We need to talk about economic migration
Updated: Jul 9
About two years ago, when I first explicitly asked friends about their experiences of economic migration, I was surprised to learn how many didn’t see working abroad as a dream, or even a choice. Many told me they’d much rather be in their home countries but they didn’t think there was anything waiting for them there. To go and create wasn’t incentive enough. “Reforms and opportunities need to come first, then people will follow,” a Brussels-based though Italian-at-heart public health expert told me.
When someone braved a return home, we who stayed abroad raised our eyebrows. “You’ll be back before you know it,” was the catch-phrase at most leaving-dos.
At home, returners were welcomed with cautious skepticism. “People tell me to keep my expectations low,” I learnt from someone who moved back to Egypt following his PhD in Egyptology. “Everyone who could make a difference here picks up and leaves, so it’s hard. But I think people appreciate that I’m trying to contribute,” he said.
Moving home is tough and many of us migrating adults end up in our childhood rooms. With our foreign qualifications and experiences often unrecognized, without credit or tax history, we start from scratch in the old country. Unwilling to accept the terms and conditions of junior positions we’d already held ten years before, and which don’t give us much hope for ever moving out of our parents’ house, many leave again.
“I spent two years looking for a job in Southern Spain. It’s home, it’s where my family are and where I wanted to stay. But there was no way,” a Spanish friend told me. With extensive background in finance, she recently moved to London for the second time.
“I’d rather be home, but there’s no way,” is a sentiment I hear more and more often from increasingly reluctant migrants.
“The hardest thing about moving here was leaving mum behind,” a Polish friend said. With a PhD in life sciences and experience in translation, he recently moved to the UK to work in project management for a biotech company. “Dad died a couple of years ago, mum is on her own. I worry every day. But, the way things are [economically and politically], what can I do?”
When we move for work, it’s not just places we leave behind, but also the people and the support structures they form around us, and which our absence weakens. Checking in on an aging parent or having a sibling or a friend-who-is-practically-a-sibling for emergency childcare is out of question when we live abroad.
“Moving to a new country is exciting until you realize that you’re giving up all your life and everything you’ve ever known,” said a UK-based medical researcher originally from Kenya.
This is no small concern for anyone wanting a family. “Our baby was born just before we moved to England,” a French colleague said. “Without grandparents or state support for childcare, it is very difficult for both parents to afford a full-time job. Sadly, the way things are in France mean that there aren’t any [science] jobs for me.”
Although moving parents closer seems like an idea, it’s rarely if ever an option. Finances aside, there are cultural differences that can be impossible to overcome. “We tried to get mum here after my dad died,” a lady who works at my local coffee place told me the other day. “She didn’t last. At home, she’s independent, she has friends, she knows the city like the back of her hand. Here? With barely any English, she was entirely dependent on us, which was probably more traumatic for her than being on her own back home.”
This language barrier is something I understand very well. My parents don’t speak English. When they visit, they depend on me and so they visit rarely. Any social or professional life I built in English is not something I can easily share.
As a result, my parents and I don’t know each other the way we did when Sunday breakfasts were part of our weekly routine. They can’t read my writing or get to know my friends. I know only vaguely what excites them about their days. Hard as we try, our realities are so far apart they don’t transmit over Skype.
It’s a shared experience. “We try to keep in touch, but, over time, more and more calls are missed and never rescheduled. Connections fray and next thing you know, you lose track of your own family,” my Kenyan friend said.
As adults, we rarely admit the toll it takes on us to miss out on time with our parents as if ceased to matter on the other side of eighteen. For some of us it certainly does and putting physical distance between our parents and ourselves is a source of relief. For others, it’s a source of longing and regret.
“I was a very different person when I first left for London fifteen years ago,” my Spanish friend said as she packed to return to England. “I will always be grateful for the time I had with my parents in the last two years at home. We got to know each other as adults and that’s really important.”
As I grow older and migration is no longer an exciting episode but a complicated lifestyle, I increasingly wonder why certain locations absorb all the talent and skill while other parts of the world provide solid training but not enough opportunity. I also wonder about the economic and social consequences of such state of affairs.
For example, the staff crisis within the British health sector has received plenty of media attention. At the same time, relatively little has been written about the decisions of consecutive governments that allowed it. Now, the NHS is able to absorb many foreign-trained professionals. Professionals who, evidence emerges, are often paid lowered wages and whose visa payments appear to be a source of profit for the UK government.
Meanwhile, countries that had invested in training of their staff are left with shortages they cannot easily plug. When well-trained workforce decides to emigrate despite relative job security, they’re most likely looking for higher quality of life or better work comfort compared to what they have available in their home countries. Even if migrants from other countries replace them, it’s usually for a short time. People who already moved once tend to move again.
Overall, contemporary economic migration raises three types of serious and complex questions. One: Who is responsible for training and retaining a nation’s public workforce within a state? Two: In times of mass migration, whose job is it to create social support structures and professional incentives for people to remain? Three: What are the dues and responsibilities of individuals to societies that invested public money in their training and development? In other words, as “global” citizens, to whom do we owe our taxes and who will pay for our care?
Economic migration is not without dilemmas and sacrifices some of which aren’t immediately apparent. We need an open, global conversation about the costs and benefits of moving for work. A conversation that allows us to understand the motives to leave or remain, and which will ultimately allow us to create solutions that support a globally collaborative society.
This post was originally published by Cecile's Writers.