‘It is easy to come here but difficult to leave’: The ‘point of no return’ in migration trajectories

Published 2 December 2014 / By COMPAS Communications

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Taxi signI was told this by a taxi driver from Macedonia now living in the UK[1]. I had just called a taxi for a 20 minute ride to the other end of town and engaged in some colloquial conversation. I’m just curious and like asking things like ‘how is life here’, ‘where are you from’, and of course some discussion about the omni-present controversy over immigration. And then I heard this statement: ‘it is easy to come here but difficult to leave’. I found this puzzling and asked what he meant. It turned out that the gentleman had arrived in the UK 10 years ago as a young man. He got married, had children, two boys, but after some time he and his wife split up. He felt that he could not return to his country because if he did he would not be able to see his children growing up. He did think about whether he could take them with him back to his country but explained ‘I grew up in poverty and would not want the same for my children’. He even discussed the possibility to return and set up another family back in his country but felt he is now too old for this and that he would not want to have more children. So instead, he remained in the UK. Here he has a reasonable job, ‘I’m not getting rich but I’m doing ok’. Whist driving he was greeting some people he spotted on the side, so he was obviously a known member of the local community.

But what fascinates me in this life story are the determinants that contributed to his ‘point of no return’, to the ‘important decisions’ in ‘livelihood strategies’ (White 2009) or ‘the critical transitions in the life course’ (Evans et al. 2013) from which the initial migration decision became irreversible. This is the point in a migration trajectory where what might have begun as a temporary or open-ended movement became permanent or where life decisions are made or biographic events simply happen without much deliberation that as a consequence prevent return and result in permanent immigration. In his case there were two strong determinants: the man’s bonds with his children who were born and growing up in the UK, and the economically unviable conditions in his country of origin, ‘there is so much corruption’, ‘I was brought up in poverty’, reinforced by his stable job in the UK.

Due to financial constraints he was not even able to visit ‘home’ as often as he would wish, not even once a year, which further contributed to weakening his roots in Macedonia and instead rooting down in the UK. In this context the ‘point of no return’ refers to an individual who is adapting to certain changes in his or her life like falling in love, marriage, children, children admitted to school, and certain social responsibilities or job offers, but also to the acquisition of location-specific human and social capital, and the simultaneous diminishing of these in the country of origin. Migrants are often young and many ‘critical transitions in the life course’ are yet to come, and if they occur whilst the person is in a migration situation these seem likely to also impact and change the initial intention and thus the course of a migration project.

hands groupThese determinants won’t please those whose aim it is to cut back net immigration in the UK to the tens of thousands. They can lie beyond the reach of governments and may defy the means that they have at their disposal to influence or control individual behaviour; they might even be stronger than strict legal regulations. Indeed, it is such determinants – human agency – notably if combined with EU and international law – the liberal constraints – that undermine policy goals such as temporary migration and instead contribute to permanent settlement and thus the rise in net immigration. As a result of these determinants individuals may either explore all possible legal avenues to extend their stay or even disobey law and (over)stay in an irregular fashion. In light of the above, forceful removal, even if following from rigid application of the rule of law, must appear as an almost violent interference with life courses. It is thus no surprise that people served with a removal order sometimes manage to mobilise community compassion and support, organise a campaign and refute return. They may succeed because they have reached and gone beyond this point of no return which is also acknowledged by other members of the community.

The critical transitions in the life courses of migrants, the subsequent emergence of a ‘point of no return’ and the transition from temporary to permanent migration projects seem under-researched, which calls for further exploration. Finally, the recognition of these processes seems important to take into account when considering policy making.

[1] Nationality and some other details were changed to secure the anonymity of the informant