Checking my migrant privilege

By Zoya Patel

A few weeks ago, my younger cousin came to visit from Fiji. It had been over three years since I last saw her, and I had to restrain myself from gushing too much over how much she’s grown to become the polished young woman she is now at the age of 18.

Over dinner, I asked her what her goals are now that she has almost finished her compulsory education. Her ambition is to be a doctor, she said. But she’s going to try her hardest to get a scholarship to go overseas because if she studies medicine in Fiji her degree won’t be recognised in any other country, which is a problem should she ever decide to emigrate. It’s hard though, and expensive. So she’s prepared for the possibility of having to abandon this dream for a more attainable one.

She said this matter-of-factly, and as I listened I felt a familiar sense of guilt and discomfort course through me.

Since I was a child I have felt immensely grateful, but also immensely guilty, at my good fortune. I was lucky enough to grow up in Australia, and not in Fiji. My family migrated here when I was three – too young to know what a gift I was being given. I have been educated here and have achieved a Masters-level qualification without having to consider things like: the cost, whether I should be working more to support my family, or whether I should get married as is expected in Fijian culture – all things my cousin has to think about.

While I grew up in a mostly-middle-class environment, my cousin has had to struggle, and work harder than I ever had to, to contribute to her family.

I have grappled with this privilege many times. Because despite my belief that I shouldn’t feel guilty, I can’t help but feel awkward when I spend time with our relatives who still live in Fiji or India because they didn’t get the chance I did to emigrate.

I don’t think that life is inherently better in Australia than either of those countries – it would be condescending to think that, and it also assumes a Western value-system. I understand that there are different types of quality of life and that because I didn’t grow up in India or Fiji, there are many other experiences I missed out on.

But I do recognise how easy some aspects of my life have been, especially in terms of gender equality and access to opportunities.

In a 2011 study conducted for Oxfam, Sue Hackney researched opportunities for young people in Fiji. She found that the “main adversities reported by young people were difficulties in obtaining employment and further education. These were interrelated with concerns about corruption and the steadily increasing cost of living. Due to the lack of local opportunities, most young people from rural areas saw their future in the city and those from urban areas saw their future overseas.”

The limitations that young people in Fiji experience are obstacles that I have never had. I am fortunate enough to have easy access to education, to work, and to opportunities both nationally and globally should I choose to move interstate or overseas.

We talk a lot about white, middle-class guilt. I have migrant-guilt. A guilt that asks often, “Why me?

How did my lottery come up, when so many others struggle and strive their whole lives without ever getting the stamp of approval from immigration?

It is a guilt that is hard to reconcile, because ultimately I don’t know how to acknowledge my privilege without implying that I don’t deserve the life I’ve had, or that my Australian citizenship is somehow the result of an unfair series of events.

But I don’t think guilt is a productive emotion, nor do I think it’s warranted. Instead, the most meaningful way to use my education and my Australian citizenship would be to advocate for Australian investment in foreign aid projects that support our closest neighbours in the Pacific Islands; many of which are developing countries, including Fiji.

Australia currently delivers $61.9 million in aid to Fiji, including bilateral aid and funding to regional programs. There have been some great achievements through the program to date, such as upgrades to schools and to immunisation programs, as well as assisting with democratic processes during the recent elections.

But, as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade itself admits, we don’t have up-to-date data on the impact our aid is having on the country’s poverty levels, especially in rural areas.

I look at the cuts to foreign aid that the government has announced and wonder what the impact will be for our neighbour – the inequality that exists between Australia and Fiji is appalling. The tourism industry in many ways contributes to this inequality: foreign investors take up much of the market and move profits offshore, and top positions are often held by non-Fijians.

I want to help contribute to meaningful outcomes for my cousin, and for all young people in Fiji. Scrutinising our aid programs and calling for clarity around foreign investment into the Fijian tourism industry would be a good place to start, and a worthy pursuit for any Australian.

Zoya Patel is a writer, editor, founder of Feminartsy, and a Right Now columnist. She tweets @zoyajpatel

Feature image: Patricia K/Flickr