Today, one in seven people is a migrant. This year, crossings of the Mediterranean Sea have already exceeded 300,000, and at least 2,500 lives have been lost in the process. What does it mean to be a migrant – or a refugee – in our time? What human rights can we rely on? And what hope is there for those who have fled their homes? Granta asks its authors to share their reactions to this profound human crisis. Click here to read the other responses in this collection of statements, poems, images and personal reflections from across Europe and beyond.
It was only when I started to read the rhetoric of hate that I remembered my own descent. I’m so obviously British that even when I was living abroad, people rarely asked where I came from. I have the kind of old-fashioned BBC accent that’s immediately recognisable on any continent. I was born in Glasgow, grew up in Manchester, have spent my adult life in the south of England. I’m married to a man who likes to claim that his ancestors came over in the Norman Conquest (migrants!). In a profession where it can be an advantage to flash a little exoticism, I identify approximately, sheepishly because I haven’t lived there since I was eighteen, as ‘northern’.
Oh, but I have two passports, because my dad’s American. He came to the UK forty-five years ago to avoid conscription to Vietnam, and had to report himself weekly to the police as he wrote his PhD. And his parents had two passports because, as small children, they and their families had fled Odessa because they were Jewish and it was the 1930s. Or maybe the 1920s, I don’t really know because family stories are one of the smaller casualties of intergenerational migration. My grandparents had gone to Glasgow first, maybe because that’s where their boat went or maybe there were relatives they wanted to join, I don’t know, and then a few years later, but still, I think, before war broke out, they crossed the Atlantic so that my father grew up in New York, with a surname that may have been an Anglicisation of the original. My forebears were not, probably, after that first flight from Odessa, exactly refugees, just migrants moving on again for a better life, turning up with nothing and making something of it. They owned and ran a furniture factory in New York for years.
On the other side, though, I’m just English. Yorkshire, with working-class grandparents who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and took puzzled delight in my going to Oxford. One of my more treasured possessions is a manuscript journal that my grandfather left me, written by his grandfather during their migration to Australia in 1883. They went for a better life, because there were more opportunities in Sydney than in Leeds if you were poor and ambitious and had a lot of children. They were economic migrants and not, by any stretch of the imagination, refugees, unless you think that Victorian urban poverty constituted a form of oppression. Most of those children stayed in Australia (their descendants are now lawyers and diplomats), but my great-grandfather escorted his mother home to Yorkshire in her old age and ended up staying and marrying there.
I don’t think these stories are unusual. I think that Britain, with its colonial past and long tradition of sea-going, is shaped by migrations and migrants of every kind. I imagine that each of my migrant forebears needed a bit of help on each arrival, a bit of human decency from people who could imagine what it might be like to start your life over again in a new place, but once settled I don’t think you could say we’d been a burden to any of the countries where we’ve lived. Some of us are academics but there are also tradespeople running businesses, doctors, teachers and accountants. We’re British (or American or Australian). We pay our taxes. We give to charities. We are, in fact, not really exotic at all.