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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK
Migration: 'A force of history'
More than ever before, people are crossing borders and embarking on what are sometimes long and dangerous journeys in search of a better life.

Over the next few weeks, BBC News Online will be exploring the facts, issues and controversies surrounding migration, with commentators from across the world, personal testimonies and multimedia debates. We would like to hear your views.

We begin the Migrant World special with a personal overview by BBC news presenter George Alagiah.

George Alagiah
'Historically, the net effect of migration has been a benign one'
I was born in one continent, moved to a second and settled in a third. Asia, Africa and Europe; Sri Lanka, Ghana and Britain. They are stepping stones to a better life, landmarks along the journey of one migrant family.

Our motivation for leaving the land of our birth over 40 years ago was no different to the reason so many make similar journeys today.

True, we took the legal route while some today opt for the sometimes perilous, often illegal and always expensive journey offered by the people smugglers.

Yet others claim a sanctuary to which they are not entitled to - they are economic migrants rather than people genuinely seeking refuge from persecution.

But the impetus is the same as it was for us - a desire to improve on the poor hand dealt by fate.

Force of history

The fact that these latter-day migrants are willing to risk so much underlines a fundamental truth about migration - the movement of people from poor and failing states to rich and stable ones is as inevitable as water running downhill.

I am where I am because I've been able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by a Britain at its best - a land of hope that is open and confident
Every child who's ever built a sandbank on a beach will tell you just how futile it can be to try to stem the tide.

If water is a force of nature, then migration is a force of history. The challenge is not to try to stop it but how to manage it.

The first step is to see migration for what it is, rather than through the prejudiced eyes of some headline writers.

Historically, the net effect of migration has been a benign one.

Where would America be without the unparalleled movement of Irish people in the mid-to-late 19th Century? Where would modern Australia be if it had continued to rely solely on the flow of people from the "mother" country.

Only the bigots there still believe that the Chinese, Italians, Vietnamese and Serbs - to mention only a few - have contributed nothing.

Land of hope

And where would we, in Britain, be without the commercial energy and professional skills of the Indian diaspora?

The Alagiah family in Ghana
The Alagiah family in Ghana
There are nearly 10,000 working in the NHS alone - that most civilising of British institutions. It remains utterly dependent on overseas recruits.

According to Home Office figures over 44,000 medical workers came to the UK last year.

Migrants make up about 8% of the British population but contribute some 10% of our GDP.

How many last-minute purchases of a bottle of milk and a can of baked beans have been made possible because an Indian-run corner shop stayed open when all others have called it a day?

When I discuss migration with people who have a rather different take on it there is always that comical moment when they realise that - despite my English tones - I am an immigrant.

An embarrassed "oh but you are different" is the best they can offer to hide their prejudice.

My answer is always the same. There is just as much chance that the timid Kosovan child who enrols in a school today will one day go on to read the news on the BBC.

I am where I am because I've been able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by a Britain at its best - a land of hope that is open and confident.

To deny these chances to a new generation of migrants would be an injustice to the individuals concerned but, more important, it would mark a profound loss of faith in our nation's place in this new century of globalisation.

Your comments:

I am not a migrant. Nor am I a citizen of one of the countries to which people migrate. I've stayed in my home country to see what contribution I can make. But I cannot honestly hold anything against those who migrate from their homelands to other lands. It is my belief that everyone should do what fulfils himself, and if that means leaving one's homeland, then so be it.
Robert Honore, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

Yet another one-sided view of the immigration debate. Obviously we in the UK are allowed no say whatsoever in how many come into our already overcrowded country. Perhaps if the Third World practised some kind of population control they wouldn't face such problems. No, the world is not becoming more multicultural - only the West is. The traffic is all one way so while our culture is being destroyed their culture stays exactly the same.
Vicki, London, UK

We hear a lot about asylum seekers coming from war torn countries and coming from oppressive societies, but actually most asylum seekers are coming from France so why don't the asylum seekers ask for asylum there?
Andrew Tomlinson, Dudley

Immigrants looking for an easier life are dodging their responsibility by harvesting from a table set by others
M Carlsson, Finland

How come immigrants looking for a better life in the West aren't interested in developing their countries of origin? Every person has an obligation to their folk and nation and all these immigrants looking for an easier life are dodging their responsibility by harvesting from a table set by others. Globalisation will lead to the death of all diversity. In the end we will only have one MTV culture across the world. Sounds nice?
M Carlsson, Finland

All can understand and sympathize with the individual's desire for a better life. However, for mass immigration to work over the long term, immigrants must assimilate into the culture of their new homeland. Otherwise, social fragmentation, and conflict may eventually result.
S Barricklow, Texas, USA

I'm myself an immigrant, and I have been living in Italy for 10 years. I graduated and married in this country, have loads of friends, but I still have to come to terms with my condition as an immigrant. I mean, I still have to face those embarrassing moments, as Mr Alagiah described very well, when you realize that you belong neither to the adopted country nor to your birth place. The very moment when people push you into an unknown place and you know you are different.
Janda, Cagliari, Italy

Migration can be the force of nature but there are many other forces which have put an impetus on migration. One of the forces is the media and Information Technology. The very fact of availability of the knowledge of lifestyle, culture, economy etc other countries encourages you to migrate and there are always ways to do things when you really want to do it. I am sure people migrating have had a good life but I'm a bit sceptical about the percentage of people who have a better life.
Ravi Bhensdadia, Christchurch, New Zealand

It is natural for people to go to other countries in search of better life
Sanjeev Manral, Seoul

Migration cannot be stopped; it can only be managed better. It is natural for people to go to other countries in search of better life. There are examples in history where people explored the world just out of curiosity, not because of better life. Columbus and Vasco da Gama left the well-developed countries and ventured just to find a new world. It is similar to today's venture in space. May someday human will start migration to another planet or galaxy.
Sanjeev Manral, Seoul, Korea

George's comments are to be applauded. Life for immigrants can be a huge disappointment. I live in Milan, Italy and the evidence of immigration is all around me, at almost every traffic light, where a tirelessly friendly face will greet you, asking for money, every day, in the pouring rain or the searing heat. Beautiful African prostitutes line my route into Milan, sitting at the side of the road alongside the rubbish other people cannot be bothered to take to the tip. I wish I had the answers. I just hope that the lives of immigrants are not all as hard as this and that, for some, there is a welcome.
Nicky, Milan, Italy

I couldn't agree more with the author. It is normal human tendency to perceive and move to greener pastures. It's very easy for a contented person to raise macro-economic concerns of brain drain from origin countries but no human being wanting to either improve the quality of his life or seeking out a basic livelihood would place such global concerns above his immediate needs. To my mind, this is a phenomenon that will only grow in the years to come. I hope that sometime in the future, people of different cultures and races will mingle and coexist peacefully in that one common endeavour of all mankind - to live a better life.
Nithin, Bangalore, India

Voluntary migration is a human right. Forced migration is a transgression against human rights. We need to transform UN High Commission for Refugees to UNHC for Migration with two sections; one for forced migration and the other for voluntary migration.
Kukubo Barasa, Monrovia, Liberia

I was born in Colombia and many people there think that to get a better life it is necessary to migrate to another country, especially North America and Europe. I think this is true if you are thinking of having a more peaceful life, but if you want to be a successful person in order to get a professional job, it is very difficult because in each country native people have the first option and foreign people have to work, in most cases, as domestic employees.
Veronica Valencia, Medellin, Colombia

The relevance of faiths, cultures and ethnicities will erode by way of mixed culture marriages, associations, alliances and partnerships
Joseph Matthews, Goa

Migration is an evolutionary phenomenon. Transmigration of people and cultures are inevitable, conforming to the global village concept. The relevance of faiths, cultures and ethnicities will erode by way of mixed culture marriages, associations, alliances and partnerships. This will bring greater understanding and manifestation of the human spirit. It will be one cohesive human race. Isn't this what the creator meant, and not division of the human race based on radical religious fanatics and racists?
Joseph Matthews, Goa, India

I agree with Mr. Alagiah's concise view of the diasporas and the beneficial effects they have generated, and the inevitable prejudices sparked in the host countries. But the underlying impetus is not merely a desire to "improve" but to survive! It is the dire human need to survive that propels haven seekers to risk their lives, the ultimate price many have paid and will continue to pay to grasp that elusive freedom to survive and even perhaps to prosper in foreign lands... often taken for granted or as birth right by those born in the host countries who may view the immigrants as mere unwelcome plunderers.
Michael Satchie, Florida, USA

What a great idea to open this series on Immigration with George Alagiah. I am and always have been a great fan of George and his accomplishments. I myself have been on the go since 1998, moving to Britain and presently in the US. I have had my share of perils and joys that go on with economic migration as a professional and in a reversal of opportunities might be heading back to India soon. My child is however, British, and the world to her right now are her friends in London and in the US and many more to come in India! It's through her eyes that I hope to see the growth of a Global Individual and maybe watch her re-trace her path and opportunities to the Land of her birth - England, maybe!
S Dastidar, Milford, Connecticut, US

As another immigrant from Sri Lanka, I can see eye-to-eye with Mr Alagiah on many of his points. However, I think he has not addressed one of the most pressing issues of immigration, and that is the fate of domestic employees. I am all for this new global village and the mixing of peoples, but most who are against it point to the impoverishment of, say, American farm labourers, due to the influx of Mexican immigrants. While I think we should welcome Mexicans and all other people to our country, I do not know how to answer those who point to the impoverishment of the native working classes.
Ananda Nagendra, New York City, USA

What goes around must come around
Swapan, UK/USA

The global village can indeed be positive, if humans were not territorial animals. As much as I'd like to be as positive as George, I feel there is much more that needs to be addressed before we can really say our planet is getting smaller. People may be able to cross continents, but inside our heads, the distances between people of different colour and faith are growing larger, practically by the day. I am an Egyptian living in the UK, and conversations with supposedly educated people have shown me that I am not an Arab, or a human being - I am simply "different".
A Helmy, Northants, UK

This is a process of dynamic evolution. What goes around must come around. The Europeans for many centuries colonised Asia and Africa. Whether we like it or not this evolution is irreversible. Remember God's planet is dynamic.
Swapan, UK/USA

I agree and disagree with George here. True that skilled professionals from the east contribute various vital sources in Britain, but who will contribute to the land who they hail from? When will those countries develop? It is their citizens who can make the difference. Yes, I agree it is hard work and struggle but without the vital effort from every citizen nothing can be achieved. Europe did not get richer just by exploiting the east it got richer because thousands shed their sweat and blood in the medieval era to make it a developed state for hundreds of years. What George fails to mention is the brain drain that occurs in countries like India.
Bharath, India

This article demonstrates what an awful country the short-termism of our politicians has created. If we had taken a long-term approach to education for instance, we would not be having these labour shortage problems. Immigration is the unfortunate consequence of us wanting to have our cake and eat it i.e. we want good medical care, but we don't want to pay for doctors to have decent salaries, meaning that we have no choice but to import foreigners willing to work for wages that are abysmal when the fact that one has to study for so long to become a doctor is taken into account. We can avoid needing immigrants, but it will necessitate dramatic restructuring of the whole country.
Graeme Phillips, Berlin, Germany (normally UK)

George Alagiah captures the essence of the emerging global village. And what a wonderful village this can be, if only all of us global citizens realise the positive energy this can unleash. We are first generation immigrants from India. My children go to a school attended by some 70 nationalities. When my children talk about their best friend, Sarah or Chan and I ask them, from which country, I get a quizzical look in return! It is then that I realise that to my children nationality, colour, creed, race, religion simply do not matter. Unfortunately there are still people like Graeme Philips, who will look for policy initiatives from their governments to stop this wonderful evolution. He still dreams of restructuring a whole country like the UK to avoid immigration. Somebody - please wake him up!
S Ramdas, Katwijk, Netherlands

I agree wholeheartedly with the author on this very crucial issue of the 21st Century. I am of the view that the most important resource in the new century and indeed the millennium should be knowledge-based intellectual capital... I would go the extra mile and say that the key to success in today's time is creating a vibrant multicultural environment.
Kunal Munjal, Ithaca, US

I can empathise with Mr Alagiah. My grandfather came to the UK in 1935 and spent three years training as a surgeon; he returned as the professor of surgery under the Raj. He did not seek to make his home in the UK. Sub-continentals are by and large attached to their family and consequently the country. As a consequence communication and rapidity of travel become pre-eminent in the decision to migrate. The potato famine in Ireland saw mass migration and many never returned to their country; Pilgrims did the same. Now it is all too easy. The aeroplane is stirring continents. The telephone and the computer make visual correspondence so easy. You have to blame it all on the Wright brothers and Alexander Bell! The world has changed forever and will never be the same again.
S Ravi, Poulton


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