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!