Europe`s migrant crisis: history`s revenge!

Volume 12, Issue 3  | 
Published 01/03/2016
Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book ‘Empire’s Child’ has just been published.


Europe has been in the grip of a `migrant` crisis for most of this year and it shows no sign of abating even as winter beckons. The line of movement of the people in question stretches from the south east of the continent, across the narrow stretch of water separating Greece from Turkey, to Calais on the French side of the English Channel, where large numbers of wannabe migrants and asylum seekers who had been camped out in makeshift shelters (dubbed `the jungle`) for a long time have in recent months been augmented by new arrivals - all desperate to get into the UK by any means, fair or foul. 

The upsurge in their numbers, around 6000 as of November, is directly attributable to the situation in Syria.  Those fleeing the violence there have joined or been joined by others, mainly from Iraq, Eritrea and Afghanistan.  These countries have long been devastated by conflict and civil war, inflicting great damage to their civic society institutions and physical infrastructures. It is little wonder that their educated and well-off middle-class people have had enough. With death and destruction all around, and the economy in ruins, they are packing their bags and leaving en masse to seek a better future for themselves and their families. They sell up everything and use their savings to pay for the hazardous journeys out of their hell-holes and eventually make it to Europe. Those who are in refugee camps or rented accommodation in the surrounding countries may be safe physically but in other respects they are subject to their host countries` restrictions on gainful employment, access to health care, education and other basic services.  So they too try to get out of there.  And then there are the opportunists from countries such as Pakistan, Gambia and Nigeria who have also thrust themselves onto the migrant trail, creating more lucrative business for people smuggling networks. 

Immigration has always remained just below the national radar of consciousness here in Britain. It surfaces every now and again for a variety of reasons, such as publication of official statistics, policy announcements, developments overseas, court cases and other facts on the ground. To say that in general public opinion is hostile towards (further) immigration is an understatement.  The sight of thousands on the march over mainland Europe has merely added to the ever-present fears of being `swamped`, aggravated by the aggressive behaviour of those pushing their way into Britain, causing frequent delays and disruptions to passenger and freight traffic across the Channel.  According to reliable sources, this year alone some 700,000 have come to Europe looking for sanctuary or jobs and another three million more people are expected to arrive in the EU within the next couple of years.

So the subject is being discussed all the time – in Parliament, in the newspapers, on radio and tv, in online and other electronic forums, and in pubs, clubs, shops, offices and private homes.  Even as the focus has shifted - from the overloaded or otherwise dodgy boats full of hopeful migrants of various descriptions crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa at the beginning of the year to those doing the same from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands and into Europe all through the summer from different original starting points and whatever their intended or eventual destination – the pros and cons of the debate have hardly changed. 

It goes like this: who can tell whether these people are genuine refugees or economic migrants?  Why can`t they fight oppression in their own countries?  Why can`t they stay in the refugee camps in neighbouring countries?  Why do they want to come to Europe?  Why can`t the wealthy Arab countries take them in?  Europe is under attack, being invaded and trampled upon by alien hordes. Its demographics will be fundamentally changed and soon become a veritable mix of foreign ethnicities, races, cultures and religions.  In particular, its Christian heritage and civilisation will be undermined by militant Muslims, and there are too many `immigrants` in our midst already.  We are a small country with limited space and can`t absorb any more, certainly not so many.  We have a housing shortage and our schools, medical and social services cannot cope.  These people are actually demanding to be let in; they are not afraid to confront or fight the border guards. Most of them appear to be young and healthy and strong and to have money and mobile phones and resort to all manner of tricks to navigate their way around feeble frontier controls, and so on!

European Migrant Crisis 2015

The counter arguments are based on conscience, history and reason: we have a moral obligation to give asylum to refugees, who actually have a legal right to claim it under international law.  This is a major humanitarian crisis.  We (meaning western countries) created the problem or the conditions giving rise to it in the first place by our long record of political interventionism, neo-colonialist foreign policies and military involvement in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan etc. The fate of these wretched people - many of whom have drowned or are left dying, injured, or stranded somewhere along the way on their arduous journeys - must surely be a concern to all of us?  In any case, with an ageing population and a low indigenous birth rate across Europe, we need an injection of fresh blood of young and economically active people to look after our longer living and ailing retirees.  After all, those who will have survived the trauma of their upheaval and every kind of danger, hardship and loss imaginable in the process would by definition have to be tough, versatile and determined to do well, whatever the odds, and therefore be potential assets to whichever country they may end up in?  And from a peculiarly British perspective, surely our government`s commitment to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over a 5 year period is a mean and miserly response, compared to the huge numbers coming to Germany, estimated to reach a total of some 1.5 million by the end of the year, quite apart from those going to Sweden and Austria?  

In fact, the overall picture is far more complex and harrowing than outlined above.  At least the plight of the refugees on the move is being documented in numerous reports, despatches, interviews and other accounts in print and audio/visual footages by journalists, researchers and aid workers as history in the making. Their heart-rending testimony (`we are humans, not animals`) of being subjected to abuse, physical ill-treatment, imprisonment or worse by the authorities in some countries while in transit is tempered only by the generosity and hospitality of many ordinary people motivated by simple humanitarian decency and concern for their welfare.

At the governmental level, European reaction has not been uniform. Germany was quick to open its doors wide to welcome the refugees, especially those from Syria, though such enthusiasm has latterly been blunted by internal protests and downright opposition as the inflow continues.  Other countries have not been so receptive and indeed some have placed severe obstacles in the path of the advancing migrants, with strident calls for their fellow EU members to share the burden.  While there is undoubtedly a large element of self-interest in Germany`s embrace of the newcomers - as a ready pool of educated, enterprising, hardworking professionals with valuable skills and a willingness to learn and better their lives to compensate for a declining domestic population of its own – it is possible that history will judge this magnanimity as an act of atonement, of a collective redressing of the horrors of the country`s Nazi past.  Now the Germans can truly hold their heads high for having done the right thing!

European Migrant Crisis 2015

On another level, if the demographic landscape of Europe is transformed, then that too will be a reversal of history – maybe history`s revenge!  How so?  Why, is it not Europe whose burgeoning populations in the Middle Ages spread across to the Americas, Australasia and parts of Africa, to violently displace the native peoples of those regions and to create new nations there in its own image?  The British and other European powers built huge empires in those new (and some old) lands, ruled over them, and squeezed them high and dry – with genocide, slavery, forced labour and other forms of collective inhumanity thrown in – but above all they kept out the `lesser` races from settling in their domains except on sufferance and as their servile props. In other words, they captured and monopolised all the best areas and resources of the world, while exploiting the rest. So what is happening in Europe now could be regarded as a 21st century version of the post-WWII phenomenon of colonial subject people arriving on metropolitan soil as immigrants – albeit with entitlement to settle as technical citizens – in other words, when the empires began to strike back as the chickens came home to roost! 

After all, taking a long view of human civilisations across the ages, migration is nothing new.  People leave, and always have left, their habitual places of abode for greener pastures elsewhere for any number of reasons: persecution, war, want, adventure, poverty, lack of opportunity and, now increasingly, spatial and climatic necessity.  In that sense the present mass migratory movement into Europe is no more than part of an unending historical continuum.

Absent from the British discourse in particular though is an awareness or understanding of its own colonial history: `we are here because you were there`!  The current `migrant crisis` however has rekindled past associations with the very concept of immigration.  `There are too many immigrants already`, while ostensibly referring to the open-door entry of migrants from other EU countries, and now the spectre of Syrian and other refugees, also subconsciously brings into play the legitimacy of the earlier post-war waves of non-white immigrants from the Caribbean, South Asia and Africa (West and East) who have of course long since become a fixture in the UK population profile as Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities, though their visibility factor still remains open to much negative stereotyping. This renewed impetus on immigration has thus become intertwined with the novel dynamic of identity politics popularised by the UK Independence Party, which had tirelessly campaigned for a referendum on Britain`s membership of the EU on the sole contentious issue of freedom of movement within the Union. That referendum must now by law be held before the end of 2017, though it may happen earlier.

What the Brits fail to understand is what migration - the whole process of uprooting from one`s country of domicile to move to another – entails, especially where there are racial and cultural factors involved.  Rooted in their imagination are often ill-informed or prejudiced assumptions about immigrants – their ability to speak English, that they do not integrate with the locals or that they are benefit scroungers. What they do not appreciate is that for them historically migration was largely state-sponsored or subsidised - in the form of grants of land (in the colonial era), the £10 assisted passages to Australia, government or other secure jobs.  Most importantly they were going to English speaking countries with a common language and a shared cultural background with kith and kin. Remember `There is still ample room for more white people`, from the Kenya Settlement Handbook 1945? The term `economic migrants` was not in vogue then – but that is what in effect they were: seeking a better life.  In contrast, third world migrants into Europe have to make their own way into the host societies, and most of them do so successfully.

In the present context therefore, the oft-drawn distinction between refugees and economic migrants has become blurred and largely irrelevant against the background of a new world order of trans-continental movements of people due to any number of related causes - under development, over population, corrupt governments, ethnic discrimination etc.  Indeed, while right now it is Europe that is under the torch light, what about the traditional immigrant receiving nations of North America, Australasia and South America, which have vast territories and relatively sparse populations? Is it not high time they were challenged to open up their doors more widely, and a redistribution of the entire world`s population was placed on the global agenda - in line with climate change, fair international trade and tariff protocols, and space exploration?  It ain`t likely to happen soon, but at least the realisation that universal mass migration is here to stay has become an incontrovertible fact of life, even if Donald Trump would like to deport 11 million undocumented migrants from his country if he becomes the next US President! Is the man real?

European Migrant Crisis 2015Europe`s `migrant crisis` however is a continually changing scenario.  Indeed, as I finished writing this, the breaking news was that an agreement had been reached between some 60 European and African leaders at a summit in Malta, involving establishment of a multi-billion Euro trust fund as an inducement to the African countries to curtail the unremitting flow of illegal migrants from there to Europe, in return for the EU to open up more legal channels for Africans to move to Europe.  It all seemed too little, too late, as the genie was already out of the bottle!

And then, as if that was not enough, the Paris bombing outrage happened. It has heightened fears of terrorists gaining entry into Europe masquerading as refugees. Will anything have changed by this time next year? Watch this space.

Ramnik Shah © 2015 | 27/11/2015 

More in this category: « The Return of Minorityman

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