Migrant researchers are migrants. Not guests.

This is a post a bit more personal than the previous ones but I feel the need to publish it, because I think it will resonate to many other young researchers. It will probably be also the first of a series of posts that I want to dedicate to the problem of employment (in the academia and not only…).

Since I moved to Germany about one year and half ago, in order to start a post-doc financed by the Alexander Von Humboldt Stiftung, there has been a misunderstanding that might sound innocuous but that has hurted me quite a lot. It seems that, because the VH fellowship is dedicated to foreign researchers coming to Germany for up to two years, once you have it you are attached the label of “Gastwissenschaftler” (guest researcher). You are introduced in meetings as “the guest researcher”, you are put into a “guest researchers office” and so on. Most of people calling me “guest researcher” do not mean wrong. Some of them care sincerely about me, like the senior colleague who told me that being called a guest is a good thing because it means that the hosts are under obligation to receive me in the best possible way.

To me, however, there is a fundamental element in the definition of guest that is lacking in my case. A guest has a home to come back to. Some Von Humboldt fellow do, especially those who take the fellowship at the “experienced researcher” level. They are lecturers or professors in their country, have come to Germany to start a scientific collaboration or to have a period to dedicate to research free of teaching obligations, and after one or two years they come back to their institution. But many others, especially the Von Humboldt post-docs, have no home to come back to. When their fellowship expires, they have to find a job. Most of them do not go back to their country, for the very obvious fact that what has pushed them to leave their country in the first place and come to Germany is that they see very few opportunities there. I know several VH post-docs who were also based in Hamburg or Northern Germany who have completed their fellowship: none of them is back to his/her country.

I am not a guest researcher. I am a migrant. I like to travel and see the world, but let’s not fool ourselfes: if I had had the possibility to do the job that I am doing now in Italy and be decently paid (which to me means, enough to rent my own place and not to have to ask money to my parents for day to day expenses), I will not have moved to South Africa first and to Germany later. I know people who are obsessed by the dream of living in London and New York but I do not have such an obsession.  Nor do I feel bored i I do not move every two years – although in practice I moved more frequently than that. The idea of living in my hometown of Pisa, with the Tuscan countryside and coast at hand, is far from repulsive to me – indeed, is also far from repulsive for many Germans, who are wise enough to keep their jobs in Hamburg or Munich and buy a holiday house in Italy with their savings.

I know that to some extent mobility is a normal thing for researchers. But being forced to move because you perceive that the academic system in your country is blocked and that you have zero chances to get a job no matter how hard you work because you do not have a godfather to parrain you should not be normal. Migrant researchers are migrants. Even if we seem to have far more economic and intellectual resources than the typical economic migrant, we face in the end problems that are similar. Calling us guests does not help, because you typically expect guests to leave: but if we leave we do not have any place to come back to.