British ‘expats’, but I would argue that the difference between my case and those of Syrian or Nicaraguan children migrating to the UK or USA with their parents today is merely one of degree, not of fact.

It is often the case that expats and immigrants are considered different, one intending to return at a later date, the other intending to stay in their destination, raise a family and die. But the story of mobility and migration in the 21st century tells us that these two terms are simplifications, sometimes used careflessly or ignorantly for another set of darker values that are rooted in false notions of original community and blood; which can be understood as at least in part related to race.

For me, what this story - a story that we need reminding is as old as humanity itself - reveals is that we need to acknowledge ourselves as being first and foremost as a part of a single human species, connected with each other and with our ancestors, and living interdependent with other species on Earth together. Our future survival depends on it, and will probably be decided one way or another this century.

*The Out-of-Africa hypothesis puts the beginning of Homo Sapiens’s migration anything from 115,000 to 300,000 years ago. Though recent research shows that we are all, to some extent, descended from archaic humans (Neanderthals & Denisovians etc.) too, who were resident in Europe and Asia at least 500,000 years ago.