On the night of November 9, 1989, the wall separating East and West Berlin fell, symbolising the end of the cold war. West Berlin GERMANY .

I’m using the word ‘migration’ here to encompass the variety of legal and illegal movement of people around the word. I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of migration, but I wanted to flesh out some early thoughts as to why it has increased in the post Second World War period into countries that make up ‘The West’. This blog post is going to have a British and European flavour, but of course migration has salience in current political debate in many countries around the world, including in the United States. It is a topic that fuels anger, racism, political and economic debate; but also one that one that produces sympathy, concern and charity for the migrant too.

I’m sure this is a subject I will return too so let’s steer clear of some of the obvious causes of migration like population growth (hello? elephant in the room?), climate change, war, famine, economic exploitation, regime change, and political repression for now. Some of these factors have been around for centuries. Instead I’m going to give some initial exploration to other factors when looking for causes and picking out some dates, events, or trends of interest since around 1945.

Being British, I think you have start with the Empire Windrush, not because the arrival of one boat from the Caribbean with migrant workers significantly altered the ethnic make up of the UK from that one event, but it is was symbolic of what Britain has been grappling with (still is?) in terms of its identity for sometime. Having an Empire was seen as a great thing – a source of pride. However if you liked the concept of the British Empire you also had to like the fact that the Empire saw all its peoples as ‘British subjects’, theoretically entitled to a passport to travel around the Empire, including to Britain. The British Nationality Act 1948, gave the status of citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC status) to all British subjects connected with the United Kingdom or a British colony. And prior to 1962, the UK had no immigration control for CUKCs, who could settle indefinitely in the UK without restrictions. People who didn’t have white faces were also British, even if it did not feel that way to ordinary British folk themselves.

In terms of British domestic politics, this wasn’t a big deal before mass air travel opened up the world (see below), but with labour shortages in key sectors of the British economy after 1945, and war-time damage to repair, Britain turned to its empire to help and ‘British’ people arrived from Jamaica and elsewhere. When concerns started landing on the desks of the politicians of the time, the British state started rowing back on the consequences of the empire it built with restrictions on who could be a British citizen and tighter immigration rules. It is an emotive subject and influences British politics, society and culture to this day – not least because of the wrongs done to the Windrush generation – but the causes of this migration are not something mysterious. Whilst the British government had not expected the arrival of the Empire Windrush itself, there was plenty of work in post-war Britain, and nationalised parts of the British state, industries such as British Rail, the National Health Service, and public transport in big cities like London all recruited almost exclusively from Jamaica and Barbados. Britain invited many people from the empire in.

1958 was the first year more people crossed the Atlantic from New York to London by air than by ship with the launch of the first Boeing 707. In 1970 the first Boeing 747 entered service with over 400 seats, both aircraft emerging after the development of the turbofan engine. Air travel and air capacity has grown ever since as the range of aircraft increased and as the cost of air travel came down. No longer the elite form of travel in the first half of the 20th century, PanAm themselves wanted to ‘democratise’ air travel. It is cheaper and easier to travel around the world and if you cannot fly direct, the growth of large hub airports strategically around the world has facilitated travel even further e.g. Dubai, London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Singapore etc. (It will be interesting to see what long term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic there are on travel and migration if routes and carriers decline). Movement of people, once the preserve of ships, became quicker and easier.

In 1985 France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and then West Germany signed the Schengen Agreement (named after a small border town in Luxembourg) abolishing border controls between their countries. As the European Union expanded in the 1990s and then to former Soviet bloc countries in the early 2000s, the signatories to the Schengen agreements increased and you could cross large swathes of Europe easily without a passport. Migration control was pushed to the EU’s external border where the security against illegal migration was reliant on the effectiveness of a border guard or other deterrent measures on the border with Ukraine, Turkey, the Greek islands, Spanish enclaves in Morocco, or the Italian Mediterranean coastline.

Whilst the Schengen agreements have been viewed as benefitting European economic integration, their critics point to the ease of travelling across the EU once you’ve crossed the external border. Schengen, critics argue, has allowed the free movement of people legitimately and illegitimately, including trafficking and other criminality. Take Romania for example. If you’re trafficking a young girl from there – pre Romania accession to the EU you would have seven or eight borders to cross; now you have one and if your ultimate destination is then the UK, Calais or Paris can be reached quickly with little or no scrutiny. Schengen started with its eastern border pressed hard up against the Iron Curtain which very few could cross without permission; now it runs through parts of the Balkans which were to become its weak spot during the 2015 Syrian migrant crisis in places like Serbia and Macedonia. Migration became easier and of course resulted in political effects in western democracies as the scale of this migration entering Europe became clear.

The same was true with the demise of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War. Before 1989 travel from the ‘East’ to the ‘West’ was strictly controlled and also a block on illegal trafficking into Western Europe. Borders and the Iron Curtain were heavily policed and militarised. Only 5,000 people crossed the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989. After the fall of the Berlin Wall migration that was once a trickle became a flood. Combined with the enlargement of the of the European Union in 2004, and coupled with unrestricted entry to the United Kingdom, Sweden and Ireland, there followed one of the biggest emigration flows in Poland’s post-war history. On November 19, 2006, the New York Times reported that 800,000 Poles left the country since Poland joined the EU.

The number of Polish residents who stayed abroad for at least two months tripled between early 2004 and early 2007 from approx. 180,000 to 540,000. In May 2011, Germany opened its doors fully to jobseekers from Poland paving the way for a flood of cut-price carpenters, plumbers and other budget labour of the kind that swept Britain in 2004. Norway and Belgium have also became destinations for post-accession Polish migrants. With this exodus Poland became one of the largest exporters of labour within the enlarged European Union. Polish and other east Europeans settled in western European countries putting down roots, and of course using the resources and entitlements of their host countries like schools, healthcare and social security.

Albania’s tight security allowed almost no emigration, but after the fall of communism organised crime became widespread in the 1990s. Albania is now a transit point for international crime and its organised crime have close ties to illegal migration and trafficking through a network of Albania mafia that stretches across Europe.

February to October 2011 saw the first Libyan civil war culminating in the fall of Colonel Gaddafi – a development in the wider Arab Spring movement, but encouraged and overtly supported by countries like the UK and France, including using military support. There has been instability in the country ever since and this has relevance for migration, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa. Despite his many unpalatable characteristics, Gaddafi did play a significant role in regulating migration flows across the Mediterranean, and once he was removed from power, another source of control over the flows across the Mediterranean also disappeared. In addition, there were weapon transfers from Libya to other parts of North Africa, including most recently to Boko Haram in Nigeria. Some of the fighters who fought in the Libyan War then went elsewhere in the region, including the Tuareg fighters who ended up being principal drivers behind the rebellion in Mali.

Ultimately, if you think migration is a bad thing, the causes of what you are angry about is progress, technological and democratic, and easier travel around the planet. We all like going on holidays (pre-pandemic). In the case of Libya, good intentions led to greater chaos, destabilization, and dispossession of people. Events happen and they have causes and effects beyond the control of the voter in the UK, the EU or the US.

However, an ‘events happen’ narrative feels unsatisfactory and incomplete. Do migrants simply like settling in democracies? Did countries have at their disposal any useful tools to hinder/control this flow of people is worth exploring in a future blog post? Did western governments prepare for and understand the implications of the fall of the Iron Curtain, or the Schengen agreements? Were policy and technology measures to combat illegal migration slow to emerge in the 1990s in response? Did planners engaging in wars in the Middle East that destabilised whole countries and regions think beyond the immediate consequences for refugees and migration routes? When those effects started to be felt in western democracies, did Governments plan a response for the impact on their societies, encouraging integration, mitigations for domestic workforces and so on, or were they caught on the hop?

Global events are hard to predict and control, but is your average Brit or American angry because their governments did not prepare or foresee the consequences of events since 1945? If western governments had prepared, would that have been enough, or would angry voters let ‘fear of the other’ trump all other considerations? Is, depressingly, some of human race fundamentally tribal in its attitude despite best endeavours of all involved in migration policy to prevent and combat racism and address and reassure the concerns of indigenous populations? Or is migration a proxy complaint for other concerns in western democracies, for example, the decline of heavy industry, unemployment and wider causes of job insecurity and deprivation?

Definitely more to explore and think about as I write about this some more.


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