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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 March 2004, 10:30 GMT
Migration: A historical perspective
By Dr Marlou Schrover
History Department, Leiden University, Netherlands

In today's discussions about migration and its consequences many politicians and others seem to suffer from severe amnesia.

Migration is frequently labelled as a recent phenomenon. There are, however, few people in the world who need to go back further than three generations in their family tree to stumble upon a migrating ancestor.

In migration history, the poor, the desperate, and the exceptional have attracted more attention than other migrants
This is especially true for the populations of North and South America, which is virtually completely made up of migrants or their descendants.

Some people, who know and realise that migration has been part of history since the beginning of mankind, argue that today's migration is different from that in other times such as the Early Modern Period (1580-1796).

Migration today, it is believed, is more common, and people travel over greater distances, so that cultural differences are larger, as are the problems.

All these assumptions may be common, but they are not correct.

Smaller differences

In 1620, in the Dutch Golden Age, one in 10 people in the Netherlands was foreign born. In Dutch towns such as Amsterdam this could be as much as one in four.

It is true that in Early Modern Europe the geographical distances that were spanned were often shorter than many migrants travel today. However, a migrant today can fly within a day from one part of the globe to another.

When we measure travel not in kilometres, but in hours, differences reverse.

Each time new groups of migrants arrived, they were considered even more problematic and different then their predecessors
The duration of the journey was much larger in earlier periods. People walked or sailed for weeks in the 19th Century to get from origin to destination.

Changes in communication - telephones, television and the internet - have made cultural differences between regions smaller than they were ever before.

In migration history, the poor, the desperate, and the exceptional have attracted more attention than other migrants. But these other migrants were the most numerous.

Recording migration

People have fled from hunger, war and persecution. They have been driven away, captured and shipped against their will.

Many more, however, have moved simply because they thought and hoped that life would be a little bit better elsewhere.

The migration of the poor, the desperate, and the exceptional migrants has left more traces in archives.

For the poor this was because "their" poverty, was "our" problem.

When the French influence swept over Europe in the 19th Century, it was feared that French manners would weaken the spines of the young men of other nations
As a result attempts were made to find out what church or community could be held responsible for the poor migrant. Archival sources are the result of these attempts.

The arrival of relatively large groups of refugees within a short period triggered the imagination and sympathy of the members of the receiving society, and as a result left traces in archives.

The migration of men has been better recorded than that of women.

Departing men were seen as a greater loss (to the nation, to the community, to the army, to taxes) and arriving men as a greater threat.

As a result the migration of women has been described much less than that of men, although they have not migrated less.

Fear

If we restrict ourselves for a moment to the European context, it can be said that most migrants, if not systematically isolated over long periods of time, blended into the receiving society.

Their children and definitely their grandchildren were no longer regarded as "foreign".

Over time, the settled population has feared that newcomers would dilute the original culture, spoil the morals, steal their women (not their men of course) and bastardise the language.

Newcomers were always set apart in some sense.

In the Early Modern Period every migrant, from within or outside national boundaries, was recognisable as a foreigner by speech and dress.

All foreigners were officially discriminated against.

Foreigners had to pay fees before they were allowed to settle in a town, and had to pay another fee before they were allowed to join the guilds, and to work in a certain profession.

Furthermore, cities threw up barriers for people of a certain faith.

Some regions discriminated Catholics, others Protestants, almost all discriminated Jews.

Migrants brought techniques from one country to another, encouraged trade through their contacts and opened up new markets
Most migrants were looked upon with fear.

At the start of the 19th Century, when the French influence swept over Europe, it was feared that French manners would weaken the spines of the young men of other nations.

Fear of the Irish hoards and The Yellow peril, were followed by widespread waves of Prusso-phobia (fear of the Prussians) when the German unification kicked off.

Pleas were made to restrict further immigration of Germans to countries like Denmark, France and the Netherlands, and to evict those already present.

Yet children and grandchildren of migrants were, as a rule, no longer seen as a problem.

This is because, each time new groups of migrants arrived, they were considered even more problematic and different then their predecessors.

Short-lived clubs

Migrants brought techniques from one country to another, encouraged trade through their contacts and opened up new markets.

They introduced new foods, which within one generation became staple foods of the receiving society.

When Pakistani women in today's Norway say that they have adjusted their menu to the Norwegian eating culture, they mean that they serve their children traditional Norwegian fish balls, as well as pasta and pizza.

With the German migrants of the 19th Century the Christmas tree - considered to be very German, pagan and Catholic at the same time - became popular world-wide and entered into the households of people who can claim no German ancestry.

Fear of migrants rests upon the fear of change, and especially changes to culture
Migrating English engineers at the end of the 19th Century introduced football to the European continent, and within one generation this sport stopped being typically British.

Gymnastic clubs, semi-political organisations set up by the German Turners fleeing from the failed German revolution of 1848, likewise stopped being German before the end of that century.

All migrants have set up their clubs and societies where they could be among themselves, speak their native language and keep to their customs.

With a few exceptions these clubs and societies did not outlive the generation of the migrants' children.

Fear of migrants rests upon the fear of change, and especially changes to culture. Culture is, however, not a fixed concept.

Cultures change continuously over time. The cultures as we know them today are the result of centuries of migration.


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