Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, known for his tough stance on immigration policy, recently said that there is no possibility that Australia will accept any migrants who are being forced to flee from the ongoing South-East Asian refugee crisis. Aspiring Australian citizens, he thinks, should “come through the front door, not through the back door”—implying that official recognition from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship can only be obtained through a formalized application process. For the thousands of refugees from countries like Indonesia and Myanmar that are winding up every month on Australia’s doorstep, their hopes for a new home and citizenship look rather grim.
For many other countries, immigration processes are roughly similar. Some are more open to accepting large refugee quotas than others—especially those people displaced by conflicts and disasters back home. We would all hope that, should something happen to drastically disrupt the stability of our own countries, there might be some generous, prosperous place that would let us in, hassle-free, arms open wide. Unfortunately, though, it is rarely ever that simple. With mass immigration issues springing up worldwide—in Europe, Africa, South-East Asia and elsewhere—the moral and ethical considerations of whether or not a country should open their doors to migrants are pressing, and may leave many policymakers in deep, troublesome dilemmas.
One of the more common arguments against increasing refugee quotas is that an overwhelming influx of new members into society might somehow detrimentally affect existing citizens—by taking their jobs, making their education systems more or less competitive, or by simply failing to assimilate and remaining isolated in racial or cultural enclaves. What is rarely thought about is how these “immigrants” can transition from being labelled exactly that to more respectable, fully-fledged citizens, and whether existing citizens will ever let them do so. Regardless of which of Abbott’s “doors” they—or their parents, or grandparents, or even distant ancestors came through—are they any better off now that that door is firmly closed behind them? Assimilation to a new culture, place, and people is yet another barrier that immigrants must overcome, and not without substantial difficulty. What is troubling is what defines an “immigrant” and what defines a “real” citizen—what constitutes a legitimate claim to national identity?
The question here is, of course, one of where to draw the line. How can we distinguish between someone who is simply temporary, and someone who belongs and is permanent? In many countries, history has rarely been linear, and no one race or population can necessarily feel fully legitimated by their longevity in a region. In most situations, especially those where national identity is heavily contested or where several groups lay claim to being the “original” occupants of country, time is the single factor which is referred back to to set different groups apart. In New Zealand, it is widely understood that the indigenous Maori people arrived in the 1200s, while Europeans only became aware of New Zealand’s existence in the mid-1600s, and began settling there in the 1700s onwards. Historians have generally concluded that pre-Maori human existence on New Zealand’s islands is highly unlikely. Does this make New Zealand a “country of immigrants?” Many of New Zealand’s main historic and ongoing domestic conflicts have arisen from disagreements over land ownership, and over the methods which settlers used to obtain land from the Maori tribes they encountered when they first landed. At the root of all of these arguments is one basic conceptual distinction, and all the problems that come with that distinction: the difference between what makes us indigenous, and what makes us immigrants, and the resulting levels of authority that those qualifications afford us. Considering the history of the human race, does that not make most of our globe simply a collection of immigrant colonies? Only certain parts of Africa, perhaps, are not so. We certainly would not often think of modern humanity in such a way, but this is a thought experiment which has interesting implications .
Many populations continue to be preoccupied by the notion that, on the timescale beginning at the dawn of time and ending today, in the 21st century, the longer that a people have existed in a particular area, the greater claim to a purer or stronger national identity they have. Keeping in mind the modern concept of citizenship as a black and white concept—you’re either a citizen, or you’re not—this should create some problems for us. Unfortunately, this is not the only problem that we have. Also questionable is our ability to include the cumulative history of our own ancestry in a single word: “our”. This country becomes “ours”, because our ancestors have been here for centuries. Is this country less “yours” because you’re a third generation immigrant? What does immigrant really mean, and can one ever escape this label? The history of the world suggests so, but modern perceptions suggest that many of us remain wilfully ignorant of this fact. It is almost as if “national identity” is a quantifiable concept: some of us have more of it, and others less—and it’s all based on factors we have absolutely no control over: like time and our ancestry.
I certainly agree that unrestrained immigration is unsustainable and just plainly unrealistic. No country should be expected to open their doors to anyone and everyone who wishes to enter—this is likely to be detrimental for all: immigrants and existing citizens included. However, the barrier of entry, once overcome in a fully legal and fair manner, should be the last barrier that immigrants must face in assimilating to a new place. If we operate on the basis that our ancestors’ presence in a particular geographic area has impact on our own ability to lay claim to legitimate national identity in that place, then we must all be ready to acknowledge that we are all descended from immigrants. If we like to draw on the concept that our ancestors are, in some way or another, causatively linked to our present selves, then we must be ready to accept that there is zero meaningful difference between us, and a newly-arrived family from a country in strife. If it is time that will finally legitimize one’s national identity, then we—as fortunate members of more peaceful and stable nations—should be ready to give this to those who have not yet had the chance to gain it.
Photo – Liz Schulte/The Story Mavens