Anjum Rahman was kind enough to send me a copy of her paper from the recent SPRE conference, and on reading it I was struck by how much things never really change for migrants.

I’ll qualify that statement by saying that my personal experience of migration is living in two countries where my only point of different was a distinct accent and a mild cultural genuflection (when in Rome, as they say). That said, while I studied in Australia I found myself having to canvass a lot of material on migrant assimilation, and mostly because of it’s central role in defining the race and culture of Australian citizenship.

My study of the migrant experience in Oz provided a couple of interesting lessons for me. The first is that regardless of the culture into which a migrant tries to fit, the experience tends to be very similar. This is of course dependent on the degree to which the migrant differs culturally, linguistically or religiously from the host society, but also on the degree of xenophobia exhibited by the host. Very generally though, alienation, social isolation and the like are ‘normal’.

The second, and more interesting thing the study revealed is that a benign policy environment is essential to the mitigation of this negative migrant experience. And strangely enough, though you wouldn’t believe it after Tampa, Australia has had such an environment.

Anjum’s paper discusses the experience of a woman called “Mei Lin”, who came to New Zealand in the 1960s with her husband. They settled and had a family, but without her familial support network began to to suffer mental health issues. I’m paraphrasing far too much, but essentially Mei Lin’s condition can be attributed to her experiences of social alienation and New Zealand xenophobia.

I’m not in any position to comment on improvements in settlement assistance for migrants in contemporary New Zealand, I simply don’t know anything about what’s happening here these days, but I can say that Mei Lin’s experience has been well documented in Australia among migrants there. And, especially in the time before the implementation of multicultural policies.

What Mei Lin’s experience demonstrates, as does the poor experiences of hundreds and thousands of migrant women in 50s and 60s Australia, is that difference does count. There is a tendency for host nations to assume that migrants can just “work hard” and “fit in”, but this expectation is actually quite unreasonable. Migrants can often want to fit in, but be prevented from doing so by “business and usual” alienating behaviour of the the host culture, let alone by the differences between their own culture and the host’s.

Or, put another way, any migration and settlement policy built on an assimilation and mono-cultural model simply does not work in the real world.

It’s a pity then that I missed Anjum’s paper at the SPRE conference. I’m sure their was plenty of subtle commentary in the presentation that doesn’t translate into written English!