Migration is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, it is a constitutive part of humanity and has existed for thousands of years – even in Europe. This article by the migration researcher Jochen Oltmer puts migration in its historical context and gives us a better understanding of current developments.
Since the earliest days of humanity, migration has been a key element of societal change. This is why it is a myth to believe that spatial population movements – even those over great distances – are a phenomenon of the Modern Age or even the present day. Global migration on an enormous scale did not just begin with the development of today’s means of mass transport. Just like people in the Modern Age, people in the pre-Modern Age were not absolutely settled in one place. It is also a myth to believe that past migration was a linear process, i.e. from permanent emigration from one region to permanent immigration to another. Indeed, remigration, forms of circular migration, and fluctuations were and still are characteristic of local, regional, and global migration. In the past, migrants did not leave home and set out into the complete unknown, and the same is true today; movement within networks is a key feature of past and present migration. In fact, the fundamental forms of migration and conditions that lead to it have hardly changed at all over the past few hundred years.
Global migration on a larger and large scale began with the start of Europe’s global political-territorial, economic and cultural expansion in the fifteenth century. Between the sixteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, the exodus of Europeans from their home continent to other parts of the world was moderate in scope. However, in the years that followed and right up until the early twentieth century it led to sweeping changes in the make-up of populations, especially in the Americas, the South Pacific, and parts of Africa and Asia. At the end of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth centuries, the peak of European emigration coincided with the start of Europe’s history as a continent of immigration.
Since the late 1980s, historical migration research has identified an enormous variety of past migration events and can now reveal trends that cover not just several decades, but several centuries. These trends must be taken into consideration if we are to understand and explain the migratory processes and structures of the present day. The rough overview that follows focuses on the conditions, forms and consequences of spatial population movements that originated in Europe from the sixteenth century onwards. It also explores the reasons for Europe’s transformation into a continent of immigration. In this way, the aim of this article is to illustrate the important role played by Europe in global migration in the Modern Age and at the same time to make it clear that comprehensive and wide-ranging migration has been the norm throughout history.
A new beginning with far-reaching consequences
The term ‘migration’ refers to the spatial movement of people. It is used to describe those patterns of regional mobility that had far-reaching consequences for the course of migrants’ lives and which resulted in changes to social institutions. Migration can refer to the crossing of political-territorial borders and the resulting exclusion from one societal structure or the inclusion in another. That said, spatial movements within a political-territorial structure can also be described as migration. Such spatial movements put migrants in a position of having to cope with (considerably) different economic conditions and orders, cultural patterns and societal norms and structures, and to get or earn participation in the various functional areas of society. For instance, most of the spatial movements undertaken as part of the urbanisation process that began in the late eighteenth century took the form of a move from one place to another within a territory or state. Nevertheless, these migrants faced major challenges in terms of their integration into what were for them new economic segments and sectors (industry or the service sector instead of agriculture). Moreover, migration resulted in different ways of life (urban instead of rural), attitudes, and orientations.
At this time, migration could mean a unidirectional movement from one place to another, but also often involved interim goals or stages, the purpose of which was to acquire the means of continuing the migrant’s journey. Because the result of the migration process was, as a rule, open, permanent settlement elsewhere was only one of the possible outcomes of migration movements. In the case of the Federal Republic of Germany, for example, the number of people who moved there to work increased from approximately 550,000 in 1961 to about 2.6 million in 1973, when the country’s recruitment drive abroad ended. The volume of migration was considerable: between the end of the 1950s and 1973, about 14 million foreign workers came to Germany; about 11 million of them – in other words, almost 80% – returned home again.
By moving elsewhere either permanently or temporarily, migrants often sought to grasp opportunities to earn money or settle, and to improve their educational prospects. In other words, the objective of spatial movement in such cases was to increase their agency. Migration very often coincided with turning points in a person’s career biography, and with major life decisions such as choosing a partner and starting a family, launching a career, or choosing a place of work, training, and study. For this reason, the majority of migrants were young people and young adults. The ability to grasp the opportunities presented by migration was determined by the specific socially relevant characteristics, attributes, and resources of an individual or members of collectives (e.g. families, households, groups, populations). These included above all gender, age, position in the family cycle, habitus, qualifications, skills, social status (positions, classes), professional status, and membership of ‘ethnic groups’, ‘castes’, ‘races’, or ‘nationalities’, which were often associated with privileges and (birth)rights.
In view of the fact that each migrant was equipped with varying degrees of economic, cultural, social, legal and symbolic capital, a migrant’s level of autonomy – as an individual or as part of a network or collective – varied considerably. Implementation of a migration project was often the result of a negotiation process characterised by conflict or co-operation within families, family businesses, households, or networks. The agency of those who actually migrated was in some cases minimal because the objective of spatial movements for the purpose of making the most of or grasping opportunities was certainly not always to stabilise or improve the life situation of the migrants themselves. Families or other collectives of origin often sent members out to consolidate or improve the economic and social situation of the collective that remained behind, by ‘sending money home’ or other forms of money transfer. A key precondition for the success of such translocal, economic strategies was the maintenance of social links over what were in some cases long periods and great distances.
Whether a temporary, circular, or longer-term stay in a different place was seen as an individual or a collective opportunity – and the extent to which this was the case – depended largely on knowledge about migrant destinations, routes and opportunities. In order for work, training and settlement migration to achieve a specific scope and duration there had to be a constant and reliable source of information about the destination. A key element in all this was the oral or written transmission of knowledge about employment, training, marriage, or settlement opportunities by (pioneer) migrants who had already migrated. The information from these migrants was valued highly because the migrants and those back home were either related to or acquainted with each other. This led to chain migration, where migrants followed relatives and acquaintances who had migrated before them.
As a result, the regions of origin and destinations for migration were generally connected to each other by networks: relations, acquaintances, communities of origin. Loyalty and trust were key bonding forces in such networks. The significance of the transfer of information via networks of relations and acquaintances cannot be overestimated: at least 100 million private ‘letters from America’ were sent from the USA to Germany between 1820 and 1914 and circulated among relatives and acquaintances in the migrants’ places of origin.
Reliable information that cultivated the decision to emigrate and helped the migrants to implement their plan was generally only available for one specific destination, or for individual, locally limited settlement opportunities or specific job areas, which meant that potential migrants did not really have a realistic choice between different destinations. Although the individual’s migratory agency remained limited as a result, the destination offered extensive links to acquaintances and relatives, links that minimised risks and opened up opportunities: for example, 94% of all Europeans who arrived in North America around 1900 sought out relatives and acquaintances straight away, thereby making themselves less vulnerable and increasing their agency in their place of destination.
On the one hand, migrant networks offered translocal knowledge about the opportunities and risks of emigration and immigration, about safe routes, and about the mental, physical, and financial strains of the journey. At the place of destination, migrant networks offered protection and orientation in a new world, helped migrants find work opportunities and accommodation, and supported them in their dealings with authorities and state and local institutions. The more extensive the network and the more intensively relationships were cultivated within the network, the more economic and social opportunities it offered. The attractiveness of a migrant destination was measured by the size of the network to which the migrants could have recourse upon arrival and the intensity of the social relationships cultivated within the network of relations and acquaintances. For this reason, a migrant network not only increased the likelihood of more migration, it also constituted migration traditions, thereby influencing the permanency of a migration movement, which existed over long periods and in some cases over several generations.
Migrant networks were not only kept alive by communication and the mutual provision of services, they also reproduced themselves, especially through marriages (many of which were negotiated not only translocally, but at times transcontinentally), the establishment of clubs and associations, a specific culture of sociability, and also common economic activities. However, the protection and opportunities offered by migrant networks always placed social constraints and obligations on the individual. Keeping the network alive, which could be of existential significance in the context of migration, demanded loyalty and the acceptance of collective responsibility associated with doing someone a service and getting a service in return. Even though they were thousands of kilometres from home, migrants were coerced into sharing specific standards, rationales and objectives. Moreover, members of networks were subject to close social control as a result of the self-contained nature of the links to relations and acquaintances within the network. Trust was enforced, and there were many different possible sanctions involving various degrees of downgrading: the loss of reputation as a result of the loss of trustworthiness, the withdrawal of services, social isolation, and exclusion, which in the context of migration dramatically increased social vulnerability and risks and minimised the ability to grasp the opportunities presented by spatial movements.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann