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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lifestyle Migration

When I first heard the term Lifestyle Migration I really didn't know what to make of it.   "Lifestyle" in English implies something rather frivolous and even pretentious;  something that must be the province of the rich global elite and not within the reach of regular folks.  What I discovered when I looked into it is that this is actually a very broad category into which a few migration scholars have poured very disparate people:  international retirement migrants, sojourners in India, small entrepreneurs running bed and breakfasts in France, and foreign spouses of nationals.

In a 2009 article Michaela Benson and Karen O'Reilly wrote, "As we perceive it, lifestyle migrants are relatively affluent individuals of all ages, moving either part-time or full-time to places that, for various reasons, signify, for the migrant, a better quality of life." And there the trouble begins.  What does "relatively affluent" mean?  All middle and upper-class Europeans, North Americans and a few privileged Asians? Or can it be applied to any migrant from any country who is richer and better educated than her compatriots in the home country and nationals in the host country?  It appears that the phenomenon is very much about people from the Global North moving to other developed countries or the Global South which makes it suspect in my mind.  Why is a middle-class Canadian woman with a B.A. in Political Science who moves to Berlin a Lifestyle Migrant, while a woman from Morocco with a Masters degree in Engineering who moves to Paris is an Economic or Highly-Skilled Labor Migrant?

The difference, say the Lifestyle Migration scholars, is intentions.   The Canadian women is looking for the intangible - that better quality of life - and her move is informed primarily by a social imaginary of her target destination. This is essentially a romantic project, freed from the crassness of corporate ladders and the necessity of earning a living in ways that she feels are inauthentic.

Intentions alone are, I contend, a very poor basis upon which to differentiate migration flows.  The Moroccan woman may be just as motivated to emigrate by visions of Paris as a cosmopolitan global city as she is by the job opportunities there.  And the Canadian woman once she lands may be very preoccupied by the necessity of getting a visa and earning a living in her new home.

In Global Migration Governance, Caroline Olivier gives this definition:  "The term 'lifestyle migration' is applied to a growing number of migrations that are largely undertaken for lifestyle reasons and which do not fit into the existing policy categories of migration."  My counter-argument is that migration is always undertaken for a variety of motives and most Lifestyle Migrants can fit very comfortably within the existing migrant categories:  Family Reunification, Retirement, Labor (skilled and un-skilled) and others.

Some Lifestyle Migrants even share an important characteristic of less exalted migration flows:  they are "illegal migrants."  Foreigners (many of them from the West) in Thailand are forced to become "visa runners" because the Thai authorities won't give them residency.
"While exact numbers aren't known, it is suspected that tens of thousands of Westerners reside in Thailand using this combination of back to back visa waiver stamps and / or tourist visas. They comprise a diverse bunch with several major sub-groups. There are English teachers whose employer has not or will not provide them with a work permit and 1-year visa. There are digital nomads for whom their work is location independent and for whom South-East Asia's combination of warm weather, friendly people and low cost of living make an ideal base. There are plenty of economic refugees, those who can't afford to have much of a life in the West, or those who choose to live here because they can have a higher standard of living than they could in their homeland." StickmanBangkok 
Many migrants from the Global North work under the table doing translation work or teaching their native languages. In some countries they are tolerated because they bring money in at a very low cost to the host countries:  a retired American in France on U.S. Social Security is not doing any harm and may even be doing some good since the money is coming from outside France and is being injected into the local economy.  Similar reasoning applies to French retirees in Morocco.  Some countries have designated retirees "quality foreigners" because they have a regular income (unlike many of the teachers, writers, and translators) and they offer special programs to draw these migrants in.  The Malaysia My Second Home program seems to be very popular and the Japanese government was actively promoting at one time "overseas ikigai towns".

Every time I take a tour of Lifestyle Migration and the attempts to define it as different from other migrant flows, the more I think this is a distinction without a difference.  Migrants from developed countries (all social classes and income levels by the way) who say they are seeking intangible things that cannot be expressed in monetary terms are still migrants.

That does not, in my view, make their motives selfish or suspect - something that I have always felt is implied in the term "lifestyle."  Is there something illegitimate (or exalted) about wanting to get a better job, seeking a higher quality of life, fulfilling a dream of owning a business, stretching one's pension, or raising children in a country that has a better education system and more opportunities for social mobility?  These are just a few of the aspirations of all migrants from all countries and from all socioeconomic classes.

The danger of lumping all these people together under a tent called Lifestyle Migration and glorifying their pure intentions is twofold.  The first problem is that it ignores the very concrete social problems faced by more and more people in developed countries: lack of opportunity, high unemployment rates for the young and the old, the precariousness of national pensions, debt, lives ruined by the Great Recession, and cuts in government programs.  Le Monde noted in this article from 2014 that the flow of young people leaving France was on the order of 60,000 to 80,000 a year.  Is it not easier to paint these young emigrants as having a fine adventure abroad gaining skills that they can bring back to France (because, of course, it is unthinkable that they might not return) as opposed to addressing the high unemployment rates experienced by the young in the Hexagon - an impetus for their leaving in the first place?

The second problem is that Lifestyle Migration as defined by scholars of the Global North is described as personal growth projects entirely based on individual choice and, some would say, a certain égoïsme.  This is almost guaranteed to raise the hackles of people in their home countries who might excuse a few of their compatriots having an temporary overseas adventure  but who begin to cast a suspicious eye on those who succeed brilliantly in their host countries.  That suspicion turns to outright anger when their temporary migration becomes permanent and they do not return.

In all fairness sometimes developed country migrants have a discourse that is not terribly kind or understanding of the people back home.  It does not help matters when a migrant describes his life outside the home country as an "escape" or when she treats people in the homeland as boring and unenlightened.  This is unnecessarily provocative and unfair - moving to India to live in an ashram or to France to start a gîte does not make anyone morally superior or special.

So I am hoping that the term Lifestyle Migration goes out of fashion very fast.  I don't think it's accurate or useful, I find its reliance on a global hierarchy of nations absurd, and I think it's potentially dangerous because it paints all developed country migrants as rich, privileged, egotistical, quasi-traitorous escapees - something that invites reactions like diaspora taxation or limitations on dual citizenship.

What would be far more helpful here, in my opinion, is to broaden every one's understanding of migrants and migration.   Instead of showing how these Lifestyle Migrants are different, how about looking at all the things they have in common with other migrants?

Developed country migrants who accept a migrant identity and identify with their fellow migrants (and who refuse to let academics stroke their egos) could go a long way in convincing the 97% of people who don't cross borders that migrants are not scary threatening aliens from destitute (but exotic) locales but people doing normal things like raising families, working jobs, going to school, making the most of their retirement.  And the only difference is that migrants just aren't doing those things in their countries of origin.

Would it not be a much better world if everyone everywhere  recognized that a migrant could be a daughter (or son), a parent, a childhood friend, a colleague, a parishioner from church?

I think so and I encourage all of us wherever we come from and whatever shore we've landed on to make it so.

4 comments:

Andrew said...

Good piece deconstructing some of the arguments.

The classic version of 'lifestyle migration' would be people who, in their retirement years, choose to move to avoid the cold (for Canadians) or move back to their country of origin (e.g., as a number of Italian Canadians among others have done).

Anonymous said...

Lifestyle migrant would seem to fit my case, better than most, and the phrase doesn't trigger me one way or another. I guess I simply translate it to 'art de vivre' in this context. The definition you cited that struck me the most was "The term 'lifestyle migration' is applied to a growing number of migrations..... which do not fit into the existing policy categories of migration," the salient word here being policy, as in government or official. People that don't need to be dealt with collectively on such a level, and also just see themselves as individual agents acting in ways that don't put them into any specific group. As you say, they may also be classable among other categories, and then again, many may not. For me, it just felt better here than there, and so I do all my ordinary living here.

Maria said...

The term "lifestyle migration" seems excessive. And it's a term that can be used to hide intentions and make some realities seem frivolous. Many young people in Spain, for example, have difficulties finding decent work with decent hours and pay. Few find work in the field they have studied. Many find themselves emigrating to other European countries. Those who do emigrate have a higher chance of finding decent work, though not all do. There are also physicists working at a cheap fast-food shop in a European capital, probably. But young people emigrate because the chances are still better outside Spain. They have been insulted in the past by the Secretary of Immigration and Emigration, who said young people emigrated because of their "impulso aventurero de la juventud." (adventurous impulse of youth) Give those young people a decent job and they won't want to move abroad. Not in the search for a decent life, at any rate.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Andrew, Thank you. The person who came the closest I thought to being a Lifestyle Migrant was Jessa Crispin who wrote The Dead Ladies Project. She had itchy feet, the economy was bad in the US and she was going through an emotionally unsatisfying love affair. So she took off for Europe.

@anonymous, I see what you're saying. On the other hand it is still not entirely clear to me what distinguishes a Lifestyle Migrant from many other categories of migrant. I moved because I wanted a different life - well, most migrant move because they want a different life. I'm thinking of Atossa Araxia Abrahamian who lives in New York because she LOVES it but it's also the place where she works and writes. But she started her life in the US as an international student and then she had a hell of time getting a residency permit to stay. She had to go back to the US as a graduate student before she finally got permission to stay and work in the US. From the perspective of the US government she was just another migrant and there's no box to check on the immigrations forms in the US, France or any other country that would legitimize entry on the basis of Want a Better Lifestyle. Atossa's story is here and I'd love to hear what you think: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/opinion/sunday/home-is-where-the-green-card-is.html?_r=0

@Maria, I agree. My daughter, for example, is now living in the US. Why is she not living in France? Because the unemployment rate for kids her age is very high. She has watched her cousin who graduated a few years ago struggle with internships and short term contracts. Right now he is unemployed. Again. These are real problems that the French state does not seem willing or able to address. So off these kids go and however middle-class they may seem, this looks an awful lot like Labor or Economic migration to me.