WHAT OR WHO IS A MIGRANT? CONSIDERING THE MIGRANT SENSIBILITY / The Migrationist

Would someone who moved to the UK aged three still be ‘a migrant’ ten, twenty, fifty, eighty years after that initial migration? 

Is a British citizen, born overseas to British parents, ‘a migrant’ if he or she decides to return to live in the UK later in life?

In a Migration Observatory BriefingThe Migrationist favourites Bridget Anderson and Scott Blinder outline the enormous diversity of definitions which exist for ‘a migrant’. Ranging from dictionary definition, to international bodies’ guidelines, to government categories and general publics’ understandings, it is often unclear exactly who or what counts as a migrant.

Among other possibilities, Anderson and Blinder explain that migrants may simultaneously be defined as “foreign-born” – whether a British citizen or not – “foreign nationals” – regardless of length of stay – or, alternatively, as anyone “who moves to a country other than that of his or her usual residence for a period of at least a year [….] so that the country of destination effectively becomes his or her new country of usual residence.” The latter is the definition used by the UN and Britain’s Office of National Statistics; however, the one year marker is a somewhat arbitrary marker of migration status. Certainly nothing of substance changes between the 364th and 365th day over international lines, at least not for the majority.

Photo: Migrants Rights Network

The looseness of the category has generated some worrying trends. In the UK, there is a strong normative link between ‘race’, migration and difference, which, according to Professor Anne-Marie Fortier, is now so embedded that a migrant label itself has come to signify deviance from the ‘norm’. This deviance is typically judged according to perceptions of religious, racial or linguistic difference and is also frequently limited to those differences deemed to be negative by the general (white, British) public.[i]Migrants, from this perspective, are loosely understood as people of ‘non-native’ origin, although in reality it is the perception of non-nativeness rather than actual origin that matters. In the UK, the conflation of migration, ‘race’ and ethnicity is well-documented with research clearly showing that anyone socially positioned as ‘non-white’ and/or ‘non-Christian’ is open to labelling as ‘‘migrant’.[ii] As Anderson and Blinder point out, it may very well be that the vast proportion of those assumed by the (white, British) public to be ‘migrants’ are not subject to immigration control and legislation.

The conflation of ‘race’, ethnicity and migration risks reinforcing the material and symbolic exclusion of Britain’s ethnic minorities and has, in many cases, facilitated the inclusion of non-migrant Britons to be written into migration discourses as second, and even third generation ‘migrants’. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere following Bridget Anderson’s work on the constructed figure the migrant “folk devil”, there is a discursive difference between a migrant – as defined by country of birth, physical movement across boundaries or nationality – and the migrant as symbol of difference. With all these overlapping definitions, blurred boundaries and assumptions, what is a migrant?

Given the complexity of the discussion , as well as the apparent arbitrariness of the various definitions and categories, perhaps we should go back to basic, to the micro scale, to the individual and his/her experiences of migration.

The Migrant Sensibility

 “The greatest movements often occur within the self, within the home or within the family” (Ahmed et.al, 2003)

According to Dr Arundhati Chatterjee, an expert in Indo-Anglian Fiction, to understand what constitutes a migrant we need to ask “what goes into the making of a migrant character. Is it simply years of living away from one’s native land?” he asks, “Or is it a matter of experience or expression, or both?”

With these questions hanging in the air, Chatterjee explores common themes – loneliness, alienation, nostalgia, loss, guilt and regret – as well as more positive migrant sensibilities – enlightenment, hope, creativity – through the ‘migrant voice’ of Jhumpa Lahiri. For Chatterjee, it is the changing living conditions and subsequent shift in consciousness and experience that make someone a migrant. Similarly, Stuart Hall articulates the duplicity of the migrant sensibility, which looks in two directions at once, in and out at the same time.[iii]

Migrancy can then be understood as “a shared existential experience,” one characterised, in Papastergiadis’ opinion, by the loss of a certain sense of time and place:

“Part of the unhappy contradiction of the migrant sensibility is the chilling fear of having lost a certain sense of time and place. There is the impending awareness that, having left home, there is no possibility of a seamless return. Parallel to this loss is the anxious realization that having gained entrance to another space does not amount to a feeling of full acceptance. For many migrants the modernist promise of progress is often seen as a hollow victory. There is a part of the self that belongs only in another place and time, and no matter how hard one tries to recapture this identity, it never returns as a fully embodied self in the present.”

I would not feel comfortable labelling myself a migrant; however, reflecting on Papastergiadis’ words, I recognise the loss of time and place he describes in my own experiences of migration, albeit an admittedly weak and temporary form of loss.[iv]

While it is important not to homogenise the migrant experience, I would suggest that there is a certain value in the idea of a ‘migrant sensibility’ in extending our understandings of the migrant beyond official categories and derogatory representations into the intimate dimensions of human experience, feelings and emotion which official definitions can never capture. In doing so, we may start to understand what it means to be a migrant. A focus on the migrant sensibility also seems to offer an answer to the question of whether or not a person ever stops being a migrant and, I suggest, may hold potential for building migrant solidarity across the socioeconomic spectrum by drawing attention to shared existential and psychological experience of different migrants.

Are you a migrant? Does the notion of ‘migrant sensibility’ resonate with your experiences? What has/does being a migrant mean to you? 

Further reading

  1. Ahmed, S., Castaneda, C., Fortier, A. and Sheller, M. (2003) Introduction in Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration. Berg Publishers, Oxford.
  2. Anderson, B. and Blinder, S. (1st August 2014) Who Counts as a Migrant? Definitions and their ConsequencesMigration Observatory briefing.
  3. Chatterjee, A. (2005) The Migrant Voice of Jhumpa Lahiri. Shukla, S.B. and Shukla, A. (eds) Aspects of Contemporary Post/colonial Literature.
  4. Papastergiadis, N. (2013) The Turbulence of Migration: Globalization, Deterritorialization and Hybridity.

 

[i] Consider, for example, the discursive difference between ‘migrant’ and ‘expat’.

[ii] Steve Garner (2010), Rogaly and Taylor (2009), Kundnani (2007)

[iii] The idea of a ‘migrant sensibility’, which emphasises the psychological over the socio-political, was introduced by Salman Rushdie in the 1980s.

[iv] The duration of the ‘migration’ in question would not qualify as such under the UN definition – short by three weeks!

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