There was an interesting discussion on Tuesday night at an event organised by the Migration Museum Project. “Migrants in the Digital Age” provided a platform for journalist and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor, healthcare expert Dr Titi Banjoko, historian Robert Winder and the former Home Secretary Blunkett to set out their views on what migration means in an age when migrants are able to maintain close and intimate contact with their countries of origin through the internet and digital tv channels.
Manzoor set the scene with his concerns that migration becomes a very different experience from the old model in which the, usually male, migrant left home on his own and was only able to maintain relationships with those he’d left behind by post and the occasional, expensive, phone call. In his opinion the enforced loneliness was more likely to encourage integration as the newcomer sought acquaintances and friendships amongst the new community in which he had settled.
But now, with the resources of the world wide web to call on, not just the migrating generation, but also their sons and daughters are able to maintain and existence in the bubble of their home cultures and reduce the need for contact with the mainstream of the country where they now lived. This has moved us onto dangerous new terrain where we have to wonder if anything will impel newcomers towards a common life with their fellow citizens.
Titi Banjoko was somewhat less anxious about this new situation. Her experience of migration was that of a person born in the UK but then taken by her parents to Nigeria when still a child. Confident with an identity in which being British and Nigerian were not in conflict, her subsequent return to the UK as an adult was undertaken in a frame of mind which she could positively orientated herself towards integration. Rather than establish a pole of counter-attraction to a British identity, her affinity with her life in Nigeria was the springboard for the life and career she has built in this country.
David Blunkett suggested we consider the matter from the standpoint of the settled community. During his period as Home Secretary he had pioneered the managed migration model which had increased arrivals in the early noughties. But he was of the view that an assurance had to be given to the already resident community that the newcomers would be required to actively pursue integration on the terms of mainstream British values and traditions.
The author of Bloody Foreigners – the story of immigration to Britain, Robert Winder, was in favour of taking the long-view. The historical records strongly suggested that the immigrants and their descendents would, by their own routes and under their own steam, find their way to something that was a type of British which, when push comes to show, most people would feel at home with.
The issues were batted backwards and forwards by the panel and the audience had the opportunity to offer up their own insights on the topic. But overall it felt like only the very first engagement with a set of issues which require a lot more and a lot deeper consideration. Anecdotes about personal experience of migration, or communities which have received migrants, provide the framework for the story, but not the details of the plot and all the stages of its development.
But even more than that, Sarfraz Mansoor’s plainly spoken concerns really only seem to be a version of the even bigger anxieties about what happens in any society when such a personalised but powerful medium as the internet and digital communication becomes the mainstay. Not just the children of Pakistani parents, but those of all of us, provoke puzzlement about what sort of relationships are kids are building up which have been forged in their early stages by the obsessions of virtual communities. Do young people become better informed about the world they live in as a result of long hours spent on laptops and tablets, or the poor dupes of sinister controlling forces? Is a list of friends which extends across continents likely to promote sociability and curiosity, or morbid obsession?
The fact is that we really don’t know what the outcomes of these huge technological and social developments are likely to be, and until we truly get a better sense of their real dynamic then broad brush blandishments which reproduce the age-old anxieties about ‘bloody foreigners’ are as likely to prove misleading as a reliable guide to the future.
Thanks Migration Museum Project, but ‘digital migration’ is one subject we can expect to have to return to many times in the future.