After Kuok Keng Kang moved from Fuzhou in China to the city of Johor Bahru in what was then Malaya in the early 20th century, he made and then lost a fortune. His youngest son later recalled that household finances were so tight they had to use laundry soap to shampoo their hair. That boy, Robert, went on to become one of East Asia’s most successful businessmen, earning himself the nickname “the sugar king of Asia” when he controlled 10 per cent of world production and founding the Shangri-La chain of hotels.
When Marie Jana Korbelova was 11, her family moved to the US after the communist takeover of then Czechoslovakia. Her father, Josef Korbel, ended up having the international studies school at the University of Denver named after him, while Marie Jana, by now Madeleine Albright, became the first woman to hold the office of US secretary of state.
These two may be exceptional, but stories of immigrant success are plentiful. Yet, so much of the time immigration is seen to be a “problem”. UK Prime Minister Liz Truss’s plan to increase the number of foreign workers who can come to the country risks a cabinet split and “may irk some Brexit voters”, according to reports. In recent elections in Sweden and Italy, parties of the far right that rely on tough anti-immigration rhetoric did so well that the Brothers of Italy will lead the next government in Rome, and the Sweden Democrats will be the kingmakers in Stockholm.
The Brothers of Italy want a naval blockade in the Mediterranean to stop migrants crossing from Northern Africa, while a tweet from the Sweden Democrats' law and order spokesman, Tobias Andersson, sums up his party’s stance: “Welcome to the repatriation train. You have a one-way ticket. Next stop, Kabul!”
To be sure, immigration has to be managed, it must be legal, and the consequent benefits of greater diversity need to be explained and integration promoted. But the whole narrative about the movement of people needs to be reframed. For first of all, it is often the answer to an immediate issue. Labour shortages across industry have led to thousands of tonnes of palm oil fruits rotting on trees in Malaysia, for instance, and there have been reports of finance executives being asked to help out on electronics factory floors. Foreign workers are desperately needed, as they are in the UK, hence Ms Truss’s likely lifting of caps on agricultural and broadband employees.
Secondly, and this is a point that needs to be made far more strongly as it never seems to resonate loudly enough to overcome either genuine fears or nativist scaremongering: survey after survey shows that immigration is good for the economy. A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development concluded that “migrants contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits”.
They arrive with skills that contribute to human capital development; often fill niches that domestic workers either can’t or don’t want to plug; boost the working-age population; and increase dynamism and market flexibility in the host country. A 2016 paper by the George W Bush Institute reported that in America, 44 per cent of medical scientists were foreign born, as were 42 per cent of computer software developers. “Immigrant workers are also overrepresented among college professors, engineers, mathematicians, nurses, doctors and dentists, to name a few.”
But thirdly, there is another way of looking at immigration that casts aside the lenses of anxiety and negativity. For if you think about it, immigrants wanting to come to your country is the most tremendous compliment. They are saying that your culture, way of life, civilisation, educational and commercial opportunities and standards of living are so attractive that they want to leave their home country and move to yours. That doesn’t mean displacing ordinary citizens, or taking the “American dream”, for example, away from anyone – the desire is to share it.
Many of us may have experienced some – not necessarily all – of these emotions, yet believe them to be separate from this issue. They are not. For if you live and work in a country not of your birth or nationality then you too are an immigrant. The term has become associated with poor, desperate masses – who by the way, very much deserve both our sympathy and the chance to lead better lives – but a professional with a master’s degree who has willingly moved country is just as much an immigrant.
For me personally, with Irish, English, Italian and French ancestry, immigration is the story of my family. Having grown up partly in Saudi Arabia and Papua New Guinea, and living in Qatar and Malaysia as an adult, immigration has been a major experience of my life. Has it been easier because I am a Caucasian male who had a privileged education? Almost certainly. But that doesn’t discount my many years away from my supposed “home” country as invalid or inauthentic.
We need a total reframing of how we think about immigration. We must talk more about all the positive aspects of this phenomenon, from the success stories of the likes of Robert Kuok and Madeleine Albright, to the way exposure to new cultures and traditions opens and enlarges the mind. That goes both ways: just as the voyager’s life is enriched by the places he visits, so should countries welcome newcomers who will always have different skills and perspectives – and will probably harbour gratitude for the people who have taken them in for the rest of their lives.