When do you stop being an immigrant?

20999913120_8f3f8b117c_kThese last few weeks, refugees from war zones like Syria have been headline news around the clock in just about every single news bulletin. On their journey towards Europe, they encounter both very positive and very negative reactions from the local population of whichever area they happen to be passing by (or got stuck in) that day.

The locals reacting negatively are pointing out that a number of the refugees are not on the run because of a dangerous situation in their home town, but are simply in search for economically better conditions to live in. Well, there’s no denyng that this is the case, but that is exactly the resaon why the authorities have set up procedures to figure out whether or not the situation the refugee was living is was threatening enough for them to receive some of our wealth. [Heaven forbid that those who were merely stupid enough to be born in the wrong country should also be able to lay their greedy hands on it – just as their ancestors should not have been so stupid as to allow our ancestors to exploit and rob them.]

To counter all that negative energy, I have some good news for all those who would rather see all the refugees leave again: a fair number of them will do exactly that, as soon as the situation in their country of origin gets considerably closer to what we regard to be normal. But not all of them will (as some of the conflicts will no doubt continue for some more years). Some will decide to stay in Europe and build up their future here. At that point they become immigrants.

The locals reacting positively to the refugees/immigrants have the lessons that history teaches us on their side: although there might be some practical problems at the outset, immigrants are usually net contributors to the society. A relatively large number of migrants (in general, not specifically in the current crisis) are young men, quite a few with higher education, and (look at e.g. London: who is running most of the shops?) likely to start a business (thereby not taking but on the contrary often creating jobs). In fact European countries should not be fighting each other to decide on how many refugees each EU member will be forced to accept on its territory, but rather try to convince as much as possible of them to come (and stay) – especially given the demographic situation in a lot of Western European countries: the children of the newcomers will help to pay the pensions of the generation at work today (those young male immigrants will obviously not only work all the time).

And that brings me to the point I want to make: those traveling from Syria to Europe today  are clearly immigrants. But what about their children? Their grandchildren? The generations after those? At which point are you no longer an immigrant, but a local? Look at what happend in North America (and especially the US) during the last 500 years. Native Americans [nice term within this argumentation] were almost brought to extinction by European immigrants (I think it is safe to assume that a similar operation is quite unlikely to happen with the Syrian refugees in Europe today – no matter what IS propaganda claims), but everyone now considers the descendants of those immigrants to be the local population of North America. Then there was slavery as another source of (involuntary) immigration. Completely different circumstances, but with the same result: those slaves’ descendants  are now the majority of the local population in some US areas. In the 19th century followed another invasion of European immigrants (very clearly for economic reasons), in more recent decades followed by people with hispanic background (in a lot of cases descendants of other European immigrants), and every time the US somehow not only survived, but even managed to become the world’s leading economy (in spite of or thanks to the newcomers?).

Another good historic example are movements of tribes across the European continent in the course of the first millenium: most of them have been moving around so much (no doubt spreading genes along the way) that it is simply impossible to call one or the other tribe the local population for a certain region. It just depends at the point in time you select (I discussed this in greater detail in an earlier post). And that selection is by definition random. In the course of the second millenium there was no more moving around on a large scale, but does that necessarily mean that the third millenium will be like the second? Or that this stay during a 1000+ years automatically gives the right stay in a particular area (which we agreed upon to call a country at some point along the line) only to the descendants of the tribe that happened to be the last one to reside there when the moving around ended? The way I see it, is that we are in fact all immigrants (or at least descendants of immigrants – if you go back all the way: African immigrants) and always will be, as the odds that 25th century history books (yes, books will still be around in some kind of form by then) will refer to 2015 as ‘the year migration ended’ are extremely small.


1 thought on “When do you stop being an immigrant?

  1. Simone

    Great question! Officially you stop to be an immigrant when you’ve got papers from the state where you’re staying. Unofficially you need time and yes… children… they are not immigrant anymore. The first who’s left his country stay so in his mind an heart…
    Great article Jan!


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