How does identity work for immigrants in Europe?

“It’s true in every country in Europe, even for folks who come as refugees and need a lot of settlement aid,” says Paul Spickerd. “Taken over the course of their first five years in the country, they’re a net benefit. And over the course of their lifetimes and the lifetimes of their children, they’re a massive benefit.” (Credit: Detail from the book's cover via UC Santa Barbara. View the entire image here.)

When Britain’s Office for Budget Responsibility issued a report last July warning that a steady—and growing—influx of immigrants over the next 50 years would be necessary to sustain the country’s economy, Paul Spickard was not surprised.

According to the professor of history and of Asian American Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, Britain’s birth rate is not high enough to maintain the steady population necessary to keep its financial system humming. Ditto for every other European country.


“To be at replacement level you have to generate 2.1 babies per woman,” Spickard says. “France has the highest birth rate in Europe at 1.98.”

Still, while immigrants benefit their host countries in a variety of critical ways, they often are not made fully welcome. In addition, misconceptions frequently abound about their quantitative contributions to society and the real value of their presence.

‘Massive benefit’

Spickard’s recently published book, Multiple Identities—Migrants, Ethnicity, and Membership (Indiana University Press, 2013), examines how migrants and minorities of all age groups experience their lives and manage complex, often multiple identities that shift with time and changing circumstances.

The book’s contributors consider minorities who have received a lot of attention—Turkish Germans, for example—and some who have received little, such as the Kashubians and Tartars in Poland and the Chinese in Switzerland. They also examine international adoption and cross-cultural relationships.

“Every country in Europe is having that kind of conversation now: What are we going to do with all these immigrants?” Spickard says. “And, usually, there’s this notion that it’s inappropriate somehow for the immigrants in question to be there, or that they’re sucking the country dry of its resources.”

But according to Spickard, the opposite is true. While there are small pockets of immigrants that do cost the state a fair amount of money, in Europe—as is in the United States—they are a net benefit to their respective economies.

“It’s true in every country in Europe, even for folks who come as refugees and need a lot of settlement aid,” he says. “Taken over the course of their first five years in the country, they’re a net benefit. And over the course of their lifetimes and the lifetimes of their children, they’re a massive benefit.”

Dividing people

Multiple Identities takes a look at the situation in various places in Europe and, throwing off the mantle of public rhetoric and public policy discussions, seeks to understand the shape of people’s lives. A theme that emerges has to do with how differently ethnic and racial systems work in different places.

“The ways people conceive of their relationships to other peoples around them is really different,” Spickard says. “And a lot of times that’s racialized. We imagine there is a permanent, inextinguishable difference between you and me.”

Those dividing lines vary greatly, however, depending on location. “In Sweden, for example, they don’t make much distinction among the various people they would generally imagine to be Muslim or from the Middle East,” Spickard continues. “They’re all lumped in one category; whereas, in Germany, Turks and Arabs fall into two very distinct categories. And in England, the Pakistanis are in one group, the Arabs in another, and the Sikhs in still another. They aren’t all racialized into one category.”

Compare that, he says, to the Chinese people living in Switzerland. “The Swiss don’t see them as all that different because their numbers are really small and they enter the country mostly as scientists and engineers,” Spickard explains. “But within the Chinese community itself, there are sharp divisions. “Are you from the People’s Republic, or are you from Taiwan? Are you from Southeast Asia? Do you speak Cantonese? Mandarin? Fujianese? What it means to be Chinese internally is not perceived at all from outside, and it’s quite various within these Chinese groups”

Transracial adoption

Taking the book in a different direction, Spickard explores the issue of international adoption highlighting the attitudes in Finland and in Britain. “The two countries have very different understandings of what’s going on in international adoptions,” he says, adding that each has positive aspects. “The Brits try really hard to match children with the same racial or ethnic adoptive parents. So that means a lot of kids in Britain don’t get adopted. The same is true in the US.”

But for those who are adopted transracially, he continues, the government does attempt to make compensatory arrangements to help parents understand the importance of recognizing their children’s cultural backgrounds.

In Finland, the sensibility is quite different. “They’re much more likely to say a loving family is a loving family, and we’re going to ignore the cultural differences, and the kid’s going to grow up how he or she grows up,” says Spickard.

Each system has its positive aspects, he notes. “Warehousing kids because there aren’t enough black or Southeast Asian parents for them isn’t a viable option, but at the same time, there is an issue with cultural fit,” he says. “You’re teaching these kids to be Finnish and to operate in that culture, but they’re going to be treated differently at school and at work, and you have to make some kind of accommodation for that.”

Source: UC Santa Barbara