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Five lessons history can teach us about migration

Migrants to Ellis Island

The success in the Italian election of the anti–migration party Lega Nord (The Northern League) is one of the latest examples of the way fears related to migration have been exploited and fuelled during a European electoral campaign. However migration is a constitutive part of human history. Since the Iron Age people have moved across the globe in search of a better life or to escape famine or wars, and these movements will not stop.

A knowledge and understanding of the past can help us to face the challenges of contemporary migration, says Dr Felicita Tramontana, a research fellow from the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick, who is looking at the migration patterns of people and groups in the early modern world.

Here are Dr Tramontana’s five lessons history can teach about migration:

1. We were the “others” once

Present day ‘destination countries’ in the past have had their own inhabitants heading towards other parts of the world.

As migrants from Africa do today, many Europeans were pushed from their homes in the past due to famines and economic crises. Between the 1820s and the World War II, nearly six millions of Germans migrated to America. From the 17th century onwards, British migration to America was a massive phenomenon, encouraged by religious persecution, poverty and lack of opportunities in the homeland. In 1840s, during the Potato Famine, two million Irish people fled to escape starvation.

Europeans also escaped religious and political persecution, for example, the French aristocracy’s migration to the UK and America during the French Revolution; Jewish people escaping from Nazism; and Hungarian refugees fleeing political persecution during the cold war.

An awareness that Europeans in some moment of their history have been migrants and refugees themselves can challenge the distinction between “them” and “us” in which our attitude toward migration is rooted. History of European migration should be the basis for a more compassionate policy toward migrants and refugees.

2. Benefits for the hosting societies

An historical perspective shows that in the long term the arrival of newcomers has always proved to be beneficial for the hosting societies. They introduced new techniques, provided manpower and stimulated trade through their world-wide contacts. In the Ottoman Empire during the 15th and 17th century, for example, the arrival of Jewish refugees greatly contributed to the growth of Ottoman trade.

Migrants often take unskilled jobs that the local population does not want and therefore fill crucial labour needs for the host society. In the 19th century Italian semi-skilled and unskilled labourers provided much-needed muscle for the United States’ booming industrial economy.

One of the most common fears related to the arrival of migrants is that ‘migration is a threat to our culture’. Cultures however are not absolute and those in the Western World have been massively shaped by migration. German migrants, for example, spread the Christmas tree. The Italian food brought by migrants, once despised and the object of insults such as “spaghetti bender”, is now a well-recognised part of American diet. Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin, who fled religious persecution from the Netherlands, introduced fish and chips to England.

Reference to such positive examples point to the benefit that our society can gain from migration and how cultures have been and can be enriched by people coming from different parts of the world.

3. Integration is a long process

Integration takes generations and requires accommodation between new arrivals and the host society. Often migration raised hostile reactions and fears in the receiving societies which in the long run were proved unjustified. Where first generations of new comers had to face racism and hostility, their descendants succeeded to integrate themselves.

Americans of Italian origin are now middle class, but their ancestors were marginalized, threated with suspicion and hostility. Like Muslims in Europe today, Italians in America had to face deep prejudices and outright hatred, which lead to about 50 recorded episodes of lynching. These examples of long term integration can smooth and rationalize fears in the hosting societies.

4. Policies matter

Historically governments have taken different approaches towards migration which were driven by ideology, economic requirements and political consideration.

In the early modern period sometimes politics of acceptance and borders control were based on the newcomers’ religious belonging. During the economic boom in the 1950s and 1960s, northern European countries encouraged workers’ arrival from Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal and later from North Africa. After the WWII, France and England chose not to restrain migration from former colonies because they still wanted to preserve economic and political influence after the collapse of colonial empires.

Policies restraining migration might also have undesired effects. As pointed out by historian Leo Lucassen, in 1973 European countries’ decision to close borders, forced foreign workers to stay in the hosting countries, fearing that if they left they would not be allowed to re-enter.

These examples show that restraining migrations is not good per se, nor it is a fundamental necessity of States. Across history, policies toward migration have rather been influenced by conditional circumstances and political considerations, which do not necessarily correspond with the country’s needs and interests. This awareness should lead to a more balanced evaluation of the policies toward migration which takes into consideration both the costs and benefits of these policies.

5. Facing our own responsibilities

In the past migrations followed different routes and patterns. But the prevalence in the contemporary world of South-toward-North migrations is the result of the way certain countries in Europe and America have disproportionally benefitted from the processes of economic integrations, global trade and colonialism.

These processes are rooted in the early modern period with the expansion of European trade. For example, in the 17th century in the Middle East and northern Africa, a process started that would inexorably re-shape the region’s economic relations with Europe. The area was turned from from seller into buyer of products and supplier of raw materials for French and English factories. This process intensified in the following centuries thanks to growing European political influence and to colonisation. In the long run it weakened the region’s local economies affecting local production and craftwork and starting the cultivation of cash crops, such as cotton. The effect on local economies can still be seen today.


14 August 2018

FelicitaDr Felicita Tramontana is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow, at the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance.

She specialises in Mediterranean history and the social history of the Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern period (1500-1800). This research featured in this article has been conducted under the framework of the project: "Migration in the Early Modern World: the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land as a Facilitator of the Circulation of People in the Mediterranean (MIGMED)" (65711) and is funded from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

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