The Motivational Force of the Older Migrant

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More and more Dutch people spend their pension years abroad. The advantages seem obvious, but in reality the move can be quite tasking on older migrants. Professor Tineke Fokkema looks into their experiences.

TEXT: Yasmina Aboutaleb
PHOTO'S: © Claudia Broekhoff


Tineke Fokkema is the newly appointed Professor of Ageing, Families and Migration. Her research is part of the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. She herself hasn’t considered moving abroad. ‘You need a lot of courage to migrate,’ says Fokkema. And she should know: she interviewed tens of older migrants on what motivated them to move, and the consequences of their decision.

Fokkema’s research is conducted at both Erasmus University and the Dutch Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI) in The Hague, and the group of migrants involved is a diverse one. ‘When the word ‘migrant’ comes up, people usually think of specific groups in the Netherlands: Turkish migrants, Moroccan or Surinamese migrants, but there’s also a large subgroup of elderly migrants.’ Fokkema recently visited in Le Merche, an Italian region where a handful of hopeful Dutch people moved to retire. But she also travelled around Morocco, where she ran into Dutch pensioners, also of Moroccan descent who re-emigrated in their old age.

It’s not surprising that pensioners move to the south of Europe, but how does Morocco fit into the mix?

‘I wondered the same thing, because it’s a whole different move, going somewhere outside of Europe. And it’s also a country with a completely different culture and way of life. Though what I noticed with Dutch people who moved to Morocco is that they’re far more cosmopolitan. They’ve travelled a lot, and some of them have worked for embassies in African countries. For them the move wasn’t that big of a leap.’

Doesn’t it make you want to move?

‘I’ve actually never thought of that. In general I feel that being a migrant isn’t easy – be it as a Dutch person living in Morocco or Italy, or as a Turkish person living in the Netherlands. You have to have gumption, a sense of adventure. Because if you overthink it, you probably won’t do it.

Take, for example, the Dutch people in Le Merche. They have taken a language course, all according to plan. They’ve been to Italy on vacation before, and move there with every intention of interacting with Italians. And yet it’s hard for them to find a connection. Conversations with the neighbours are shallow and usually don’t go any further than farming life. These migrants are far more direct than the Italians, and some topics – Berlusconi, the Pope, the church – are quite sensitive. That’s when they realise that they’re far more Dutch than they thought they were. And then they end up seeking out other Dutch people.’

But despite the difficulties, people do aspire to it. The hit show ‘Ik vertrek’ (‘I’m moving’) has been following people in their big move for over ten years.

‘When I interview people, they often say: my story isn’t going to be the kind of story you see on ‘Ik vertrek’. And after a while I think – but it does sound a lot like the same kind of narrative. It’s all harder than they initially thought it was going to be. This, of course, also applies to migrants in the Netherlands. But they won’t tell those stories to their family back in Yemen or Iran – they don’t want to be seen as having failed.’

What do the migrants to the Netherlands have in common with those from the Netherlands?

‘Everyone’s roots run deep. Sometimes people are quick to say things like – you just need assimilate and integrate. But where you grew up really defines you. The longer you’ve lived somewhere else, the harder it is to let go of your own culture and to adjust.’

Elderly migrants in the Netherlands often dream of re-emigration, and usually it’s the men. Why?

‘In Turkey or Morocco these men get their freedom back. But women and children often don’t want to move back. For them, it’ll be a loss of freedom. It’s really a man’s world. The lives of women are for the most part centered in and around the house. They appreciate the freedom they get in the Netherlands. For women, that’s the main reason for not returning.’

What other reasons are there to stay in the Netherlands?

‘The children and the grandchildren. Especially for the women that’s an important element, which shows in qualitative and quantitative research. And healthcare – it’s well organised here. Often it becomes a compromise: going back and forth between the Netherlands and their country of origin.’

There’s also a group that purposely goes back and forth, because they don’t want to choose between the two countries.

‘For the most part those are people who’ve been doing that for a majority of their lives – but they continue with it in their pension years. Going back and forth does have some drawbacks. When you’re there, you miss all the amenities of here. And when you’re here, you miss your place of birth. And in terms policy it gets tricky, because while people are gone their homes are empty. And moreover, people on the dole aren’t supposed to go abroad for months on end.’

What’s your view on initiatives like convalescence centres, designed for Dutch migrants in the homeland?

‘In the coming years there’s going to be a large group that goes back and forth but that won’t be as mobile anymore, and that’s going to get increasing issues with their health. For that group this will be a good solution. I have nothing against it, it’s a matter of supply and demand.’

Your research is aimed at the wellbeing of migrants. The common belief is that migrants aren’t as lonely as other Dutch people because they come from bigger families. This isn’t true, you argue.

‘A big family isn’t a guarantee for a good life. It’s about the quality of the relationships. You can be with the whole family together, but if you don’t communicate or you feel like no one’s listening – you can still be lonely.’

And your research will raise awareness for this issue.

‘That’s the best part: the attention this will get for elderly migrants and their wellbeing. Expanding our knowledge is necessary, because this group of migrants is growing.’

  • Name: Tineke Fokkema
    Study: Economy and PhD research at the Free University. Postdoc research at the EUR.
    Position: Researcher for the NIDI on the topic of successful ageing and migration. Member of the research-team Families in Context. Chair of the Journal for Gerontology and Geriatrics. From 2018 professor of ‘Ageing, Families and Migration’ at the Erasmus School Social and Behavioural Sciences.

  • ‘There are a lot of assumptions right now and not enough scientific proof.’

  • The inaugural lecture of Prof. Tineke Fokkema will take place on 8 March, at 4 p.m. in the Aula of the Erasmus Building on Woudestein Campus.