Humanity on the move

‘An ominous development in the “unsettling” of Europe is the increasing restriction on what may be said about migration, and the increasingly strict policing of language’


The contentious subject of migration seldom makes for easy reading. This book is different. Despite its intimidating length it is an elegantly written page-turner, where the author’s encyclopaedic knowledge is leavened with captivating—if often tragic—personal migration histories and quotations.

A sympathetic but not sentimental account is reinforced by statistical data. Writing about migration too often betrays the bias of the writer, usually in the form of uncritical endorsement of the nobility of its motivation and the benevolence of its effects. Although the author’s sympathies are evident, this account inspires trust.

Gatrell offers an “unfinished” history of European migration from within its borders and from without over seven decades, connecting the Continent’s big events with the story of people on the move. He begins with an arresting image of the plight of Germany in 1945, a country in chaos, witnessing vast movements of people both forced and voluntary. The problem took years to untangle, with some people mewed up in camps until the 1960s.

Then too, were the victims of post-imperial tristesse, the eight million people of European origin forced to leave former colonial territories of France, Spain and Portugal in the face of local resistance and the collapse of domestic authoritarian regimes, most of them “returning” to a Europe that they did not know and which did not appreciate them. By the late 1970s 15 per cent of Portugal’s population were retornados. Loyal colonial soldiers—Moluccans, Harkis— faced an ungrateful welcome. In the 1950s overpopulation was a recurrent theme exacerbated at least in the short run by the expellees from the new Poland and the migrants of decolonisation.

These half-forgotten dramas were to me the most interesting of all. Elements of this were re-enacted in communist Europe. Many fled the new regimes, notably in the demographic haemorrhage from East Germany, until barbed wire, watchtowers and minefields closed the border. Few wished to enter: gefängnis Europa, not festung Europa. But within, while external migration was suppressed, extensive managed internal migration rearranged the population on Marxist lines, favouring city over country, industry over agriculture. This forced urbanisation and other factors contributed substantially to the “state socialist mortality syndrome” of chronic high death rates which persisted in the East until the early 1990s.

Later chapters cover calmer waters; the peaceful if unplanned and unlooked-for movement of former colonial subjects making use of their entitlements through the Commonwealth or the Francophonie to improve their lives in the “mother country”. Often resented by the baffled natives, employers found the newcomers useful. That movement overlapped with accelerating labour migration, both organised and opportunistic as post-war economic growth outstripped Europe’s own labour resources. The latter were culturally restricted as well as demographically limited, even today female workforce participation in some countries remains relatively modest. Starting in 1946 in Belgium, then Germany as the GDR ran dry, guest-worker schemes cast their net ever wider to the edge of Europe, as far as Yugoslavia and Turkey until the oil crisis of 1973 and the ausländerstop. By then seven million Turks had entered Germany. While many returned as scheduled, many did not, profiting from growing awareness and power of human rights considerations reinforced by international courts. Although labour migration was temporarily reduced, family migration had been given a firm demographic and institutional basis. That, with resumed labour migration and asylum migration, has sustained growing migration for poorer countries, European and non-European, ever since and created today’s large, growing and permanent minority populations.

Southern Europe has seen both sides of the migration coin. Until the 1980s, it provided emigrants for labour-hungry wealthier neighbours, but has more recently struggled to accommodate the relative novelty of very large population movements from unfamiliar regions: people from eastern Europe and the Middle East heading for a western Europe that does not want them. A dual challenge of asylum and recession. A very important if inconclusive chapter spotlights integration policy and multiculturalism, where there has been significant divergence between European countries (compare France and Britain) and has sometimes radically changed direction, as in the Netherlands. None has been conspicuously successful. The book gives special focus to the EUs attempts to manage migration, the troubled developments since 2008 and the fracture of EU solidarity under the pressure of migration These more recent developments need little repetition here.

The author underlines four themes. How central migration has been to the history of post-war Europe right from the beginning and how Europe has been shaped by it. How multi-layered migration has been, how open-ended, how diverse. How central issues of identity have been where migration is concerned and how nation states underlie so many migration crises. And how protection of refugees has at last been put on a firm footing. For the author, and indeed for most commentators and economists, it is an optimistic story of the migrant contribution to economic betterment, improved welfare, and expanded consumption, while enriching European social and cultural life, transforming western Europe into a permanently more diverse and cosmopolitan society. Less approval is bestowed on the European states involved, which are blamed for provoking many of the migration crises. Among other matters the British boast of a “proud tradition of welcome” for refugees is repeatedly punctured.

None can read this book, despite the hardships and disappointments that it documents, without being fascinated by this immense saga and generally uplifted by its story. But some questions remain, not nessarily questions which the author could encompass even in a book of this scope. While there are numerous examples of the responses—friendly and otherwise—of local people to the newcomers, larger scale effects are little considered. For example, has the movement of immigrants to various towns and cities saved them from depopulation and therefore economic decline, as a recent report claims for the UK? Or did the arrival of newcomers provoke the “white flight” in the first place, a phenomenon well documented in the US but provoking an embarrassed shuffling of academic feet in Britain.

The disaffection with migration felt by most European populations most of the time is not charted. Research by Eurostat and others has shown that demographic trends in most western European countries point to the growth of minority populations to become a very large proportion of the population. Eventually (if they remain distinct as minorities) and if migration continues they will comprise a majority of the total population even with convergent fertility. This is the official forecast in the US to take place before 2050, in the UK unofficially forecast perhaps shortly before the end of the century. In other countries such as Sweden such thinking appears to be effectively off limits. An ominous development in the “unsettling” of Europe is the increasing restriction on what may be said about migration, and the increasingly strict policing of language. Such unintended transformations are surely worthy of note, even if only to be applauded on grounds of diversity.

Professor Gatrell gives a cautious endorsement of the economic and other benefits arising from large-scale migration. Without demanding even more pages for an already large book, a brief discussion of this contentious topic was surely desirable citing  the work of (e.g.) Borjas, Dustmann, Portes and Rowthorn. None is mentioned. “Happiness” is gaining ground as an indicator of welfare, rather than the rightly maligned GDP indicator. At the end of the day, claims about prosperity, cultural enrichment and all the rest of the benefits of migration might boil down to “happiness”. Has migration made the immigrants more happy? Has it made the natives more happy? Even the briefest reflection on the discontents of diversity throughout Europe might suggest that if the question could be answered at all, then the answer might well be “no”.   


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