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May 22, 2018

Review: From Mobile Citizens to Migrants

By Rita Chadha

A timely intervention by academics at the event held at the British Library, has brought to the fore calls to look afresh at our understanding of migration and emigration.

Whilst the EU refers to those who take advantage of free movement as mobile citizens, in the UK, we continue to refer to them as migrants. Our language denotes our thinking. The discussion covered arguments which were all too obvious, but also insights which made the audience rethink their own frameworks of reference. Ultimately, the discussion captured the zeitgeist by linking migration to debates on colonialism and racial inequality.

Dr Nadine El-Enany (Birkbeck) stated emphatically, with palpable anger, the injustice of brown and black people from the global south being classed as migrants, while western Europeans were given the title of mobile citizens, which bestowed rights and privilege. This was an argument hard to resist, but Aliyyah Ahad (Migration Policy Institute Europe) called into question the wider problem of using such a dichotomy. We have come to see migration not as the norm, but rather as the unusual where the EU acts as a conduit to the operation of a racialised hierarchy.

According to Omar Khan (Runnymede Trust) in the pre-referendum focus group, Caribbean Brits laughed cynically at the thought of emigrating to Spain. The assumption being that they would not be welcomed, or was it the thought for some of having to migrate for a second time. The latter relates to another key issue of how are we to manage secondary migrants from the EU, who are current residents in the UK,  but will now have to apply – for a third time – for a form of status. That is harsh. 

Dr Nando Sigona (University of Birmingham) met the elephant in the room head on, as he distilled the play of class in the EU’s use of terminology and language. This begs an interesting question of whether we need to forge new forms of solidarity to safeguard the interests of all EU migrants. It was a point reiterated and bought to life when an activist in the audience from 3 Million said that it was a struggle to also engage with eastern European migrants. They are sadly the ones that will need access to advice and assistance. Western European migrants will, for the most part, be able to self advocate or buy legal advice. The most vulnerable are the Roma community with varying levels of literacy, homeless and workless EU nationals. More work needs to be done around their relationship to Brexit, past, present and future.

Just when the audience were comfortable with an all too familiar approach of “migrants in need”, we were also invited to challenge our own understanding of emigration by looking at British expats. According to Dr Michaela Benson (Goldsmiths), there are at least 900,000 British citizens living across 27 EU states. Again, whilst conventional thinking would have us believe that such individuals are usually better off financially, an interesting question was posed. What about their children, who may have grown up abroad and now face high levels of youth unemployment and will need to possibly integrate into the UK labour market? Will expats return as British nationals or European citizens, aggrieved at being displaced?

Only time will tell what impact such questions and debates have on integration, on our individual and collective sense of belonging, identity and sense of nationhood.

The event was part of the ESRC-funded “The UK in a changing Europe” initiative and took place on Monday 21st May 2018, for further commentary go to #citizens2migrants.