Reflections on migration from a historical perspective

Photo by Alette Latorre, rscj

Migration has been part of us since the early beginnings of humankind: about 60,000 years ago humanity, which originated in East Africa, wandered to the Arabian peninsula, and from there spread to all corners of the world, first along the shores of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, on to Australia and Indonesia, and later to colder climates in Europe, central Asia, and eventually via the Bering Land Bridge to the Americas.

Throughout the centuries, humans have uprooted themselves, have started anew in far-away places and have shown great resilience in surviving by repeatedly beginning from zero. Looking at the history of migration, we see recurring patterns of exploration of new territories, people settling down in order to make a living, and a transformation of trade from a tool to meet one’s own basic needs into a tool for making a profit.

But once flourishing, these new colonies required a cheap labor force, and that set in motion the flow of un-free migration in the form of slavery and indentured labor. By the end of the 19th century, more than ten million Africans had been forcibly taken to the Americas as slaves, while indentured servants – people who contract to work for an employer for a set number of years after which they are free – brought people from India to Africa and Japanese to Brazil and Peru. In history, as in today’s world, the movement of peoples is a mixture of voluntary and involuntary uprooting.

Migration within Europe was common place at the end of the 19th century, as people moved freely and unhindered from one country to another. Britain in particular was a welcome destination, away from poverty, unemployment, famine and persecution. Managing migration through passports and border controls was introduced in Europe around the time of World War I, and gradually spread, both in scope and geographically.

Post-World War II economies in Europe, USA and Australia had a great need for laborers, setting in motion the movement of people from Turkey and Morocco to countries such as Germany and Holland in the guest-worker programs of the 1960s. Similar movements of people occurred from England to Australia, and, as decolonization got underway, from Africa to France and Belgium.

Could it be that we are in the middle of yet another wave of this pattern? As globalization took root in the 1990s, and with it economic interdependence facilitated by the transportation and telecommunications revolutions, the world became smaller for those who were on the inside track, leaving behind the marginalized who were not. Today the deep inequalities within and among countries are widely recognized as one of the root causes of migration. Yet, at the same time, there remains the real hunger for cheap labor, which creates the paradox of our time: we keep migrants out despite the fact that we need them to do certain work that we are either unable or unwilling to do. And when really necessary, we allow the migrants in; yet we remain silent when, as modern slaves, they are sold and exploited in our own cities.

Cecile Meijer, rscj
NGO Office
October 2012

Much of the data was drawn from a book by Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan, Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future, Princeton University Press, 2011.