"I have never welcomed the weakening of family ties by politics or pressure" - Nelson Mandela.
"He who travels for love finds a thousand miles no longer than one" - Japanese proverb.
"Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence." - Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
"When people's love is divided by law, it is the law that needs to change". -
David Cameron.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

When is a migrant no longer a migrant?

By Sonel

There has been considerable discussion of migrants in the UK recently. Whether you think they’re a burden on the taxpayer as the government would have you believe, or whether you place faith in data demonstrating migrants are net contributors, the question remains - at what point do you stop being a migrant? For my part, I was born in India, raised in Australia and ‘grew up’ in the UK. 

I was born where my mother went into labour.  Were it not for a quirk of fate, I would have been born in the USA.  But would I truly have been able to call myself American simply because I was born there?

I was brought up where my parents decided they, and thus I, should live.  My schooling, environment and friends are a massive part of the person I am today; possibly the most influential element as it is these years that I think are the most formative in a person’s life – certainly they have been for me to date at least.  Is where you were raised therefore the factor in deciding whether you’re a migrant or not?

I ‘grew up’ in the place I have chosen to be in at the first point in life when I was able to make this decision for myself and exercise any real control over my geographical location.  A place where I learned to be an adult; do things on my own, pay bills, cook my own food, choose where and with whom I lived.  Is the exercise of free choice the deciding factor?

As a second generation Aussie, first generation Brit, privileged to have Indian ancestry, answering the question ‘where are you from’ thus requires trying to ascertain what it is the questioner actually wants to know.  My place of birth?  Heritage?  Source of physical appearance? Origin of accent? Citizenship status?

The part of the UK I am currently living and working in?  I understand my name, appearance, accent, personality and location don’t all match up to any one stereotype - is it this supposed mystery perhaps that renders people more free to ask me this question than they would to anyone else, or is this in fact a ‘normal’ question everyone gets asked? 

I don’t recall ever being asked where I was from whilst in Australia.  The default assumption of Aussies always seemed to be that others too were Australian – a legacy perhaps of the relative newness of Australia as a nation (in the form we know it in today) where all but the Australian aborigines are migrants.  I realise now this cocoon of mutual acceptance is perhaps not the norm in the UK, with media referring to “an Asian man” as opposed to “a man of Asian appearance”, be it that the man is British.   

So when does one stop being a migrant?

Is it with the little red book in your hands, having pledged allegiance to the Queen – which those born here incidentally don’t have to go through?  Does it depend on place of birth?  Is one able to shed the ‘migrant’ label after a certain number of years living in the UK?  Does your family have to have been living here for a certain number of generations before you’re truly accepted?  Or is it more a case of physical appearance.  If you don’t look Caucasian can you ever truly be British?

Does it come down to the Tebbit test? You’re only British if you support the UK teams in all sports.  If so, how would one reconcile this with the Welsh and Scots who support any team playing against England?

I know there won’t ever be consensus on this as for many it’s an emotional and personal question; even statistics reporting on migrants don’t use a consistent definition - causing more confusion. 

What though are your thoughts?


  1. Thought provoking stuff, Sonel which raises this question in my mind.

    My daughter ,a British citizen by descent, was born abroad and lives overseas. If she's brought up outside of the UK and moves there in the future will she be considered by others as an immigrant?

    Another related question is, when are people considered "expats" instead of "immigrants"? Is that a skin colour related thing, too?

    1. :) I think Brits/Aussies/Americans consider themselves expats when they move to another country - everyone else is a migrant. e.g. Brits in Spain are ex-pats. Spaniards in UK are migrants. Not really a colour thing - more elitist hypocrisy.

    2. Japanese overseas also refer to themselves as expats. Japanese companies overseas have expatriate affairs departments in their HR divisions. I agree with the elite vs masses comment.

      I also think there's a difference in people who on some level intend to eventually return (who are expats) and those who intend to settle for the longer term (who are migrants). But it's not necessarily clear-cut.

  2. There's also an interesting discussion on Facebook. This comment is too good not to share :

    (Mark) : do not confuse migration with immigration. We are all migrants unless we have stayed in the same place(locality) all our life. It was the Tebbit principle that people within the UK should "get on their bike" and migrate from areas of low employment to areas of high economic activity in search of jobs.
    In the age of globalization many of us are now 'third culture kids'

    And a video about third culture identity :

  3. (Pancha) : An immigrant never stops being immigrant, its a stigma we carry daily, we can't move on. ILR or citizenship doesn't work. We will always have the "foreign" look/sound about us. No matter how much you study either. It trully is a curse as I call it, every where I go, I must prove my " residence" status. Never ending story really, doesn't matter what skin colour you are ( although when you Dark you get picked out more easily) My daughter is darker than me and she often gets called Asian when she was born and breed in the UK. My thoughts on this are endless.

  4. (Steph) : back home where i grew up-people could live there 20 years and still be considered outsiders-even though we were all the same nationality-go figure

  5. I have a silly theory but probably im not so wrong after all:
    If someone is born in India, from Indian parents (who kept all the indian traditions), was raised in Australia and lives in the UK and has British citizenship, its a British Citizen born in India from Indian descent. If someone was born in Peru, to American Parents and lives in Spain, it is a Peruvian born person descendant of American with Spanish citizenship. Even though people would like to mimetize and be part of something, it wont happen. It is exactly the same in America. You have the "Irish", the "Scottish", the "German", the "Dutch", despite they are american born and their families arrived to the US many generations ago. That "irish" one will be an American person for someone born in Ireland. Probably the easiest is to show your complete pedigree.