A former East German junior fencing champion who now researches bushfire psychology at The University of Western Australia was invited to be a keynote speaker at a recent 17-nation conference on migration in Geneva.
Dr Petra Buergelt, who is also a qualified horticulturalist, spoke on the motives for migration between Western countries and ways to prevent the financial and emotional burden on about 40 per cent of migrants who return to their birth countries.
"My PhD studied how migrants experience the emigration and migration period," she said. "I accompanied the 17 participants for two years. I went back to Germany and lived with them in their homes for a week, observing and interviewing them. After that, they wrote diaries for me, capturing their immediate experience."
About half of them decided to migrate and Dr Buergelt, from UWA's School of Psychology, visited them in Australia and New Zealand six months after the move and again after 18 months. She also kept in touch with those migrants who returned to Germany.
"I wanted to give voice to Western migrants who are often overlooked by governments and policy makers predominantly concerned about the big population movements of migrants from developing countries, refugees and asylum seekers," she said. "I am interested in the ways in which policy and programs could be better formulated to ease the process.
"Empowering migrants creates a win-win situation for both the migrants and the country of destination because it counteracts migrants returning home or moving on.
"Being a German immigrant to New Zealand and Australia myself, I saw my background as giving me rare access to explore the unique migration experiences of German immigrants, how their migration desire developed, what issues they encountered and the living conditions facilitating health/well-being and growth."
Dr Buergelt said the migrants she had interviewed said migration was a huge step into freedom, one they were proud to have made.
"Interestingly, the seed for migrating was laid in childhood and developed during independently travelling first within Germany and later world-wide. This led them to becoming more aware of how the world works and feeling increasingly that living conditions in Germany prevented them being themselves," she said.
"Through extensive travel, many migrants gained confidence and developed capabilities for interacting with people from other countries. They've often also been detaching themselves from people, places, possessions and local cultural knowledge and language.
"Migrating involves leaving your comfort zone and learning to fly: gaining confidence and capabilities while negotiating hurdles. And, it also means living in the gap: transcending boundaries and having wider horizons."
The Intergovernmental Consultations on Migration, Asylum and Refugees conference in Geneva was supported by the International Organisation for Migration, the European Commission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.