The truth about migration

by Caspar Henderson

It has seldom been more important to get the true scale and nature of migration into perspective than in these turbulent and angry times. An extract from This Land Is Our Land, published as a Guardian Long Read on 27 August, is a good place to start. Mehta writes:

The fear of migrants is magnified by lies about their numbers; politicians and racists train minds to think of them as a horde. In all the rich countries, people – especially those who are poorly educated or rightwingers – think immigrants are a much bigger share of the population than they really are, and think that they get much more government aid than they really do.

Last year, Lights in the Distance by Daniel Trilling brought to light many stories behind the statistics and slogans to illuminate the human face of Europe’s refugee crisis of the 2010s. And Peter Gatrell’s The Unsettling of Europe, a new history of Europe’s own mass migrations in the 20th century and beyond, looks to offer an exceptionally well-informed, and informative, long term view. Commenting in The Observer, Jonathan Portes writes:

Gatrell’s nuanced and sympathetic treatment of the variety of the immigrant experience – and its impact on European societies – can…be seen as a rejoinder to two recent, well-publicised books. As HL Mencken wrote: “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” Douglas Murray, author of The Strange Death of Europe, an extended mixture of conspiracy theory and bigotry, wants some version of Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration. Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift argues for ethnic – that is, white – preference in immigration policies to preserve a supposedly threatened “white identity”.

Gatrell, however, offers no such simplicities …There are no easy answers, and The Unsettling of Europe certainly does not offer any.

Concluding his own review of The Unsettling of Europe, Daniel Trilling writes that Gatrell’s eye for detail and sensitivity makes for

a compelling account that challenges the “us” and “them” framing into which much discussion of migration is forced. Its great strength is that it treats the emotional and cultural aspects of the subject with as much respect as the historical facts and figures. Among the many vivid stories to be found here, one that sticks in my mind is that of the Swiss journalist who, when asked about Italian workers in his country in the mid-60s, wryly commented: “We asked for hands, but we got people instead.”

For a perspective on people from one of Europe’s less known migrant communities, see Meet the Somalis: The illustrated stories of Somalis in seven cities in Europe, published by The Open Society Foundations.

Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva

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