immigrant is not a dirty word

I am an immigrant. Have you heard of this campaign? Have you seen the posters? What an urgent and vital voice it seems at the moment.

I am an immigrant too. I was born and grew up in Australia. I lived in Melbourne until my early twenties when I decided to move to London. My father was Scottish, which means I have dual Australian and British nationality. An accident of birth.

My story is not extraordinary. I wasn’t fleeing persecution or civil war. All I had to do was obtain my British passport and purchase a one-way ticket to London. My reasons for migrating weren’t economic, but personal and probably a bit mixed up. I arrived in London at a time of high unemployment. Ironically, one of my first jobs was working in an Unemployment Benefit Office. I remember the long queues on signing on days, and the antiquated ticker-tape computer, which was operated by a rather fierce woman, feeding the tape into the machine to send data to Reading. Happy days.

I am acutely aware of my privilege/luck/good fortune/luxury—to have the choice of two countries to reside in—both relatively stable and with all the first-world trappings we take for granted. I’ve been able to fashion my life broadly as I’ve wanted, and my struggles are mostly around writing and seeking some kind of creative fulfilment (whatever that might mean).

Yet on our doorstep, desperate people risk their lives to escape deeply desperate situations. There is an issue around language, here, and it matters at some level I think. In many of the reports I’ve read about Calais, and the boats sinking off the coast of Libya, and the abandoned lorry in Austria, the tragic victims are referred to as “migrants”. The word “refugee” seems to have gone missing. To my mind, the word “migrant” diminishes or disguises the extreme plight which such people are fleeing. A few other terms worth rehabilitating would be “humanity” and “compassion”.

We’re full of awe for nature’s epic migrations. Why do we find it so hard to acknowledge, let alone celebrate, similar tenacity and spirit in our own species?

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