We’re All Immigrants Really

I recently tuned in to a debate on BBC Radio Norwich. It was about immigration, something of a national obsession in Britain.  Some of the comments were intelligent and thoughtful, others were plain stupid. It made me think. How is it that, in general, relatively rich people from the West who move abroad are described as ‘expats’ whereas relatively poor people settling in the West are classed as ‘immigrants’?  Perhaps this is because ‘immigrant’ is a dirty word these days, laced with nasty undertones of freeloading and coloured by thinly veiled racism. The threat of the UK or anywhere else being swamped with lazy foreign devils sponging off the state and plotting a new world order is a tad exaggerated in my experience. Where would the National Health Service or the care sector be without imported labour? It’s also worth bearing in mind the United Nations of young people who greet the commuting worker bees of London at the Pret a Manger* counter each morning are there because they’re eager, committed and willing – not a scrounger among them. This is an attitude that some British youths would do well to emulate.

The smug, self-congratulatory term ‘expat’ does have more than a hint of the British Raj about it (or any colonial raj come to that) – people who move away for a sea-view room or a tax-free dream job but who maintain their cultural and language separateness in various expat ghettos across the globe. The word also suggests a sense of impermanence. Interestingly though, many foreign nationals I know in Turkey have no intention of moving back to their home countries. Some have even acquired Turkish citizenship (though I suspect few have relinquished their original passports. It pays to have a plan B, just in case). If expat life is transitory does this mean that immigration is permanent? This doesn’t explain the huge influx of Poles who moved to Britain in the 90’s looking for work, many of whom have since moved back to Poland because the work dried up. They are called immigrants (and less savoury words by some). Clearly, quite a few have no wish to stay longer than necessary. Perhaps it really is all to do with the filthy lucre.

It’s certainly true that expats tend to be more financially self-sufficient than those who move in search of a better economic life, but nothing is that simple. In Turkey, plunging interest rates in recent years have presented quite a fiscal challenge to those trying to maintain a hedonistic lifestyle on dwindling assets. I wonder how many will survive? In the end, some may have to head home anyway, kicking and screaming. Expat? Immigrant? You say tomayto, I say tomarto.

*Pret is very successful British coffee and sandwich chain. I recommend their breakfast baguette – delish!

15 thoughts on “We’re All Immigrants Really

  1. . . J and I have never described ourselves as anything other than ‘economic migrants’! To get a real understanding of the issue I recommend ‘Bloody Foreigners’ as bedtime reading – rather than the Daily Bigot!

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  2. Interesting post Jack and something that I have pondered on many times. I was having a conversation with my daughter during her stay this week about the way in which people in the UK complain about immigrants, and we both agreed that generally speaking they have a much stronger work ethic and will take on anything for a better life. Whereas those Brits who do the complaining are often those sitting on their backsides, claiming benefits. Hypocrites.

    Oh and by the way my daughter picked up my copy of PtheP book and sat up all night reading it. She loved it, and like me, can’t wait for the sequel.

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  3. For me, it has never been economic pressure or political motives. My life seems like pinball, bouncing almost at random, sometimes racking up big points, sometimes down the hole. Who flips the paddles? Not me.

    When I moved to London from Canada in the 70’s it was for parties and other fun, then for marriage, then for uni, then for work, then for blah blah blah. My month away from home stretched to 37 years. Now my home is in Turkey. So which ‘patria’ am I ex?

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  4. Very interesting piece of writing, again and what a subject to get your teeth into. I am not very fond of the expat community but do have friends among them. OK that’s sounds terrible….I suppose I am one myself a more confused person you could not wish to meet. I grew up in Ireland with English parents who got so shocked by my growing Belfast accent that they sent me to elocution classes. Oh by the way I was born in Croydon, so I can honestly say I have been confused since year dot. I got beaten up in Belfast because they thought I was a Catholic, great fun for a bunch of squaddies who formed a circle round two 12 year old girls tearing each others hair out. Finally just to cap a whole life time of misunderstood identification, I am here in Turkey as a Turkish national and a 4 year out of date UK passport. My husband who is just as much a mongrel as me Greek/Turk is about to have a book published (this month) and as my Turkish is a little dodgy I understand the general content but if it has any really risky political references could see us running for the hills. OMG glad I have got all that off my chest, thank you Jack once again.

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    1. It’s good for us mongrels to get things off our chests! I really hope the book won’t cause any difficulties for you both. Turkey needs to learn to take criticism on the chin and learn that pluralism is a sign of a mature nation not a threat to the State. My very best wishes.

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  5. I think that when the era of the nation state is over future societies will look back in horror at how immigration was regarded (in much the same way as we look back at slavery now). Good post Jack.

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