By Anita Graafland
“Of course, you’ll be taking citizen exams and apply for an American passport.” I look at the woman, astounded. “Why?” Her head shoots up. She’s confused. My 21-year-old self looks back at her. “Why would I ever want to be anything other than Dutch?” She now turns her attention to my American fiancé. “Doesn’t she want to be one of us?”
I don’t quite remember his reply, but I do remember that his insistence on us living in the States was what broke us up. It was the first time I came across this arrogance, this assumption that everyone wanted to be American/British/Dutch if they could. Of course, it’s a lot more subtle in the UK, but it’s definitely there. The wedding guest who thought she was giving me the biggest compliment of my life by confiding that “You know, you could be one of us, dear.” The othering that is still going after over 40 years of friendship when I’m introduced to someone new as “my Dutch friend Anita”. The endless questions this triggers about how I like the UK, compliments about how all Dutch people speak such beautiful English, which make me grit my teeth. I’ve heard it all before. For over 40 bloody years.
For this issue of our newsletter, I’ve had no time to keep close tabs on all the horrendous stories about immigration that have filled the headlines. About youngsters being kidnapped outside hotels in which the Home Office has put them. About a Home Office minister speaking to her constituents and telling them she doesn’t regret the language used to refer to people arriving in dinghies as “swarms” and “invasion”. About that same Home Office trying to get a charity take down the video of Ms Braverman receiving wild applause for her refusal to apologise for such language.
Instead of scouring the papers and summarising what you haven’t had time to read yourself, as my two team members so admirably do every issue, I want to talk to you about economic migration. It’s a subject that is trotted out by those opposing the arrival of legitimate refugees arriving on UK shores, as no safe legal routes are open to them any longer. “They’re all economic migrants,” they say, denying real hardships suffered by real people, who have had lives and careers, and who are fleeing war and persecution.
But even the wokerati have bought into the dichotomy that being a refugee is good and that being an economic migrant is bad. Not the British expat consultant leaving the NHS and taking up a much better-paid job in Australia, of course. No, it’s those bloody people of colour coming to the UK (or Holland, or any other EU country) to take our jobs, claim benefits and swarm our health service. Make no mistake, the British are not unique in these feelings: they run rampant in the Netherlands just as much, and I’ve been told it’s no different in Spain and France by people who are in the know.
But what really is so bad about “the movement of people from one country to another to benefit from greater economic opportunities in the receiving country”? Isn’t that what people have been doing across the ages? Isn’t that what brought the Angles and the Saxons to these shores? What prompted the Vikings to get into their longboats and go beyond marauding and plundering? Why is being an economic migrant a badge of shame?
I’m surrounded by economic migrants. My father’s brother migrated to Australia in the 1950s. My Egyptian first husband overstayed his welcome as a student and became Dutch after I married him. My stepdaughter and husband are considering moving to Sweden for a better life than in the Netherlands. My daughter lives in Cornwall, having decided to stay in the country after Brexit. My two daughters-in-law are Moroccan, one born and bred in the Netherlands, the other a relatively new import to the Netherlands. Both of them in relationships with my mixed-nationality sons, one of them my flesh-and-blood, the other my bonus child.
If there’s one thing I can tell you after a lifetime spent around economic migrants, it’s that they’re warriors. Theirs is a voluntary choice to be a second-class citizen, to rebuild an existence in a country whose culture isn’t theirs, whose language they have to learn, whose traditions they may find bemusing or even appalling. It’s about fewer job opportunities, about rampant racism if they have a different skin colour, about knowing that their children will never have the opportunities they might have had in their countries of origin. For it’s a fact that my father, who stayed put in the Netherlands, had a better life than his brother, who emigrated to Australia. And that my first husband is much less well off than his brothers who stayed in Cairo and became big shots in his country of origin. For the second generation it’s been a hit-and-miss thing. My brother and I have done better than our Australian cousins, my mixed-race son has had a much harder life than I ever had.
Perhaps that’s the discussion we should have. About how we welcome people in search of a better life for them and their children. Move beyond the idea that people have to be “deserving” and only come to these blessed shores if they are fleeing war or famine. Like I said, what’s wrong with being an economic migrant? I know I’m not strong enough to be one of them. I like the safety of my home country, the rules I know, the culture that is mine. I like dipping in and out of my adopted culture in the UK, never quite committing, never going all the way. Cross-dressing, but never transitioning. Because you have to be a real warrior to do that. And I’m not. I’m a coward.
“Mama Anita?” “Yes, sweetie?” I’m in the back of my son’s car. He and his wife Sara are taking me across the border from Morocco into Spain. We’ve been queuing for hours and most drivers have been summoned to open their cars and unpack their boots and suitcases. Not us. Clearly, having a grey-haired 61-year-old mother-in-law helps. The Moroccan border officers are smiling at me and looking at my passport. I’ve been treated like a queen by everyone I’ve met in the three days I’ve been here. It makes me feel ashamed of the way Moroccans are treated in my own country. “I don’t think I want a Dutch passport,” Sara says. Beautiful Sara, who has spent seven years as an illegal alien in the EU. Who has just been given her papers after seven years in the shadows, unable to work, unable to sign up for Dutch lessons, unable to get health care, entirely dependent on the income and hard work of my son, stuck at home and waiting for the Dutch equivalent of the Home Office to make up its mind whether she has suffered enough. Whether not being able to hug her mother for seven years is enough penance for the temerity of entering fortress Europe as an unwanted alien. Sara, who has just been granted status based on her marriage to my son and contingent on them staying together. Sara, who has just seen her mother after seven years of making do with video calls. Sara, who is now obliged to prepare for a Dutch exam in three years’ time, which – if she passes – will allow her to apply for a Dutch passport and Dutch citizenship. “I don’t know if I want to become Dutch,” she says. Life has come full circle. “I understand, sweetie,” I say. “I wouldn’t either if I were you.”