immigrant, expat, migrant, refugee – what is in a name?

When I moved from the US to the UK almost a decade ago, it never occurred to me to call myself anything other than an immigrant. Immigration is in my blood. My grandfather’s parents arrived in the US in the late 1800s; he was born in 1901. I was raised on stories of the journey from Germany to Ellis Island, stories of settling in, of the pride of finally obtaining citizenship, of the struggle to fit in. They were immigrants, and when I made my journey back to Europe, I too became an immigrant — a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.

It was only in Britain that I realized I could call myself something else. Technically, I am also an expatriate — a person living outside their native country.

What is the difference? In those two definitions, taken from a quick search on Google, the only difference is in the permanence of the move. And yet, expats often never return to their native countries. But sometimes, they do, and other times, they move to yet a different country. In that case, how are they any different from migrants? A migrant — a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions — is also a person living outside their native country.

After living a few years in England, I moved to France. Shortly, I will move back to England. This makes me an immigrant, an expat, and a migrant. Who, looking in on my life, decides which word to use? And why is that choice so important?

To begin to unravel this mess, I turned to The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford briefing: Who Counts as a Migrant? Definitions and their Consequences. While concerned solely with the issue of migration into and out of the UK, two of the key points stand out and have global implications:

Definitions of ‘migrant’ vary among different data sources, and between datasets and law.

The use of the term ‘migrant’ in public debate is extremely loose and often conflates issues of immigration, race/ethnicity, and asylum.

While this briefing did not come to any conclusion about what the definitions of these words should be, it did make clear how the confusion impacts data collection and governmental policy where immigration and migration is concerned. But what of the impact on the people at the heart of this confusion?

Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, writing for Silicon Africa and reposted on the Guardian, asks, “Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?”

Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.

In today’s world of fenced borders and immigration hysteria, that certainly holds true. I see it here in France, where the British always refer to themselves as expats, never immigrants. Perish the thought! In the public mind, the word immigrant denotes a certain type of traveler, most often brown, and most often of a dubious character. Never the kind of person you want as your neighbor, heaven forfend. These attitudes are fostered by headlines such as Public fury ahead of TV debate as 70 per cent of Britons says we MUST ban new migrants and Immigration is out of control and yet ask any of these editors to tell you to define the words immigrant or migrant, and you’ll get as many different answers as there are websites and papers. Go on, I dare you. While you watch them splutter, here is an actual reality check courtesy of the Guardian.

The lack of a common, universal definition for these words leads to miscommunication at best, and fear and exploitation at worst, and nowhere is this more clear in my part of the world than it is at Calais.

This article, from 2002, looks at the history of the Sangatte refugee camp. The people living in the camp were referred to and thought of as refugees — people who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. Ask any one of the people in the ‘Jungle’ why they left home. Their answers are war and persecution. Yet, somewhere in between the years 2002 and 2015, something changed. Now the people at Calais, those who have fled war-torn countries and human rights violations, are referred to as migrants. The compassion and assistance usually granted to refugees is being withheld. Calling these people migrants lumps them into a category that comes with a world of baggage and bigotry: they are coming for our benefits, they are coming to take our jobs, there are too many of them in Britain already. When these misconceptions are allowed to flourish, spending £7m on a fence almost seems reasonable.

This has to stop, and fortunately albeit far too slowly, some editors are coming to their senses. Al Jazeera will no longer refer to those people washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean as migrants:

The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.

The Independent thinks they should probably stop using the word migrant too:

The UN says that the majority of people drowning trying to get to Europe are escaping war and persecution in their home countries of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Eritrea and Somalia, and they should be recognised as valid candidates for asylum.

And even if The Independent isn’t (yet) going to stop using the word, they are at least looking at the difference between migrants and refugees:

Reading a tabloid newspaper in 2015, you might wonder if Europe was again at risk of being conquered by the Mongol Empire. The continent is under “siege,” the papers report, facing an “invasion” from a “horde.” Parts of Europe have become like a “war zone,” they say, as “marauding” foreigners “swarm” the borders. The reality, of course, is that there is no army at the gates. The migrants that cause Europe such angst aren’t arriving in warships. Instead, most arrive in a human trafficker’s dinghy, if they arrive at all.

In an ideal world, we would refer to the people living in the ‘Jungle’ as people. We would see in them a reflection of ourselves, and instead of wasting money on fences, we would spend that money on real and lasting aid. Alas, it is far too late to stop the fences, but what we can do — what we need to do if there is any decency left in us — is refer to these people as what they are.

The people living in the ‘Jungle’ are refugees: someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

They have no protection from their own state – indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them. If other countries do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to death – or to an intolerable life in the shadows, without sustenance and without rights.

a journey through Calais

In less than two weeks we will be travelling north through France to the port city of Calais, where we’ll cross underneath the English Channel by way of the Eurotunnel to emerge on English soil at Folkestone. I would rather have taken the ferry from Saint-Malo, but we’ll have our dog and two cats with us, and I won’t leave them alone in the van during the crossing.

It is because we’ll have the dog and the cats with us that I began to pay close attention to the news coming from Calais. Very close attention, and what I learned was that travelling through the ports of Calais is tantamount to certain death and destruction. There is a ‘swarm’ of migrants there, you see, a nameless, faceless mob that will climb onto your vehicle, hide under your vehicle, get into your vehicle, mug you, maim you, kill you… resort to pretty much any and all violence imaginable in their quest to get to the UK and on benefits.

To my great discredit, I let fear set in. Fear for my animals — what if something happens to them during all of this chaos? How could I bear it? My poor babies! And then I remembered why I rarely read mainstream news. I remembered that I am a sane and rational person. I remembered that…

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Thank you, Frank Herbert.

Yes, there is a terrible situation in Calais, but the only thing we have to fear is what our official response to that situation says about us, and so far that response has been terrifying.

What is that old saying about the definition of insanity? Oh yes, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The Eurotunnel opened in 1994; in 1999 (according to Wikipedia — sources differ on the date) the Red Cross set up the first and only refugee camp in the nearby commune of Sangatte, turning an old warehouse that had been used during the tunnel’s contruction into a shelter designed to hold nine hundred people.

It was an inhumane place. Imagine, if you will, a steel warehouse. In the winter, you couldn’t heat it, in the summer, it was like a furnace. The migrants had no intimacy, they were housed in trailers that could fit up to eight mattresses. It was an emergency housing center in a building that had been built for machines. Imagine the noise, the echo in that space. And you had to stand in line for everything; for the infirmary, for meals…

By 2002, there were an estimated two thousand refugees in Sangatte, and England and France had had enough. The camp at Sangatte was destroyed. It was believed this would solve the problem. England would give residency to those who wanted to live there, and France would do the same.

This, they proclaimed, will solve the problem.

Of course, people kept coming. Without the shelter of the refugee camp, a shanty town of tents and other flimsy structures rose up, a squalid and violent place that became known as the ‘jungle’. In 2009, France had again had enough. Riot police were sent in to round up the refugees, and the area in which they were living was bulldozed.

“In Afghanistan we have the Taliban problem, now here we have the police problem. What shall we do?

This, France proclaimed, will solve the problem.

It is now 2015. In less than two weeks, we will travel through Calais to the Eurotunnel, where nearby there are an estimated three thousand refugees. This is David Cameron’s swarm, and his solution is to secure England’s borders, to call in the Army, to build a bigger fence, and to throw all of the illegal immigrants inside of Britain out. The UK is ‘no safe haven’, he says.

This, Britain proclaims, will solve the problem.

And so I repeat: What is that old saying about the definition of insanity? Oh yes, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

So what, exactly, is the problem? The answer to that question depends on who you ask.

For David Cameron, the problem is that the migrants are trying to ‘break in’ to the UK. In all fairness, securing the perimeter is a natural response to the idea that someone is, in fact, trying to break into your house and steal all your stuff, and to possibly murder you in your bed. The problem with this is that we aren’t talking about burglars. We are talking about people who have fled war and strife in search of a better life elsewhere.

In 1999, the refugees were comprised mostly of Iraqi Kurds or Tadjiks and Pashtuns from Afghanistan. Today they come from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, and Somalia, and more. One solution to the refugee problem would be to sort out the problems in their home countries…

Eritrea’s dismal human rights situation, exacerbated by indefinite military conscription, has led thousands of Eritreans to flee their country every month. Eritrea has had no functioning legislature, independent press, or any semblance of civil society organizations since 2001. In early 2014, President Isaias Afwerki confirmed his lack of interest in an open society, stating: “[I]f there is anyone who thinks there will be democracy or [a] multiparty system in this country … then that person can think of such things in another world.”

Hopeless as that solution might appear when confronted with a statement like the one above, I do believe it will be accomplished in time. People will rise up and demand better of their leaders. In the meantime, we could focus on our problem, which is that we are treating a humanitarian crisis as though it is a security threat. Theresa May, head of the UK Home Office, has pledged to spend £7m on 1.2 miles of fencing around the port facilities. That is seven million pounds for a fence to keep out three thousand people.

I repeat, seven million pounds. For 1.2 miles of fence.

So on one hand we have the myth of the immigrant benefit scrounger, part 1 and part 2, this fear-frenzy about how foreigners are burdening UK finances and god forbid our good tax money be spent on anyone other than the blue-blooded Brits who pay into the system in the first place. On the other hand, it is somehow perfectly acceptable that Britain pull seven million pounds out of where, exactly, to build a mile of fence.

I write fiction and I couldn’t make this stuff up.

I suppose it is silly to expect anything resembling compassion to come from any world leader. Those at the top seem to live in a different world than the rest of us. And what about the rest of us? Some of us lack compassion, it is true. Read the comments on any article about the Calais refugees and you’ll see just how ugly we can be. And then there are those who see the crisis for what it is and take action, those for whom compassion is not just a new-age buzzword, but something that comes naturally, something that demands they do what they can to bandage up this awful wound.

Steph Jones was so moved by the plight of thousands of migrants camping out in Calais that she decided to launch an appeal to help them.

Thom Davies, Arshad Isakjee, and Surindar Dhesi are challenging the misconceptions about the refugees by holding a very important conversation, and photographing the conditions in the jungle.

Calais Migrant Solidarity will put you on the ground, in the jungle, and tell you how to give aid firsthand to those in need.

Students from York are heading to Calais to support the migrants.

Brush and Bow, an artist/musician/journalist duo, are using the Arts to share the stories of those in Calais.

Doctors of the World is the only charity providing medical help on the ground in Calais.

The United Afghan Peace Movement (UAPM) is running a Calais Migrants winter appeal fundraiser.

The Worldwide Tribe in Calais, a grassroots social activist group set up in response to the migrant crisis, is also taking donations.

Search Facebook for Calais and you’ll see groups springing up all over the UK, organizing and acting. People who have next to nothing themselves are asking how they they can help. The links I have posted above do not even scratch the surface. In the last three days alone I have seen an outpouring of solidarity and love as websites and forums spring up, plans are made, and convoys set out loaded with shoes, tents, sleeping bags, food, and most importantly, a message for the refugees that says, we see you and you are not alone.

There is another message here, and it is for David Cameron: We see you, too. We see you, a leader of the free world, doing nothing.

#migrantcrisis #CalaisMigrants #Calais