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'If you weigh up the state of migration today, the outcome isn't bad'

Professor Leo Lucassen often adds his voice to the public debate on his specialist field. If there is talk of a 'flood of migration', he feels compelled to give the issue some historical perspective. 'Concerned? Yes, I am.'

To start with: what is the historical role of migration?  

'The whole of history is a tale of migration - that may be something of a cliché, but it is still an important cliché. It all started 6,000 years ago with the migration from Africa to Asia, Europe and eventually America. Climate and environment give rise to different skin colours, cultures, and other differences, so, yes, humans were originally black. This process of divergence changed to a process of convergence, roughly from the time of Columbus, when these different parts of the world started to come into contact with one another, once again through migration. In some cases this migration was voluntary and in others it was forced, as with the 10 million Africans from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Researchers are studying all these movements, including temporary ones. Take, for example, traders, government officials or missionaries: in spite of their limited numbers, they often play a key role through the ideas they carry with them. It is as a result of their role that Latin America, for example, has become Catholic and Spanish speaking. Focusing on work migrants and refugees is just too narrow.'

Where does this focus come from?

'It's because it is about the arrival of people whom we often regard as a threat, and of cultures that we don't really like. You can see that today with less well-educated Muslims, but in nineteenth-century America, something similar applied to poor Irish Catholics and Eastern European Jews. The debate is never about the highly educated migrants from Japan. We use a different word for this group: expats.'  

Did people distinguish previously between labour migrants and refugees?

'That distinction is relatively recent. You first come across the term in the seventeenth century, with the Hugenots who fled to the Netherlands because Louis XIV forced them to give up Protestantism.  These people were referred to as 'refugees', and they had an advantage over their fellow Protestants, but they were responsible for their own upkeep. At that time around 75 per cent of the immigrants came here for work, particularly from the poorer Germany and Scandinavia. The Netherlands really was the place to be.' 

Is it worthile making that distinction?

'Yes, as long as you realise that this is a continual process. Refugees also think about where, given their skills and qualifications, they have the best chances on the labour market, which is why so many Syrians go to Germany and Sweden. Conversely, we know that many Spanish migrant workers in the sixties and seventies, whom we now regard as typical labour migrants, were actually trying to escape Franco's dictatorship. They kept quiet about that, maybe because they still had family there.' 

Do you regard migration as a positive or negative phenomenon?

'That depends. Many migrations have turned out disastrously from the perspective of the receiving society. Take the original population of North America, that was decimated by disease, murders and the confiscation of their lands. You don't see that same demographic effect in Asia, but you do find a huge difference in power relations.' 

What about the questionable 'mass immigration' into the Netherlands? 

'It may be a bit lame, but it depends on the perspective. Employers in the fifties and sixties were happy to have cheap labour, because they couldn't find people willing to do unskilled work. A lot of Dutch people were quite positive towards labour migrants at that time; it was an optimistic period of economic prosperity. But then things started to go wrong with the economy, and unintended effects of the social state started to be felt. When many labour migrants became unemployed and received state benefits - that they had paid for through their taxes, by the way - the borders were closed. Many realised that they would never be let back in if they left, and would lose the rights they had built up. So they chose to bring their families to live with them. That was the start of the exceptional combination of mass immigration during a long recession. And then often in poor city neighbourhoods, which in turn leads to all kinds of problems, not least for the migrants themselves.''

But do you understand the concerns that some Dutch people have?

'Yes, I have those same concerns. Particularly if you look at the problems, like poverty, criminality, discrimination and radicalisation. But still, if you weigh up the whole situation, the outcome really isn't so bad given the sorry state in which it all started. Many of the migrants' children have made huge advances up the social ladder. OK, a minority of them aren't doing so well. And an even smaller minority are susceptible to terrorism. But how many young people have actually travelled to Syria? Between 200 and 300, including 17 per cent who were 'Dutch' converts. That's not many at all, but it is dangerous and it does tend to colour the public image of this group. And we also shouldn't forget that the process of integration is still going on; we're only just at the start of the third generation.'  

You often add your voice to the public debate. Why do you do that?

'Scientists are also citizens, and if politicians start spouting nonsense, I see it as my duty to respond with facts or historical parallels.  I compared the provocative visit by Wilders and Dewinter to the Brussels migrant neighbourhood of Molenbeek with the visit fascist Mosley made to the Jewish districts in London in the 1930s. although I did stress the differences. That doesn't always make me popular!' 

This article appeared previously in Leiden University's   free alumni magazine Leidraad.

Text: Peter Wierenga
Images: Hollandse Hoogte
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