over the years, i've heard many politicians use a variation of this theme: "we are a nation of migrants, whether we or our ancestors came here by waka, boat or airplane". this phrase is used when the politician is addressing ethnic minorities who are mostly assumed to be migrants rather than locals, in attempt to show that we nz'ers are all equal and that migrants shouldn't be discriminated against.
i'd sit there and listen to this without thinking much of it, until the day i was sitting next to a maori women who expressed just how offensive that phrase is. her point was that it was a way of invalidating the indigenous status of maori, by equating them with all who have come to nz, but more importantly, equating them with the british migrants who colonised this country and were the source of dispossessing the indigenous population.
more than that, it diminishes the maori struggle for justice via the treaty. after all, as this woman pointed out to me, having settled here over 1,000 years should be enough to lose the migrant tag. that history should be enough to deserve the recognition of being indigenous peoples, which has certain implications and gives rise to certain responsibilities on a state that has been the mechanism of dispossession and oppression. hence why we have this (pdf), which nz is now a signatory to.
by making these points, i'm not saying that migrants are less than. there is no hidden implication that being a migrant is a bad thing, or that if you're a migrant or children of migrants, that you are somehow deserving of fewer rights or are less of a nz'er than another person. i'm just saying that the use of the term migrant in this context and in this way is incorrect in a way that is harmful, particularly to our indigenous peoples but also to others.
the statement ignores the fact that different groups of migrants are treated differently in this country. when you see stories in the media of migrants who are in danger of being sent back to their countries of origin, and the angle is that this is a terrible thing to be doing, those migrants are invariably white. not always, just almost always.
and they are described a the "right kind of migrant", which is a clear dogwhistle. although those who use the term would claim "we mean the kind of migrant that is working hard and contributing to this country". except that almost all migrants are trying to do that - whether by running dairies or driving taxis or taking up some other kind of self-employment because the job market actively discriminates against them. but their stories of being sent back don't hit the news all that much, and if they do, they don't often get too much sympathy.
academics describe the different treatement of various groups of migrants as a dichotomy between invisible vs visible migrants. invisible migrants (in this country) tend to be white and tend not to be called migrants at all. yes, they still face the difficult issues of resettlement, but they are able to integrate into our society much more easily because that society tends to be very much more accepting of them. the word migrant tends to be used as a synonym for ethnic minority, invariably for people of colour, be they migrant or local born.
following on from that, the statement also equalises the history of migrants from non-british countries. some of these people migrated here in the 19th & early 20th centry, but they came into an oppressive system, which included a poll tax, a complete lack of inclusion into general society , even official descriptions in government statistics such as "pagans & heathens". they didn't have the same ability to have family members migrate and join them as british migrants. their experiences were not the same and they shouldn't be equalised.
nor were they part of the colonising group - they pretty much weren't allowed to be because of that social exclusion thing. and even if they were allowed to be, there's no evidence that they would have wanted to be. so that statement equalising us all as migrants or descendants of migrants loses all of these distinctions and distorts our history in a way that is patently unfair.
migrants of colour shouldn't be discriminated against. but the reason for that isn't that we are all just a country of migrants. if what you really mean is that people should not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character, then say that. if you mean that people shouldn't be discriminated against merely because they migrated to this country instead of being born here, then say that. stop hiding some pretty big injustices and equalising in ways that are totally inappropriate.
we aren't all migrants in this country. there's nothing wrong with being a migrant. all migrants aren't treated with equal welcome into this country, and migrants of colour face hurdles that other migrants often don't have to face. we have a history that is problematic. that is our reality. be open and honest about it and you'll get more respect. from me at least.