Why do people move abroad?

One in ten Canadian, British, and Swiss citizens live in a foreign country. One in five New Zealanders and one in twenty Australians live abroad. The United States is the only country other than Eritrea to tax its citizens who live abroad, yet still almost seven million civilian Americans live overseas. Throughout the twentieth century, these countries attracted enormous numbers of immigrants. They still do. Migrants come because they expect a higher standard of living, greater safety, and more liberty. So why are these lands of milk and honey exporting so many of their own citizens?

Recent research has found a surprising link between mobility and quality of life. The World Migration Report 2013 says that the roughly 50 million migrants who move from countries in the North to other countries in the North are happier, healthier, and wealthier than those who stay home. North-to-North migrants rate their lives better than if they had not migrated, and financially they fare as well as their native-born counterparts, and often better. The report finds that “83% of North-North long-time migrants are satisfied with their personal health, vs. 75% of non-migrants who remained in origin countries.” Even when it comes to family relations, these migrants are just as likely as native-born citizens to report that they have friends and family they can count on. Similar studies in the European Union find that intra-EU citizens have higher rates of happiness and employment than those who stay at home. People who move simply do better.

So it turns out we’ve been asking the wrong question. The salient question is not “Why do people move abroad?” but “What stops people from moving abroad?” Those of you following my blog will know that I’ve coined a new term for those living abroad as neither immigrants nor expats; I call them roamers. Past generations lived abroad either permanently as immigrants or temporarily as expats (or migrant works). Roamers, on the other hand, are neither deliberately emigrating from their home country nor deliberately immigrating to another. They’re simply migrating–because they want to and they can.

This lifestyle, however, isn’t worry-free. Roamers are facing questions that previous migrants didn’t have to ask themselves, such as, “Where is home?” “Can you be a roamer all your life?” “In which country should I invest–where I live, where I was born, or in a third place?” “In the long run, will I stay or will I go?” The 21st century is giving rise to this new and exciting way of living, but it provides no roadmap. Roaming is like walking in a blizzard – snow covers your footprints with each step forward. The longer and farther you walk, the harder it is to retrace your steps. You can embark on a new adventure to go back home, but you can’t simply trace your way back home.

Roamers are an avant-garde with all the challenges and rewards that come with it. Improbable as it may seem right now, roaming may one day become “the new normal”. In the meantime, those trying to get their heads around this new lifestyle may find it helpful to recollect the wise words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.”

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