Saturday, March 12, 2016

Pros and cons of emigration

(Bulgarians can read this post here.)

Let me first copy parts of a March 7 report by Balint Szlanko, Associated Press:

"Iraqi migrants return after Europe disappoints

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq (AP) — Surkaw Omar and Rebien Abdullah quit their jobs and spent their life savings to migrate to Europe, only to find crowded asylum camps, hunger and freezing weather. Now back home in northern Iraq, they describe their quest for a better life as a disaster.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of people heading to Europe have no choice but to brave such hardships because they are refugees from places gripped by war, where their lives are in danger. But Omar and Abdullah come from Iraq's northern Kurdish region, which has been largely spared from fighting with the Islamic State group.

They each spent some $8,000 on the trip, much of it on smugglers, only to get stuck in asylum-seekers' camps in Germany and Sweden for months on end, where they say they were given very little food or money.

"It was very bad," Omar, 25, said of the German camp. "Honestly, we were starving there. We ran away because of hunger. They gave us only cheese and tea, and our weekly allowance was 30 euros."

They decided to try their luck in Sweden instead, but that didn't work either. "When we arrived there, it was winter. It was freezing. They put me in a room with three Syrians. I couldn't speak Arabic and they couldn't speak Kurdish. We were communicating like deaf people," Omar said. After trying Germany one more time, they gave up.

"We said to each other, let's go home. It's better than anywhere else," he said.

They are among what experts say is a growing number of migrants who are returning home because of the difficulty of finding housing and employment in Europe...

Maurizio Albahari, an anthropology professor at Notre Dame University who studies migration to Europe, said a number of European countries are "actively seeking to discourage asylum-seekers from staying, at least indirectly."...

Omar had worked as a day laborer in restaurants and supermarkets, while Abdullah had driven a taxi, which he sold to help finance his trip. They say their decision to migrate was mainly driven by peer pressure.

"I saw that everybody was leaving and they were saying, 'It's like this and that (in Europe).' But when I went there it wasn't like that at all," Omar said.

"Life in Europe is really hard," Abdullah said. "You have to wait. And we couldn't wait. We couldn't wait because we were so attached and loyal to our land, our families, to our mothers and relatives. And honestly, Europe and a residency card are not worth leaving your family and risking your life for."

Soran Omar, head of the human rights committee in the Kurdish regional parliament, said their experience is not uncommon... But he said the greater exodus from the region shows no sign of slowing down. "A lot of people may be coming back. But the opposite current is much, much bigger," he said..."

Let me first mention that Soran Omar is 100% right. Once a herd behavior gains momentum, it perpetuates itself even if it brings no advantage. So Europeans should not hope that they can reverse the flow of migration just by "indirect discouragement". Instead, they must think how to guard their borders, which has been a prerequisite for the long-term survival of any human community since prehistoric times. However, the purpose of this post is not to remind a forgotten banal truth.

If English is a foreign language for you, as it is for me, the above report may string a familiar chord. People emigrate because everyone is emigrating or planning to. They are carried away by the wave. Those who remain in their homeland are looked upon as foolish, lazy and good-for-nothing, until they finally believe it themselves. My Bulgaria has suffered from the same malaise ever since 1989, when communist dictatorship was dismantled and the borders were opened.

Many people have tried to persuade me to try to live in the West. "Go and see for yourself, and you will like it; and if you do not, you can always return." To me, this sounded like, "It doesn't matter that you do not like Peter. Marry him and you will begin to like him, and if you do not, you can always divorce!" The weak spot of this logic is that we have only one life, and it is not long enough to be wasted on such experiments.

In 1997, I was invited by a cousin in America to stay with her for a month. When I returned, a lot of people asked me why. I picked the easiest answer: "I had no permission to stay longer." Then most of them hinted that in this situation every remotely intelligent and decent Bulgarian, instead of returning home, would overstay her visa, remain illegally and wait in mile-long queues to ask immigration officials for mercy.

We who opted to remain in Bulgaria did not brag about our choice. How could we defend it? We were ruled by notoriously incompetent and corrupt governments, worked for meager wages and could not buy shiny cars. We were indeed good for nothing! A friend has told me that her fellow students, when they saw her by chance, looked at her disparagingly and asked, "Are you still in Bulgaria?" I have even heard a theory that we are bad parents because we conceive children without trying to give them a nice future, that is, a future abroad.

Today, a quarter of a century after the borders were opened, I can say that those members of my generation who remained are, on average, better off than those who left. I try to share this precious knowledge with young people, but they do not believe me. And how could they? The most prestigious secondary schools in Bulgaria are the "language secondary schools", where all subjects except Bulgarian language and literature are taught in English or another Western language. A friend whose daughter is attending such a school told me, "Most students in her class are ambitious and want to emigrate." This is not my idea of ambition. As some commentator said, mass emigration is inevitable when you have reporters asking 16-yr-old kids what keeps them in the country.

I am glad for Surkaw Omar and Rebien Abdullah, the Iraqis featured in the AP report. They have "seen world", as we say, and have returned poorer but wiser. They have realized that thinking with your own head if far better than letting peer pressure drive your life. Especially if peer pressure tells you to turn your only life upside down, move to a foreign place, leave your loved ones behind, disconnect from your native language and bend over backwards to convince locals to accept you. Unfortunately, the two young men haven't had the opportunity to see the best of Europe - I suppose they haven't visited even a single museum. I hope that they have at least photos of nice facades and shop-windows, and these souvenirs will last longer than the unpleasant memories of their adventure.


Charles N. Steele said...

Very interesting & though-provoking. I taught in a highly ranked master's program in Ukraine for a few years. A very high percentage of my Ukrainian students went to the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe, almost entirely for Ph.D. programs. I have no numbers, but I think the majority stayed in the west and have been very successful. Those who returned to Ukraine have had successes but have had tough lives as well, because of the difficulties of life there.

Maybe this is different from what you are talking about, because the kind of education they were pursuing was entirely unavailable in Ukraine -- they weren't just leaving to be leaving, it was necessary if they were to advance in economics.

Just as an aside, I was teaching at Montana State U. in 1997, and my very best student was a Bulgarian exchange student. She went on to a highly ranked Ph.D. program in the social sciences; I believe she completed it, but I don't know whether she returned to Bulgaria.

Maya M said...

Of course, emigration can allow a bright career and rescue from a life of misery.
However, with time, emigrants often find that this is not the life they have wanted, and - very often - that it was not quite clear for them what they themselves wanted. Too late, they realize e.g. that it was important for them that their children speak their language.
International study is an important path of emigration. In the first half of the 20th century, it was the only way to supply professionals to my country, because local universities were still nascent. Studying abroad and then returning to apply one's qualification was normal. Today, it is normal to go to study abroad with no intention to return. In science, the flow of immigrants is so strong that few Westerners choose this profession. It is predictably reduced to pariah status, best illustrated by the absurd position of "postdoc".