Road to Europe: The 2015 Migration Crisis

About this Episode

Guests
Theodora Dragostinova, Robin Judd, Steven Hyland

Over the past months, the news media has presented dramatic scenes of desperate people trying to reach Europe by embarking on flimsy boats in Turkey and Greece, crossing barbed wire fences in Bulgaria and Hungary, catching rides in overcrowded trains in Macedonia, and sleeping in public squares in Serbia and elsewhere. But many more refugees find themselves in Middle Eastern countries like Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon. This is hardly the first time that Europe or the Middle East has experienced mass migration. And all of the migrants in these two regions are but a small proportion of the total number of migrants across the globe. Locals are divided; while some greet the refugees with water, blankets, and toys, others utter ugly words, emphasize their own economic vulnerability, or simply turn their eyes away. Join guests Theodora Dragostinova, Robin Judd, and Steven Hyland as they discuss today’s refugee and migrant crisis in not only Europe but in the Middle East, too—all within the much larger context of global migration history.

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Cite this Site

Leticia R. Wiggins, Patrick R. Potyondy , "Road to Europe: The 2015 Migration Crisis" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
October, 2015
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/road-europe-2015-migration-crisis?language_content_entity=en.
October, 2015

Transcript

Leticia Wiggins 

This is History Talk, the history podcast that explains today's biggest news. I'm your host, Leticia Wiggins.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And I'm your host, Patrick Potyondy. Over the past several months, the world has observed dramatic scenes of desperate people trying to reach Europe by embarking on flimsy boats into Turkey and Greece, crossing barbed wire fences in Bulgaria and Hungary, catching rides in overcrowded trains in Macedonia, and sleeping in public squares in Serbia and elsewhere.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Locals in European member states are divided. While some greet the migrants, or in many cases, refugees, with water, blankets and toys, others yell ugly words, point to their own economic struggles, or simply turn their eyes away. This is hardly the first time that Europeans have experienced the pains and prospects of mass migration, nor the first time that we have seen the global movement of people from the Middle East.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

On today's History Talk, produced by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, we discuss the migration or refugee crisis in Europe in the context of a much larger history of global migration with guests Theodora Dragostinova, Robin Judd, and Steven Hyland, as they illustrate there's much more to this issue than the news media is reporting.

 

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova 

Hello, my name is Theodora Dragostinova. I am a native of Bulgaria and a professor of modern European history at The Ohio State University, where I teach courses on Eastern Europe, nationalism, migration, communism, the Cold War, among others.

 

Dr. Robin Judd 

Hi, my name is Robin Judd. I am a professor of Jewish and European history here at The Ohio State University, where I teach courses in Jewish history, gender history, European history, and American history. And my research concerns the migration of European Jewish survivors to Canada, the United States, and Britain.

 

Steven Hyland 

I'm Steven Hyland. I'm an assistant professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Wingate University. I teach world history and Latin American history and a variety of courses that look at the phenomenon of global migration.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Great. Thank you, everybody, for joining us today. We appreciate it. So to begin, in a few sentences, what do you see is happening today in the migration crisis? What are the most important events and processes? And what is the core essence of these events? And Theodora Dragostinova, we'd like you to start us off here.

 

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova 

So it depends how you define today's migration crisis and which crisis exactly we're talking about. 2014, there were sixteen million refugees and displaced persons worldwide. Are we talking about the contemporary, I mean, the current refugee crisis in Europe, which perhaps has peaked at about one million people, and how does that compare globally to the rest of the migration movements that we see? I assume we're talking mainly about the migration crisis in Europe today. So I want to sketch out four processes that have really converged in this current refugee crisis. First of all, we know that the Mediterranean has always been a major point of human contact. What we are seeing today, people crossing the Mediterranean, looking for safety, is nothing new. Second, we have to remember that we have global integration processes going on and what we really see today is how contradictory globalization is. Third, what is very clearly happening here is the manifestation of the failed policies of Western intervention in other parts of the world, which are becoming more and more clear, in this migration, our major source of this migration crisis. And finally, we also have the uneven process of European integration, which is very clear through this migration crisis. And combined with a bloody civil war that is going on in one corner of the world, we very clearly see this refugee crisis develop out of a very objective factor. So we don't have an invasion, we don't have a flood, we have a very clear patterns that have developed to cause this migration crisis.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Anything to add from Robin or Steven?

 

Dr. Robin Judd 

It seems as if we need to remember a few things. First, that there's a difference between a refugee and migrant. I think today we'll be talking a little bit about today's refugee crisis, as compared to sort of a question about immigration more generally. Second, we live in a world where we are hyper aware of many things going on in many different places and at many different times. And as such, we are much more sensitive to and have much more nuanced information about what's happening in the world vis-à-vis the refugee crisis.

 

Steven Hyland 

That's great. And the only thing that I would like to add is that, again, I think migration is a phenomenon that can, at one and the same time, reflect what's going on in terms of global processes, but tells us very much about the sending zones and the receiving zones around the world.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And so, Steven, this isn't the first time that we've seen a significant wave of migration out of the Middle East. Can you let us know how this explosion of migration fits into longer term patterns of migration of the Middle East?

 

Steven Hyland 

Sure, what I'll do is I'll kind of focus towards the end of the nineteenth century and then rapidly bring us up to the present. But what you had in the cases where Syria, Lebanon is today, it formed the heart of the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire. And towards the end of the nineteenth century, there were two phenomenon that were going on. One is the Ottoman Empire contracted, you had large numbers of refugees that were coming from lands that were lost and being resettled throughout Syria and Lebanon, primarily Syria, but elsewhere throughout the Ottoman Empire. At the same time that was going on, there was large-scale, voluntary immigration, departing primarily from Lebanon and Syria as well, but elsewhere, you know, down in the areas around Jerusalem and Nablus and these sorts of places, as well. And that was something that continued through World War One. In the years after the Second World War, what we saw is a lot of regional migration. So you had a lot of Egyptians and Yemenis and Syrians that move to the Gulf, to the oil producing states of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, the Emirates and Bahrain. At the same time, you had large numbers of North African Arabs that were moving into Europe, part of labor regimes, labor agreements that were created by former colonial powers, be it France, Germany and whatnot. And more recently, you know, once we got into the 1980s, with some of the wars that took place in Iraq, or I guess, Gulf War One that led to large-scale immigration out of those, talking about the deportation of one million Yemenis as well as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians that took place. Palestinians were targeted as well. They were viewed as subversive. And so you always had large scale movement of peoples, but it reflected what the particular political and economic situations were in those moments.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Do you feel like compared to today's situation that you see more of a kind of continuation of past events? Or do you see this as kind of a break with some of that past?

 

Steven Hyland 

I mean, in terms of people fleeing conflict, I mean, you do have that connection with the late nineteenth century in the contraction of the Ottoman Empire, but in terms of people who left Syria and Lebanon, that was largely voluntary, That was, I mean, it was a cultural feature, where you had in the case of Mount Lebanon, which is the mountain range that overlooks Beirut, you had one quarter of the population that was living outside of it on the eve of World War One and 18 percent of the regional population was living outside it, and that was actually comparable to the Italian diaspora. But again, that was largely voluntary in nature. So when we talk about Syrians today, as well as Iraqis today, I do think that there's an important distinction between this wave of people and the wave from the era of mass migration a century ago.

 

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova 

So if we are going to revisit the Ottoman Empire, the end of the Ottoman Empire was accompanied with the mass movement of people. One scholar has used the term, "unmixing," to indicate the scale of the population movement that occurred during this time period. I'm thinking more about the World War One period, which unleashed a huge migration wave in the entire area. And in fact, in some of these areas, these movements, these migration movements, this refugee crisis, lasted more than ten years because they also go back to the Balkan Wars and they go into the 1920s. The first case of a forced population movement of a compulsory population exchange, in fact, occurred in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire between Turkey and Greece in 1923, when more than two million individuals were mandated to leave their places of birth and resettled to the other country. So we have a lot of such, and we have many such examples. And those forced population movements were executed under the supervision of the Western powers. So I do want to return here to an earlier point that I made, that many of the complex processes that occurred in this area were the direct result of Western intervention in these areas. And this legacy, this historical legacy continues to inform the way populations are experiencing Western interventions in their countries today.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Many people are describing this as the greatest movement of people in Europe since World War Two, and we just want to know, is it? And also getting to the kind of base of Europe's peoples and governments, how are they handling these issues of immigration after the war? And, Robin, we'll throw this question to you.

 

Dr. Robin Judd 

So first of all, we have to remember that in today's refugee crisis, many of the individuals who are displaced, are displaced within Syria. And then there are millions others, right. I mean, Steve may be much more familiar with the numbers, or Theodora. But my understanding is that there are eleven million Syrians who have fled their homes because of war, right? Seven million displaced within Syria, four million are refugees outside of Syria. And of the four million, about 90 percent of these refugees are in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, right? So many of the refugees, not all, but many of them are not in Europe. Many of them are in Europe. Certainly in the aftermath of the Second World War, even sort of as the Second World War was happening, we have a refugee crisis. The refugee crisis, many would argue, began even before the war breaks out in 1939, right, but rather begins in the early 30s. Some even argue in the late 20s, as there are increasing countries moving to the right, and individuals no longer feeling safe in their homes. Certainly, today's refugee crisis parallels, has many historical parallels with the refugee crisis of the post-war period. Are we yet at the same numbers? No, not yet. I don't think so. Since they're not, perhaps yet in Europe, or the millions of them are not yet in Europe. I mean, there are eleven million people or so who are displaced in the aftermath of the Second World War within the European continent. How the nations of the world dealt with the European refugee crisis of the Second World War was multifold. Beginning in, really in 1943, we have the creation of UNRRA the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which is revisited in 1946 when it becomes the IRO, the International Refugee Organization. But it takes a very long time. Some argue it never gets completed to solve the refugee crisis of the Second World War. There are over a decade's worth of interventions to help move the refugees of Europe, all the while sort of creating international laws that set out first what a refugee is, right? I mean, that's sort of the definition of a refugee as part of this post-World War Two period, right. It's the Geneva Convention and refugees in 1951, that not only define refugees, but I think in some ways, even more importantly, and certainly for today's conversation, right, prohibit their forcible return to their countries of refuge. And I think going back to something that Theodora, you know, began us with, we have to sort of recognize that integration is not something that happens right away, and second, that this refugee crisis, and the institutions that either will kind of support it or that will make it even more complicated, are institutions that have a very deep historical origin.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Steven, anything to add to that?

 

Steven Hyland 

The only thing that I would add to what Robin pointed out is that yes, the concentration of Syrian refugees are in the countries that border Syria currently. And one of the great ironies that I find of this is that they're the ones who are bearing the brunt of this refugee crisis, but they're also the same countries that aren't complaining about the refugee crisis.

 

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova 

And one more thing I would like to add, if we're talking about parallels with World War Two or rather, comparisons to World War Two and assertions that a certain refugee crisis is the biggest since World War Two. The one that bears the closest resemblance is really the Yugoslav War refugee crisis of the 1990s, when you have close to two million internally displaced persons and refugees flee Yugoslavia during mainly the Bosnian War, but those who, they're refugees from other parts of Yugoslavia. And what is clear, is that similarly to today, European countries were completely unprepared to meet the challenge, to deal with the challenge to accommodate people. There was a patchwork of different responses by the different European countries to the Yugoslav crisis. There were various experimentations throughout the war, how exactly to deal with these refugees. Some of them were given temporary humanitarian protection status, and then they were encouraged to go back to Yugoslavia after the end of the war. I suspect that something similar will happen today with some of the refugees. So perhaps we actually might be more helpful for us to look closer to our current moment to understand where Europe is today rather than go back to historical precedents. I mean, definitely, we can learn a lot from those dynamics that have manifested themselves in history. But we also have very, you know, contemporary, basically parallels that might be more helpful to think about how Europe today could be handling some of those crisis.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Do some of those more contemporary parallels help us explain why some European countries have reacted differently from other ones today. So for example, Hungary has gotten some press for building walls and shuttling migrants either across this country one way or the other, or Germany has been lauded for more or less offering a more warm welcome.

 

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova 

So that's a loaded question. I am going to talk about the part of Europe that I know the best, that is Eastern Europe, and Eastern Europe has a long history of complicated relationship to its linguistic, religious, and national minorities. What I'm seeing today, this hostility to religious difference, to a national difference, is not anything that is surprising me, given the history of the region where there have been waves upon waves of explosions of unwanted populations from the establishment of those nation-states in the beginning of the twentieth century up until today, and all of the tensions of that come with, you know, the presence of national minorities, and the history of that presence, complicated the way the citizens of Eastern Europe have reacted to the current crisis. The different groups of national sovereignty rule the way their governing elite handle those crisis.

 

Dr. Robin Judd 

Just to add one or two more things, Theodora highlighted this question of sovereignty, I think, tied with that when we're looking at some of the countries of Central, Western, and Eastern Europe, we also have to think about what is the place of citizenship and notions of membership in each of these countries? How is that question of citizenship and membership, sometimes those are the same thing, sometimes they're quite different, how have they evolved over time? How have they developed? I mean, in the case of Germany, they've had the opportunity to revisit the question of citizenship in the aftermath of unification. And so that might help us understand a little bit better as to why Germany may be at the forefront of welcoming these refugees into its borders. The other thing that she pointed out, that should be highlighted, is questions of economic stability. And, you know, certainly it's easier for us to understand why those countries that are at economic risk, why they may respond a certain way. Sometimes it's harder for us to understand why countries that are experiencing economic stability aren't acting in the way in which we would expect them to.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And, Steven, a question occurs to me about how countries in the Middle East have received some of these migrants and refugees? And if if there's kind of similar themes going on in those nations as are going on in Europe?

 

Steven Hyland 

It's a good question. And it's difficult and complicated because there is some sort of precedent, right? You have Palestinian camps from the '48 War and '67 War in Jordan, in Syria, and in Lebanon. In the case of Jordan and Syria, before the Civil War broke out in Syria, Palestinians had economic rights. You know, they could start businesses, they could work in the labor market and stuff like that. But Palestinians in Lebanon simply could not. They were forbidden by Lebanese law from entering into the labor markets, legally, and so on and so forth. So it's unclear to me, I don't know how that law been applied to Syrian refugees. Certainly, I think there's an immediate need just to address the basic needs of these people, but whether or not they're integrating into local labor markets. I don't know where that stands at the moment or what sorts of laws have been passed in that regard. So some have been more welcoming and that's also, I think, a response in the terms of the number, there's a million and a half, or more than a million in Lebanon. Lebanon by itself as a country of only 3 million people. So we're talking about one out of almost every four people in Lebanon are now a Syrian refugee, whereas it's significantly less than Jordan, where it's only one in 12 people are a Syrian refugee. So that's certainly going to play into the Lebanese angst towards the number of Syrians that are currently inside their borders.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

I'm also wondering if, speaking of this, you know why countries have reacted differently, and I'm wondering if the European Union has complicated the reaction here or if it's made it better than it would have been otherwise?

 

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova 

There are no common laws in the European Union governing, I mean, the way asylum law is applied. I mean, that is basically a matter of national sovereignty -

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Okay.

 

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova 

- And each state has a different set of laws. Plus, in general, the way the international community handles refugees is that you have to examine each case individually. So each individual, the way I understand it, according to the 1951 convention, has the right under international law to apply for asylum and it has to be determined on a case-by-case basis. So I think it's very difficult to have any common policies.

 

Dr. Robin Judd 

My understanding of partly what's made the EU piece a bit more complicated is the nature in which, when people petition for asylum, which is to say, one is supposed to petition for asylum at the moment that one enters the country, right. And so once they've entered into a European country, then they're part of the EU and now they're petitioning for asylum. And there are some countries that therefore don't want the refugees to petition for asylum there and would like for them to leave as quickly as possible and petition for asylum elsewhere. In that sense, I think the EU perhaps does make it more complicated, perhaps not. But certainly, for us as observers, we often imagine the EU as some sort of monolith. Oh, it's part of the European Union, and therefore, everyone should be behaving the same way. And in fact, that is exactly not the case, right? That we have many, many different countries with many different histories and many different sets of laws.

 

Steven Hyland 

The one thing I'd like to add is yes, I think one of the EU policies that does complicate it, it's called the Dublin System. So if a person is going to apply for asylum in the EU, by the Dublin rule, or the Dublin System, they have to do it in the first EU country that they set foot in. And so if most of these people are traveling through the Balkans on their way to Germany, in many instances, the first EU country they pass through is Hungary. And that may also be playing into why Hungary is making the decisions that they are.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Based on what we've learned from the history of migration and refugees today, on this show, how should European countries develop and implement their policy towards these migrants? Is there anything that we can we can try to learn from this?

 

Dr. Robin Judd 

What I would say is, I push back a little bit on the question and say if anything, what we should learn is that we shouldn't be so triumphalist. And first, that we should recognize that in the world in which we live today, we're all responsible for pushing our legislators to develop smart strategic humane laws around refugees, we should be aware of our own country's histories around refugees. And so the first thing I would say is, that one of our lessons of the Second World War is that the US didn't fulfill even its quota. And so, we should sort of know our own policies. So that would that would be the first thing and the second thing I would say is, you know, going back to something that Theodore said earlier, I mean, these processes take a very long time, and that there shouldn't be an expectation that, it's October now, that by November, everything's going to be solved. That, if anything, what we've learned from the Second World War, in addition to that first piece that I mentioned earlier about the lack of triumphalism is that, that these are very complicated processes. And they're going to take a tremendous amount of support systems to solve.

 

Steven Hyland 

One final thing I'd like to say is the laws that will be put in place can only shape migration flows, right? There's a prominent historian who looks at migration in Latin America, and he says, "Laws don't matter in terms of migration. Migrants are going to go where migrants are going to go." Now, I'm not as flamboyant as that. But I do think that it's very difficult to regulate or regularize the flow of people. People will find places. They'll find, you know, black labor markets to integrate into. Even the most progressive laws that we pass will have perhaps unintended consequences, but even the most capricious laws, draconian laws won't resolve the problem either.

 

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova 

So, if we look for the lessons of history, I just want to point out like three things that we see happen over and over again in the past. First, refugees and immigrants are always a small portion of the population of the host country, with some exceptions. So if we take the current number of refugees in Europe, which is estimated to be about 800,000 individuals who have arrived this year, out of a population of 750 million, which is a population of the European Union. These people don't even register statistically, they are under one percent. If we even take Germany, which is at about 82 million population, the challenges are there. But this is a large country and a prosperous country that can deal with these sort of populations. So I don't think, I think that in the media, there is always the tendency to dramatize some of these events. We do need to take the facts for what they are. Second, historical research also shows us that very often, after such refugee crisis occur, a large portion of the refugees tend to return back to their homes, because many people prefer to go back to what they know and to try and reestablish the prior networks, then start life anew. So if conditions allow it, many people will try to return or at least they will try to go closer to home. And third, there's a lot of speculation out there whether this is, Robin rose this question, whether this is a refugee or a migrant crisis. And what history teaches us really, is that it's very difficult to distinguish between refugees and immigrants and we cannot strictly talk about refugees as political immigrants and then immigrants as economic immigrants, because the factors often overlap, and this is very clear in the current situation, that it will be very difficult to actually sort out what the primary reason for the migration of some of these people is in the current context. So if we also take this long term perspective, that integration is a process that takes a few generations to complete, and if we also look at some prior historical examples, how long it took to integrate some of these migrants into their societies, we can be more optimistic, perhaps, about the future of these migration movements.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

We'll have to leave it there. A big thank you to our three historians: Theodora Dragostinova and Robin Judd, both of Ohio State, and Steven Hyland, joining us by phone from Wingate University. Thank you all.

 

Dr. Theodora Dragostinova 

Thank you.

 

Dr. Robin Judd 

Thanks.

 

Steven Hyland 

Thank you.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

This edition of the Origins podcast, History Talk, was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center in the history department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at our website, origins.osu.edu, on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

 

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