Between the acute refugee crisis in Europe and the perpetual crisis that is the academic job market, I’ve been thinking about my strange personal position as an economic migrant. I haven’t had to endure a death-defying trip across the Mediterranean, I have yet to face any xenophobia directed towards me personally, and compared to the vast majority, my bureaucratic hassles have been minor. In search of a better life, I left Canada for graduate school in the United States when I was unable to gain entry in my homeland. After several years in Germany doing research towards my doctorate I was then able to find employment as a post-doc in England.
Even among those welcoming refugees, “economic migrants” often serve as the greedy, dark other to those virtuously fleeing conflict. But when we look a certain way, sound a certain way, and carry the right kind of visas and passports, we tend to fly under the radar. As a white Anglo-Canadian, perhaps the most innocuous-seeming of all national identities, it’s been pretty easy to be an economic migrant really. In the US, an administrator waved off a requirement that I as a foreign student get a TB test before enrolling: “You’re not that kind of foreign.” Another told me, “you don’t look like a foreign student. Don’t sound like one neither.” It was meant to be a compliment. I was able to stick around Berlin well past my initial visiting scholar visa because I got married to someone with a German passport [and she had enough money to pay for the legally required 22sqm per person apartment]. My ability to work in Great Britain stemmed from an Ancestry Visa: my grandfather Walter, born in Scotland before he departed for the new world (his family economic migrants themselves), made me eligible for a five year work permit.
Now my peripatetic life over the past decade at first seems like a set of specific choices from the outside, but really it has been a matter of professional survival. I went to the USA for my education because they offered to pay for it when no one back home would. I moved to England for a job because they decided to hire me and I didn’t have any other offers. I’d like to claim I have a grand strategy guiding my career, but the Babylonian Lottery that is the academic system rarely allows for this: At the end of a 14-month research trip funded by the German government, I was rejected by a Canadian funding agency on the grounds that I did not have the skills to actually conduct my planned research. While I was still a PhD student, I was able to get an on-campus interview for a tenure track position at an American university that had only four years earlier rejected me for a spot as a doctoral student. When the smallest of margins can decide whether you get to progress further or are chucked out of the system, the extra options I’ve had due to sheer luck have let me survive (so far).
Although the intent of my migration was for personal and professional gain, it is perceived very positively. In the USA, I was a sign of diversity; in Germany, I represented positive transatlantic cultural engagement; in England, my presence demonstrates the international appeal of my employer. No one has yet to describe me as a swarm, or a horde, or a sign of impending doom for the local civilization.
What would be the consequences for me if this were otherwise? What would happen to me if I were relegated back to my home country without the possibility to easily work abroad? I’d probably be fine. Academically, I’d be finished based on my failures with the Canadian job market and the total disinterest funding agencies back home have showed in my work. I would likely have to find a new line of work, but I wouldn’t be condemned to a life of poverty. And yet, the system is designed so that I gain the greatest benefits while those who are truly in need are systematically and violently shut out.
I’ve been able to “follow the rules,” because the rules have been written explicitly for my benefit. I had the good fortune to be born to citizenship in a country that isn’t a pariah state, my spouse provided a legal status that only widened my options, and another country deemed the birthplace of a genetic relation who has been dead for 15 years crucial for legal work status. I’ve also had the luck to be part of a group not demonized as a threat to public order and safety – so much so that I’ve had people in both the UK and Germany launch into angry rants to about the damn foreigners before they realized I was one of them.
If you want to be outraged by “economic migrants” who are just trying to make it into Europe for profit, start with me. I’m not fleeing war, or death squads, or military dictatorship, I just want to get paid to write history. Or am I not that kind of foreign?