image by Elliot Brown

image by Elliot Brown

‘Immigration, immigration, immigration’ – ok, a cheap shot at New Labour but not far off as an approximation of the current debate around European labour mobility. Discourse in the UK around issues of migration across borders has been so effectively colonised by talk of immigration that the process of emigration has been more or less overlooked. And it makes for quite the intellectual bubble; domination of the migration debate by one side of the equation is certainly not the case in some other European countries – for example Britain’s neighbour Ireland is all too familiar with tales of homesickness in faraway lands. Leaving Ireland behind for a better future, adventure or whatever is an accepted part of life there.

As an Irishman and an immigrant into the UK I can say this. It also makes me watch shows such as Immigration Street (Channel 4 last night) through a combined lens of empathy and bemusement. While Immigration Street turned out to be more like a documentary about a documentary (and not even very good at that), it did make me think more about the ways in which different peoples view migration. Where in this British debate can we find talk about the benefits of leaving Britain?

This for me is a significant question in the current migration debate; for a start, certain sections of the British public benefit hugely from the open borders provided by the European Union. We know that ex-pats are to be found in their hundreds of thousands across Europe seeking a different life and usually better weather. For example, according to Karen O’Reilly in her book International migration and social theory (Palgrave, 2012), British citizens, for some of the year at least, make up Spain’s largest minority group.  So why don’t we hear more about their experiences? The fact that much of this constitutes lifestyle as opposed to labour migration is beside the point – the fact that they can and do leave Britain in their droves and go live in Spain, Portugal or elsewhere (often retiring to such places), suggests that becoming an immigrant constitutes a vital lifeline for many British people.

Understanding the experience of these British migrants would be a helpful addition to current debates, especially given that such migration is set to continue – as O’Reilly points out, shifting demographics and cultural practices point to ever more demand for different lifestyles:

Men and women are living longer and retiring earlier in the UK than they were previously. Life expectancy has improved as a result of health advances. People are aware that average life expectancy is longer and along with that has come a set of expectations about a ‘third age’. Similarly, rising affluence has led to smaller family units, less cohabitation as an extended family unit, and with that reduced family responsibilities for others, especially the frail and the elderly (p. 76).

These social and cultural factors are no less significant than economic ones, all having a role to play in who wants to go where.

O’Reilly’s chapter on British migration to Spain is an excellent starting point if you want to know more about the experiences of these migrants. What is also very useful about her work is that she utilises a socio-theoretical lens (primarily Bourdieu, and also Wenger’s communities of practice) to conceptualise the practice of migration and the kinds of push and pull factors that influence people’s decision to emigrate (and also their take on life as immigrants themselves). I would suggest that such approaches to migration and the kinds of theoretical interventions offered by O’Reilly are helpful additions to a debate that is becoming dangerously lopsided.