Inventing Immigrant Europe

Imagine a cosmic anthropologist from outer space who, arriving on earth, finds one group of comfortable humans putting up fences to prevent another group—downtrodden, scared, aspirational—from crossing what appears to be an imaginary line. Let’s further imagine that said visitor has been equipped with a set of human sensibilities to help him better apprehend what’s going on. He gets a module for understanding individual harm, one for minority group attachment, and one for the universal values of liberty and equality. Unfortunately, his handlers forgot to upload several modules: for majority ethnic and national attachment, and for an appreciation of the value of legitimate authority, democracy, and social harmony. As a result, our cosmic visitor can reach but one conclusion: those enforcing borders are irrational mean-spirited xenophobes.

British writer David Goodhart, drawing on UK values surveys, refers to the earthly incarnation of our cosmic traveller as an “Anywhere,” whose attachments are to ‘achieved’ status, ideology, and profession, and thus independent of ‘ascribed’ local and national identity. This is less true for the majority of Anywheres, but hits the mark for the roughly 5 percent of the population Goodhart labels “Global Villagers”. They stand in contrast to the approximately 50 percent of rooted “Somewheres” who greatly value local and national identity.

Peter Gatrell, author of The Unsettling of Europe, nicely fits Goodhart’s Global Villager portrait. That in itself is not a problem since, in parochial societies, we need critical voices to expand the circle of sympathy beyond kith and kin. Such people are important for the success of civilization, but if they acquire too much influence in elite institutions, as is now the case, they promote policies such as unenforced borders that damage collective goods which most citizens value, such as national solidarity and majority group identity. After all, as Goodhart notes, why should someone pay nearly half their income in tax to redistribute to public goods shared by others unless they share something in common with them? Open borders, by which elites are seen to be undermining the social contract by eroding the attachments that underpin it, tend to prompt a populist backlash from the Somewheres. This backlash produces the polarization we are increasingly seeing across western societies.

Gatrell’s book is not without merit. It does a sterling job of documenting the world from the migrant’s perspective. Exceptionally, the book includes the migrations that have shaped both western and eastern European nations since 1945, whether under communism or capitalism. It encompasses immigration and domestic migration, forced and voluntary flows, refugees and economic migrants. This capacious perspective is used to tell the story of migration from the viewpoint of the migrant and is packed with remarkable stories of immigrant and refugee pluck, tragedy, and perseverance. It documents the journeys of those who risk everything for a better life, overcoming numerous barriers and ill-treatment to pursue a dream. This represents a triumph of the human spirit and the book relates it well.

The book is packed with accounts such as that of Ali Hassan. Escaping the violence of anarchic Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1983, Hassan’s mother took the family to the northern coastal town of Bosaso. To get away from the civil war, the family left on an overcrowded boat to Yemen, where they were held in a camp. Spending a decade there, Hassan learned enough English to get a job with a major global charity. In 2011, following an uprising in Yemen, he flew to Damascus, engaging smugglers to help him get to the Turkish border. Detained in a military camp on the Turkish coast, he was released and worked at a factory before travelling to Greece and attempting to transit further north. After being arrested and sent back several times from Macedonia, he made it the third time, getting to Serbia where he was arrested and tortured yet somehow was able to make it to Hungary. There he was arrested and deported to Macedonia, where he spent 6 months in a detention centre. In 2012 he tried again, reaching Croatia, where he as detained. Upon release, he reached Italy, was deported, but people smugglers got him to Milan after another two tries. Using a fake passport, he flew to Copenhagen, then walked across the bridge to Sweden, where he now lives, working as a counsellor.

It’s hard not to empathise with Hassan and admire his courage, and, if one lacks an appreciation for national identity and democracy, to view the system that obstructs people like him as oppressive.

The book also does a commendable job of documenting Europe’s early postwar history of forced migration in which long-settled communities of ethnic Germans were expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union late in the war. Elsewhere, minorities associated with the Axis powers who resided in ‘winning’ countries like Yugoslavia, such as the Dalmatian Italians, suffered persecution and were driven out. The process was repeated after 1989 for the Turks of Bulgaria, minorities in the Soviet Near Abroad, and unlucky minorities in the former Yugoslavia who were caught in the ‘wrong’ nation when the country disintegrated. This was a reprise of the “unmixing of peoples” that began in earnest with the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires after World War I.

The integration of co-ethnics was far from smooth. Gatrell does a nice job of recounting, using personal testimonies, how co-ethnic migrants such as the expelled Germans of Eastern Europe sought to recreate their lost sense of homeland through emigrant associations for Silesians, East Prussians, and so forth. In other cases, overseas colonists like the nearly 1 million French ‘Pieds Noirs’ of Algeria or the 800,000 Portuguese settlers in Angola and Mozambique, experienced displacement upon returning ‘home’ after decolonization. After the collapse of the USSR, several million Russians ‘returned’ to Russia from former Soviet settlement regions like Kazakhstan. The book shows how, time and time again, the newcomers, though ostensibly of the same ethnicity as their compatriots, were discriminated against by the locals and viewed as foreign.

The book’s aim is to “make migration normal” by problematizing the native/immigrant distinction. It’s a ruse that only works because the book is a story-driven account that allows statistical reality to fade into the background.

Sticking with the theme of Europe’s forgotten co-ethnic and co-national migration history, Gatrell documents the considerable domestic migration that took place in countries such as Britain, Spain and Italy. In the UK, large-scale Irish emigration furnished the labour that helped build the country’s industrial revolution to the point that—though unmentioned in the book—Glasgow and Liverpool became a third Irish. In Italy, so many southerners migrated to Turin between the 1950s and 1970s that it became the country’s “third southern city” with 700,000 hailing from the underdeveloped Mezzogiorno. In Spain, too, a vast influx of impoverished Andalusians arrived in Catalonia to perform menial tasks in greater Barcelona’s industrial economy. Today, around half of Catalans are of Spanish migrant origin. A much broader shift of population from the countryside to the city involved similar processes—push and pull factors, migrant dislocation and destitution, othering and discrimination—to those that characterize immigration today.

Having set the scene by documenting the travails of domestic and co-ethnic migrants, the book shifts gears to consider the longer-distance inflow of ethnically distinct immigration that is convulsing the politics of Europe today. The familiar decolonizing migrations of South Asians and Afro-Caribbeans to Britain, Antilleans and Indonesians to the Netherlands, North Africans and Vietnamese to France, or Cape Verdians to Portugal comprise one strand. The other involves labour and refugee inflows to non-colonial rich countries such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, with their Yugoslav, Turkish, or Moroccan guestworkers, as well as Scandinavia’s more diverse Arab, African and Asian migrations from the 1980s onward. The story takes in the major refugee waves from the war in Yugoslavia in the 90s to Iraq in the 00s to the “migrant crisis” (a term the author loathes) of 2015 that saw over 2 million people enter Europe.

The book’s aim is to “make migration normal” by problematizing the native/immigrant distinction while convincing “native” Europeans to stop thinking of themselves as long-settled folk and more as mobile folk who reside in nations of migrants. It’s a ruse that only works because the book is a story-driven account that allows statistical reality to fade into the background. Such an analysis would show that western Europe’s foreign-born share was only around 2 percent in 1900, compared to 10-15 percent today. Globally, about 3 percent of the world was born in another country, but in the West, the share jumped from 7 to 12 percent between 1990 and 2017, with a big rise in long-distance North-South migration. This is new.

Even at the height of Britain’s short period of Jewish immigration at the turn of the twentieth century, no more than 5-10,000 arrived, compared to 200-300,000 net migrants per year in the 2000s. In short, Western Europe’s history from the Dark Ages to the 1950s is overwhelmingly that of long-settled populations, punctuated by a few migration events, and with a steady but low level of long-distance migration. Migration of diverse peoples is the crust on the loaf of Europe’s contemporary history, not the loaf itself.

In addition, while the “unmixing” of Europe through co-ethnic in-migration after both world wars involved large numbers of people, this had a qualitatively different cumulative effect due to ethnic assimilation in destination countries. It is thus far less consequential than recent “mixing” inflows which have had persistent population-level effects in the form of large-scale ethnic change. Only a few inter-ethnic domestic migrations, such as that of the Irish to mainland Britain or Andalusians to Catalonia, are comparable—and these had profound political repercussions.

Assimilation, national solidarity, and the longue durée are conspicuously absent from a book whose author is focused on the human rights of migrants and ethnic diasporas in the present. While the book rightly points out that co-ethnic, rural-urban and inter-regional migrants were othered, it obstinately refuses to point out how successful their ethnic assimilation has been compared to groups which have, to use sociologist Ernest Gellner’s terms, ‘counter-entropic’ traits such as a different religion, which slows down the assimilation process. Only in France, for instance, is there a high rate of intermarriage between Muslim minorities and the ethnic majority. Pew’s projections, which are the most sophisticated we have, show that current migration levels will see Sweden’s Muslim share rise from 8 percent in 2016 to 21 percent in 2050. Britain’s will increase from 6 percent to 17 percent, France’s from 9 to 17 percent. The ethnic majority share will drop below half the population by the end of this century in many of the main immigrant-receiving western countries.

Like other liberal observers, the author’s sympathy for the power of ethnic attachment and community seems to disappear when he switches his focus from dislocated migrants to unsettled natives. Migration events like that of the 2015 Migrant Crisis (yes, it was a crisis) symbolize a loss of identity, which is why they tend to catalyze support for Europe’s surging populist right. When Jean-Marie Le Pen defeated Lionel Jospin in 2002 with 18 percent of the vote, a million people came out on the streets in protest. When Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party won 27 percent of the vote and went into coalition with the mainstream right in 2000, the EU censured Austria. Some 15 years later, the numbers had nearly doubled: Norbert Höfer of the Freedom Party came within a hair of winning the presidency in 2016 with 48 percent of the vote and entered a coalition government soon after. Marine Le Pen won the first round with 34 percent in 2017. Both events were greeted with silence and fear as Anywheres wondered what happened. Since then, they have merely doubled down on their biases, learning nothing. To deride the nation-state and cry ‘xenophobia’ when barriers are erected is to fail to reckon with the possibility that “unsettling” societies, which Gatrell applauds, might not be such a hot idea.

There is also a failure to consider the arguments of liberal nationalist thinkers like David Miller, who point to the way national attachments underpin democracy and the welfare state. By comparison, when a supranational organization without a common identity like the European Union tries to redistribute more than a paltry 2.5 percent of Europe’s wealth, this founders because it lacks the unity that underpins democratic legitimacy. Gatrell also acts as if ethnic identity is completely detached from homeland nationhood. Thus barely a word is spoken about the umbilical connection between migrant diasporas and nationalist movements in their ethnic homelands, from the Irish to the Serbs and Hindus.

The academic field of migration studies is essentially a monoculture when it comes to pro-immigration sentiment. The few who dare to report findings that contravene the pro-migration narrative, like George Borjas of Harvard, David Coleman of Oxford, or Gary Freeman of the University of Texas, largely operate as pariahs whose work is the subject of derision from the open-borders mainstream. In such a milieu, Gatrell’s unevidenced claims that migration is a major driver of prosperity “needed” by countries (as distinct from employers), and which adds nothing but spice to boring societies, goes unchallenged. His belief that if there were better routes for formal migration then border fences, detention, and offshoring wouldn’t be required is gospel in his world but isn’t backed by systematic quantitative analysis.

In fact, the Gallup World Poll tells us that hundreds of millions of people would emigrate. Whenever rich countries signal that there is a route to entry, as with Merkel’s announcement in 2015, the signal sent by America to Cubans in 1981, or the Biden administration’s message in 2021, a large number will—understandably—try their luck. Only deterrence through offshore processing, as with Australia’s “Stop the Boats” policy, Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” Program, or the EU’s Turkey repatriation deal can keep numbers at a manageable level, mitigating the tragic loss of human life that accompanies most large-scale irregular flows. We must offer safe refuge and sustenance to anyone who needs it, whether offshore or onshore, but permanent settlement can only be offered to a small number, preferably by lottery. The world is an unequal place, but we won’t solve that problem by substituting an elite-led international migration rights regime in the place of pesky old national democracy.