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14 August 2019

Europe’s many migrant crises

Today's migrant crisis is often talked about as an anomaly. But high levels of displacement and mobility have long been routine and widespread in postwar Europe.

By Rowan Williams

Much of the familiar political discourse about migration returns obsessively to the claim that the high – and highly visible – number of migrants attempting to enter European countries in recent years represents a kind of apocalyptic anomaly. It is true that in sheer numerical terms, the statistics for people displaced for various reasons across the globe are at a peak – many being “internally” displaced in countries such as South Sudan, as a result of long-term factional violence and atrocity. But one of the major contributions of Peter Gatrell’s meticulously researched and documented survey is to remind us of the levels of displacement and mobility that were routine and widespread across Europe in relatively recent times.

To take one figure at random, East Germany in the immediate postwar period (1945-49) had to absorb more than four million ethnic Germans expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and elsewhere – the equivalent of around a quarter of the whole population of the new state (you have to imagine the UK today facing the arrival of more than 15 million extra citizens). A little later, the headlong process of decolonisation in the 1950s resulted in hundreds of thousands of colonial settlers and officials “returning” (some had actually been born in the colonies) to Europe. For example, more than a quarter of a million entered the Netherlands between 1949 and 1960 after Indonesia gained its independence. The highest and most dramatic instances of displacement and forced relocation in Europe may have been during the immediate postwar era (when the charity Christian Aid was founded just over 70 years ago its focus was the plight of refugees in Continental Europe, rather than the “developing” world), but Gatrell chronicles a pattern of instability in European populations that has continued inexorably since then. The acute challenges of the past decade or so have not been blips on the screen, but another act in an uninterrupted drama. The shameful and tragic thing is not simply the raw statistics but the conspicuous failure of European governments to learn anything from the story.

Gatrell, a professor of history at the University of Manchester, takes the notion of migration in its widest possible sense, so as to demonstrate the impossibility of reducing the problems around international mobility to a single “migrant crisis”. Alongside the postwar traumas of expulsion and resettlement, there were also efforts by many western European governments to recruit labour from abroad because of the urgency of rebuilding shattered economies.

This included not only the Windrush generation in the UK, so scandalously mismanaged then and more recently, but the drive in countries such as Germany and Sweden to attract workers from southern Europe and Turkey. Meanwhile in the Communist bloc, large-scale internal migration was pushed by the Soviet government for the same reasons, and other Warsaw Pact nations developed similar strategies for what was in effect a process of forced urbanisation. Right across the continent – and across the ideological boundaries – governments were offering both pressures and inducements for people to move to new settings, and this went hand in hand with a cavalier attitude to the well-being of migrants when they arrived.

We can disentangle at least three strands of postwar migrancy as described by Gatrell. There were those who had been forcibly displaced, either by conditions of extreme threat and violence or by deliberate (usually nationalistically influenced) governmental policy. There were the “returning” groups, who had managed the colonial projects of various states. And there was the labour force deliberately recruited by governments ambitious for economic growth and eager to take advantage of the lack of opportunity in weaker economies – which often themselves welcomed the chance to export workers whose remittances would support poor local communities.

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The one thing all these had in common was that they faced varying degrees of hostility from host populations. The routine script about migrants exploiting the benefits system, spreading social disharmony, bringing disease and crime, and so on, was in full flow in most northern European countries from the beginning of this history. The governments that had encouraged or facilitated their movements had few coherent ideas about managing and responding intelligently to the specific needs of uprooted people, and to the urgency of building new kinds of dependable community, with migrants and indigenes sharing needs and responsibilities.

Gatrell quotes the political scientist James Hollifield on the “liberal paradox” emerging in Europe by the 1980s: business wants cheap and mobile labour, electorates don’t want to share their welfare benefits. Politicians have to keep both more or less happy – which has come to mean, in the UK at least, the coexistence of public unfriendliness towards non-indigenous communities with tacit assumptions about the reservoir of vulnerable labour available to sustain the comforts of a “native” population. It’s not an edifying mixture.

It often suits the public argument to construct a migrant-related version of the deserving/undeserving poor stereotype – the “genuine” refugee as opposed to the ambitious “economic migrant” or, at worst, the “benefit tourist”. Any reader of Gatrell’s book tempted by this facile model will find it pretty difficult to sustain in the light of the nuanced analysis and granular detail offered here.

There is no disputing the conclusion that “governments have facilitated migration as much as they have worked to curb it” – because migration has regularly been seen as a necessary aspect of economic stimulus for an ambitious nation state. When migrants are held responsible for economic decline, local unemployment or unsustainable pressure on public services, this is – predictably – where the promise of frictionless growth has been disappointed and government has to handle public disappointment and resentment, which can be conveniently displaced on to the “alien”.

One of the greatest strengths of the book is Gatrell’s consistent attention to the voices of migrants themselves, not only as recorded in sociological research but in writing, drama or film. There is some poignant reflection on how the returning migrant is doubly a stranger – crystallised in a 1984 Yugoslavian film about a worker making a brief return visit to his village and finding a pair of men’s boots outside his door. He assumes his wife has taken a lover; but in fact they belong to his son, now an adult, whom he has not seen for years. So many narratives flash out the Catch-22 situations that can trap migrants of all kinds. 

Pressures to “assimilate” may strain long-term relationships in a country of origin (to which many will still hope to return, if only to be buried); but the practical and emotional solidarity of ethnic community organisations, a lifeline for many, will be interpreted as a stubborn refusal to blend in. The short-term migrant worker may be seen as a casual exploiter of the social advantages offered in a host country; but long-term settlement and full civic status will be resented as diluting national identity. Both the skilled and the less-skilled migrant will be stigmatised as taking jobs away from indigenous candidates. And so on, ad infinitum, it seems.

What is remarkable is how many migrants do in fact succeed in negotiating this tangle of stereotypes and obstacles to find a secure place in a new society. But the overall picture is not cheering, and the recycling of generalised negative tropes continues irrespective of hard analysis, in the whole range of host countries under discussion here.


The conclusions of the book are modest, mostly to do with what needs to be remembered and recognised when we are lured by the clichés so effectively dismantled by the research summarised by Gatrell. We need to recall the role of migrants (not least invited migrants) in postwar economic reconstruction throughout Europe. We need a sense of proportion about the number of refugees from outside Europe who actually come anywhere near European frontiers; a Jordanian or Tanzanian could be forgiven a mirthless smile at our feverish anxiety over the numbers of incomers. We should be aware of how the exigencies of the modern nation state have created pressures at both ends of the migration process in recent decades – post-colonial and post-imperial politics, the desire to secure a fantasised ethnic purity in new nations and anxiety over the dilution of national integrity in older ones. And we have to learn more patience with the migrant’s investment in their inherited identity, while at the same time guaranteeing that they have civic presence and entitlement in their host country. A good many scholars would add a fifth historical lesson – that European modernity began with two massive “migratory” phenomena, though we are seldom encouraged to name them in this way: the movement of European peoples to other continents as settlers and eventually rulers, and the displacement of millions of Africans through the Atlantic slave trade. Our present challenges make no sense without that profoundly shadowed background, so often blithely ignored.

All of these lessons are clear enough, but it is easy to imagine the policymaker finding them on the thin side; how are any of these significant insights to be communicated to a suspicious population and an alarmist media culture? And what are the specific choices open to governments? The harsh fact is that so long as war persists, so long as global capitalism requires cheap and mobile labour, and so long as nation states imagine their identity as simultaneously firmly fixed and deeply vulnerable, migrants will be part of the landscape and will suffer accordingly.

This is not an excuse for failing to do what can be done to avoid the worst injustices. Global market or no global market, the need for better-enforced international standards for workers’ rights is an urgent element in the picture; securing this involves a battle against immensely powerful interests, but is essential for long-term stability. Within host societies, there should be far greater clarity about the route to full civic involvement – including of course the responsibility to support the host society’s social benefits through taxation, a point which should reinforce the desirability of equipping migrants for better-paid jobs.

But this should not be made conditional on a woodenly enforced model of “assimilation”; there needs to be sensitive attention to the ways in which migrant communities express their needs, and a recognition that few if any have opted to be uprooted from their systems of meaning and networks of support. This entails some careful and intelligent learning about how the symbol systems of non-indigenous groups work; Gatrell has some very perceptive comments on the vexed issues around the dress of Muslim women and the complex motivations that can influence decisions about this within different communities. The account of the experience of “Ebru”, a woman from Turkey, brings into sharp focus some of these complexities: Ebru is divorcing her authoritarian husband, but recognises that if in this process she abandons the hijab, she will cast herself as a selfish, Westernised woman. Paradoxically (to a Westerner), she needs the solidity and authority of the traditional Muslim community in her struggle for personal emancipation.

The populations of host countries need two crucial things: opportunities to engage at local level with newcomers and “strangers” in safe environments; and the ultimate “safe environment”, which is a stable and just system of welfare provision that does not see the presence of migrants as a further threat to a shrinking supply of securities.

All this is asking rather a lot in the prevailing political climate. It presupposes an ultimate commitment to seeing national or cultural solidarity within the framework of a wider human solidarity – something that seems seriously in question these days. It is worth noting that among those bodies Gatrell mentions as regularly calling governments to account for their failures in handling migrant issues are religious networks such as the World Council of Churches. It is true that churches have repeatedly been conscripted into nationalist projects, and that grass-roots religious communities may be very differently-minded from their public leaders and representatives. But it would have to be granted that, overall, the pressure from church bodies – even, recently, in Greece, where many would have expected the hierarchy to be more conservative – has been directed towards more generous and equitable policies, on the basis of strong convictions about universal solidarity and the moral priority of guaranteeing security to vulnerable people.

This is not to say simply that churches have a better record than governments, or indeed than NGOs; but it raises the central question of how we keep alive a narrative about the interwoven character of human well-being, in the face of increasing pressure to see our interests as separable from those of others, or needing to be defended at the expense of others. There are good pragmatic reasons for taking this seriously: the well-being of Syria or South Sudan or even Mexico has a bearing on the well-being of other nations, near and far. The recent anxieties about migration show how much it has become a globally interconnected issue, to which no purely local – let alone purely national – policy can provide a resolution. But for this to have the imaginative energy needed to carry through necessary reforms and sustain necessary patience, we must have as much resource as possible in our vision of human community as a whole.

What Gatrell writes about the burgeoning of museums of migrant experience and various projects giving platforms to migrant artists and writers points to one crucial way forward. The 2018 London production of the drama The Jungle, weaving together some of the stories of the Calais camp and drawing on the skills of migrant actors, professional and non-professional, showed what could be achieved. As in so many areas, imagination – and the breakthrough into someone else’s unfamiliar perspective – is the beginning of political wisdom, the foundation of a politics that is about more than shifting problems around the board and finding new agents (usually victims) to blame.

Gatrell’s closely focused studies help us to see this set of issues as illuminating some much wider questions about the way we live now. Few readers will underestimate the urgency of those wider questions in an age of graceless fictions and dog-whistle prejudices. 

Rowan Williams is a theologian and poet. He writes on books for the New Statesman

The Unsettling of Europe: The Great Migration, 1945 to the Present
Peter Gatrell
Allen Lane, 576pp, £30

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