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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Migrants and the Fantasy of Return

"Fantasies are real and true in themselves; they happen in our psychic lives and they are consequential in so much as all our thoughts influence our perspectives on life (and are influenced by our experiences). Fantasies affect our actions, to some extent, simply because of the discursive possibilities they open up (Moskowitz 1995, 552), whether or not we act upon them."

Bolognani, M. (2016). From myth of return to return fantasy: a psychosocial interpretation of migration imaginaries. Identities23(2), 193-209.

How prevalent is the myth or fantasy of return among migrant/expatriates?  I think it's very common. As content as we may be in our host countries, who has not mentally played out the "What if?" scenarios at different moments in our transnational lives?  For, as long as we retain citizenship, we have the option to return.    That fact that we do not exercise that option is irrelevant.  What matters is that we have a choice and every day we know that we have actively chosen to stay in our host countries. We are the actors, not the acted upon.

Two things interfere with the fantasy.  The first is that the longer we stay, the higher our personal investment in the place we call "home."  To choose to leave might mean selling the house or apartment, leaving behind a spouse and children, losing health and retirement benefits, walking away from a perfectly decent job.  There is a cost associated with return that can be higher than the price of the initial migration.

The second concerns government policies and public perceptions.  Yes, international law is very clear that any citizen has a right to return to a country of citizenship but there is no law that says they must encourage return and welcome you with open arms.  In a sense a returnee is viewed with the same suspicion as any immigrant.  What do you have to offer?  What benefit is it to us that you are now here and not there?  Will you be a burden and not an asset? Have you returned simply to reap the benefits of our social welfare system?

It's all about age and social/economic capital.  Migration policies tend to favor the young, the healthy, the well-educated and those with significant financial assets.  These are the citizens a country doesn't want to lose and these are the immigrants they want.  Rightly or wrongly, an older returnee to a developed country is likely to be less welcome than a young, single, migrant entrepreneur from a less developed one.  Unless, of course, she is bringing back money that can be invested to build a house, create jobs, and contribute something significant to the local economy.

At some point in our migration journey reality intrudes: our home countries are either indifferent to whether we return or not, or they might wince at the thought.  Our families do care but there are not enough of them to make much difference in the home country.

Exhibit A in our day is, of course, the British living in the EU who, because of Brexit, are in a very precarious position.  This is mirrored by the precarity of EU citizens in the UK.  All of them fear (and rightly so) that the choice to stay or not will be taken out of their hands.  The fantasy of return could become a nightmare of forced return or forced citizenship.  For all the soothing words that say that calmer heads will prevail, there are reasons to think that calm heads have already looked at it and like or dislike what they see according to national interests.

An article by Elizabeth Collett and Meghan Benton on the MPI website argues that there is an asymmetrical nature of the negotiations over these migrants.  They write:

"[I]t is clear that the United Kingdom may be negotiating on an uneven platform with a number of countries. From the available data, it is clear that more than half the British population in Europe’s sunniest climes—Spain, Malta, Cyprus, and Portugal, among them—are over age 50 (and one-third in Malta and Spain over age 65). This sits in stark contrast to an overwhelmingly youthful EU population in the United Kingdom, with just a handful of pensioners from Spain and Italy... Similarly, some of the countries that have donated their youth population to the British economy are keen to see them return, as in the case of Poland. Thus they have less at stake than a UK government happy to see its older UK nationals continuing to enjoy the sunshine elsewhere."

In other words, they are suggesting that EU countries send their young to the UK, while the UK is more likely to send the the retired or semi-retired.  Thus, "return" would not mean the same thing to the UK as it would to the EU.  Yes, they would be drawing their pensions in the UK and spending it in the UK but this ignores the potential costs of having them come "home."  They will need to find housing or places in retirement homes, they will need medical care, and they will most likely not be in the workforce and not paying into the social security system.  The younger EU migrants in the UK do both.

However,  expanding our view to the EU level, British retirement migrants (65+) are estimated to be about 189,000 out of 890,000 British citizens living in EU countries.  It's only in certain EU countries like sunny Spain or the south of France where the numbers of retirees are high relative to the overall migrant population. But remember that all EU countries have a say in the negotiations over Brexit. So the question is  How do France and Spain feel about UK migrants?   Overall, are they a benefit to these countries or not?  And the answer, I would think, would depend on what contribution the 20-64 population is making to these countries.  I'm sure that governments are running those numbers and taking into account the political landscape/public perception of the let them stay vs. send them back debate.

My take on it is that retirement migrants and migrants who "age in place" are extremely vulnerable and merit extra protection.    Whatever the fantasies a migrant may have had about returning, the reality is that they have built a life somewhere else and it becomes harder and harder every year they stay to go back.  To those who say that letting them stay is a "reward" for breaking the law or is somehow contrary to national interests, I would counter that with:  Ahem.  You were very happy to have them around to revitalize small towns, spend retirement money, keep your food cheap, teach, write code, or care for the elderly.  Behind each and every one of those activities is a human being who will, like you, grow old.   I believe that the number of years spent in a country and age should confer strong protection against deportation.  In some countries it does; in others not so much.

Reflect for a moment on the vulnerability of all migrants which varies with age, socioeconomic status, country of origin, and so many other things.  States still make the rules. So we dream of options that nonetheless narrow with time and, one day we may wake up to find that in spite of our citizenship, our preferred alternative has become impractical, if not impossible.  As for our staying on, how frightening it is to learn that is up to others to decide.  In migration we are not always the captains of our fate; the end of our migration story is not always ours to write.  But I still think the migrant life is one worth living and fighting for. 

“And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo, adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same..."

Sam in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien


Anonymous said...

Well, it holds true also for migration from hometown and homestate.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Anonymous, Undoubtedly it does. A lot of what is said about international migration applies to internal migration as well. And thank you, thank tou, thank you for the link to the P.J. O'Rourke book. He is one of my all time favorite writers/humourists. I read Holidays from Hell so many times the paperback fell apart and I laughed every time I reread it. I should do a post about him.