Friday, November 21, 2014

Karl du Fresne: Unfortunately, the migration door swings both ways

I’ve recently been reading a book by the English journalist A A Gill. The Golden Door is a book about America – a country that fascinates Gill, and in which he finds much to like.
Gill’s observations about immigration particularly resonated with me. Writing about the great wave of humanity that left Europe for America in the 19th century, he cites some striking statistics.

Between 1800 and 1914, 30 million Europeans emigrated to the New World. If that doesn’t sound a big number, consider it in this context: Ireland lost one in four of its population, Sweden one in five. Five million Poles, four million Italians and three million Germans crossed the Atlantic.
As Gill points out, “all entrances on one stage are exits elsewhere”. While we tend to think of migration to America in terms of what that country gained, Gill reminds us that it represented an enormous human loss for Europe. Every departure was “a farewell, a sadness, a defeat”. The Irish would hold wakes so that they could mourn those leaving.

He writes movingly of the “gut-wrenching finality of separation”. Those departing would hug their mothers, drink a toast with friends, take a last look at the old house, pat the family dog, and leave. Very few would ever return.
Gill reminds us too that the people who left were usually the ones who could be spared least. “Like a biblical curse, the biblical land called the young and the strong from Europe: the adventurous, the clever and the skilled.”

There are clear parallels here with the New Zealand experience, because ours is an immigrant society too. We can’t be sure what motivated the Polynesian voyagers who first settled New Zealand; some suggest overcrowding on their home islands, depletion of food resources or warfare.
Others theorise that they may simply have been driven by an adventurous urge to discover and colonise new lands. But whatever the explanation, they were obviously looking for something better – and perhaps they too were the young and the strong, the risk-takers.

My own forebears were certainly not prepared to accept the status quo in the countries of their birth. On my mother’s side they were Irish Catholics, economically disadvantaged and politically powerless. On my father’s side, they were getting out of a country (Denmark) that had recently been invaded by the Prussian army.
Life in Europe held even less promise for my wife’s family. Her parents were forcibly transported from occupied Poland to Germany during the Second World War and put to work in an arms factory. At the war’s end there was nothing to go back to; their families had been wiped out and Poland had effectively been taken over by Stalin’s repressive Soviet Union. It took 20 years for them to find their way to a safe haven in New Zealand.

Every New Zealand family has its own immigration story to tell, but in every case someone made the risky decision to leave behind the known and familiar and take a chance on the other side of the world. It’s equally true of the many immigrants now arriving from Asia.
But what occurred to me, reading Gill’s book, is that in recent decades the pattern has also reversed itself.

New Zealand has experienced its own exodus. Just as our forebears left Europe for a better life and new opportunities, so, ironically, large numbers of our own children have left New Zealand for much the same reason.
Members of my generation have had to resign themselves to the likelihood that their offspring will end up making their future in another country. Even more ironically, many have gone back to the country their ancestors abandoned: Britain.

There are echoes here of the 19th century experience in countries like Ireland. We too have lost many of our youngest and most talented. The crucial difference is that, thanks to cheap international air fares, we are spared the unimaginably painful experience of saying goodbye knowing we’ll probably never see them again.
My own situation is not unusual. Of our four children, three live overseas: two in Australia and one in California. Only two of our six grandchildren are growing up as New Zealanders. Many of my nieces and nephews, too, find life elsewhere more rewarding.

Will they eventually come back? We can only hope so.
When the subject comes up in conversation with my kids, certain themes emerge. Whatever attachment they feel to the country of their birth, life is economically more rewarding for them elsewhere and the opportunities are greater.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that New Zealand is a low-wage country. My children say they could possibly live with that, but what they can’t accept is the severe disjunction between wages and the cost of living here.
Alas, getting living expenses into line with wages, or vice-versa, is a challenge that seems to be beyond us. 

Karl du Fresne blogs at


Brian said...

I was intrigued in reading Karl’s Blog on “Migration swings both ways.”
Simply because as an immigrant in 1952. A ten pound Pom on his way to Australia his comment from Gill’s book “gut-wrenching finality of separation” brought back poignant memories of my final departure by ship from Southampton on the emigrant boat ss Asturius.
As Niall Fergusson points out in his book “Civilisation” one of the great value of an Empire is how migrants built up the countries they went too. However in 1952 on that ship people of middle age and older probably realised that those “White Cliffs” were the last view of their homeland they would ever remember. The idea that any return in the future being financially impossible especially so before the advent of cheap air travel!
For those of us who being young, it was the adventure of a lifetime; quite apart from seeing new lands on the way. There was the promise of a better life of a freedom from a Britain drained out financially from two World Wars; and impeded in any future progress with a Government hand tied by its own ideology.
Since my arrival in “God’s Own” which, I found in the latter part of the 1950’s was an improvement at the time on Australia. However again although not interested in such matters at the time I did not realise the implications of the practice of industrialising New Zealand by the simple and effective plan of tariff protection.
1984 saw the start of our leaders realising that commercial and industry must compete without the political resort of protection. It is still not been completed, although acknowledging that this protection is more beneficial at elections to the Political sector, than to trade.
Like many other New Zealanders I have grandchildren who have immigrated to distant shores finding work which is better paid, although one must always weigh this against what has been lost!
Will they return,? Maybe but from personal experience once gone and settled elsewhere I would not count upon it. One must hope that the Latin phrase “ acta est fibula” does not apply.

paul scott said...

Best type post Karl.
My maternal grand parents left Kirkintilloch , near Glasgow maybe about 1910. And when they said goodbye, it was goodbye. My Grandnmother bought with her a Grandfather clock now maybe 150 years old. Alas my sister has it.
My Grand father was a fisherman who worked in dangerous seas without motor onboard; he sat me on his knee and told me fishing tales.

My daughter a Veterinarian like me, left our New Zealand, I wanted that : She works in Australia, and USA, and Canada. I told her when she left Massey University: you come back here kid and the gate is closed I will put you on an aeroplane to a higher economy. that happened and the kid never looked back.
good post Karl