A Short History of European Mass Migrations

Dear SAGE International Reader,

We are proud to announce that we have secured the right to republish some blogs from internationally recognised strategic analyst, advisor and author Prof. Dr. Julian Lindley-French. Julian is Senior Fellow of the Institute of Statecraft, Director of Europa Analytica & Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow, National Defense University, Washington DC. Welcome to SAGE International Julian & we hope that you enjoy your association with us for the long haul!

“The Germans themselves I should regard as aboriginal, and not mixed at all with other races through immigration or intercourse. For in former times, it was not by land but on shipboard that those who sought to emigrate would arrive, and the boundless and, so to speak, hostile Ocean beyond us seldom entered by a sail from our world”.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Germania, AD 98.

Alphen, Netherlands. 24 August. Last week was a busy week in Europe’s migrant crisis, this week will be no different. German Interior Minister Thomas de la Maizière warned that some 800,000 migrants would seek asylum in Germany in 2015 and that it would take years before such mass migration would end. The same day the EU reported that 107,500 irregular migrants had entered Europe in July alone, whilst the British and French interior ministers agreed a new ‘Joint Force’ at Calais designed to counter human traffickers operating at the French Channel port. Today, ‘Europe’s’ self-appointed leaders German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande will meet to discuss the migration crisis which if unchecked threatens to make Europe a very different place in ten to twenty years. However, there is another way of looking at the crisis.  Indeed, if one takes an historic view the current migration crisis becomes one such movement in many. When did those migrations take place, what drove them and what was their impact?

There have been four mass immigrations into Europe in recorded history and one major emigration.  The first such period of immigration took place with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire between the fourth and eighth centuries.  The westward movements of the Germanic tribes was driven by military pressure from beyond Europe’s eastern borders and a loss of control in the west.  Between the fifth and sixth centuries Slavic migrations took place into modern Europe which also saw profound social, cultural and economic shifts in Europe.  Moreover, between the ninth and tenth centuries the Hungarian occupation of the Carpathian Basin led to a profound population shift in Southern and Eastern Europe as did the Moorish conquest of the Southern Iberian peninsula between the eighth and sixteenth centuries.  However, perhaps the most influential mass migration was that of Europeans to the Americas between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.  Indeed, European migration to North America in the nineteenth century represented some 40% of the population and had an enormous and deleterious impact on the indigenous aboriginal population, as did similar migrations to modern day Australia, and to a lesser extent New Zealand.

All such migrations shared common drivers; war and conquest in source regions, economic dislocation, poverty and oppression of groups, religious and/or ideological hatreds, and struggles for local and regional political superiority between regimes, races and cultures. Today’s mass immigration within and into Europe is little different and thus a twenty-first century version of a very old phenomenon.

Critically, from a policy perspective, it is important not simply to see the current wave of mass immigration as having begun with the arrival of people smugglers and horribly over-loaded boats across the Mediterranean.  Indeed, the current mass immigration into Europe began with the end of European colonialism and accelerated as the successor states set up after colonialism began to falter and then collapse from the late 1970s on, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, but also in Asia.  The Arab Spring, the failed Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya further accelerated such flows because it enabled sophisticated criminal trafficking networks to create unhindered ‘pipelines’ from source countries to Europe across effectively ungoverned spaces. Indeed, the traffickers are clearly ‘winning’ their war with European governments.

One must also draw an important distinction between irregular immigration into Europe and legitimate immigration within Europe. The latter is the result of a deliberate and agreed EU policy and part of the free movement of peoples designed to foster a ‘Europe whole and free’ after the 1989 end of the Cold War.  Indeed, as one of 3m British migrants living within the EU I am one of those self-same immigrants who has benefitted from free movement.

Equally, whilst today’s mass movement shares many of the same characteristics of historic movements there are some crucial differences.  Whilst the German interior minister’s figures if correct suggest that upwards of a million people will seek asylum in Europe in 2015 such a movement is still relatively small compared to the 500m or so inhabitants of the EU.  In past migrations the ratios between indigenous peoples and immigrants was far lower, the host populations were so much smaller, cultures and races more localised, and thus the impact far greater.

However, if such flows continue effectively unmanaged then the implications for European society and individual European societies will be very profound indeed.  It is reasonable to assume that most of the migrants will seek to head to northern and western Europe, as have many southern and eastern Europeans during the Eurozone’s now interminable financial crisis.  Indeed, one can already see the impact of recent mass immigration on those societies – for good and ill.  Resentment within indigenous populations will grow and social cohesion will suffer leading to profound policy implications. For example, de la Maizière warned yesterday that the 1985 Schengen Agreement might have to be suspended if the flows of migrants continue unchecked.

The lessons from the past? History suggests that those on the Left who believe that open door migration leads to a diverse and tolerant multicultural society that somehow strengthens said ‘society’ are utterly naïve at best. History also suggests that those on the Right who believe such flows can simply be stopped and/or reversed are equally naïve.  It is therefore vital effective management is established and quickly.  That means immigration and asylum systems that are just for migrants and seen to work by and for citizens at one and the same time.

Prospects? Sadly, through all recent crises European leaders have proved themselves spectacularly incompetent and by and large unable to take the decisive action that a ‘crisis’ by definition demands.  It is as though the appearance of EU ‘solidarity’ is more important than finding solutions.  Consequently, the EU has become an appalling talk-shop because European leaders rarely if ever agree about any course of action.

Failure to act and Europe’s migrant crisis will only deepen.  In such an event migrants will not find Europe the safe haven or the ‘better life’ magnet they had hoped for, and the growing contempt felt for Europe’s leaders by much of Europe’s population will only worsen.

As Tacitus once said: “Viewed from a distance, everything is beautiful”.


Become a member

Come under our wings and become a member for free.

Sign Up Now

Get email updates from Sage