Immigration is probably the world’s most heated topic right now. In the United States, we’re discussing building walls, detention facilities for illegal immigrants, and travel bans. Donald Trump went as far as to praise Mexico after pepper-spraying refugees from Honduras. In Germany, the AfD (an anti-immigration party) has been gaining support, and is now one of the country’s largest parties. In Italy, the new government recently told illegal immigrants, comprising both refugees and economic migrants, to get ready to “pack their bags.” The UK, while accepting refugees, has been very stringent about who may be granted asylum and often for only a short time. What’s going on? Why is immigration all of a sudden the most controversial topic around the world, and how has it been dealt with historically?
First, let’s understand what’s happening.
Above I mentioned both South American and Middle Eastern refugees. To narrow the focus a bit, this post will pertain to the Syrian refugee crisis. (Though I highly encourage reading about the crisis in central America.)
The Syrian Refugee Crisis was precipitated by the Arab Spring of 2011. This event may be the most important political event in the 21st century rivaling even 9/11 in terms of its impact on the world. In short, the Arab Spring was a wave of pro-Democracy protests in northern Africa and the Middle East. Some of these led to positive change, such as in Tunisia, but many more were met with civil war or resulted in autocratic regimes including Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and of course, Syria, who is suffering the worst fate of all. As of this writing, over 5.6 million Syrians have fled their homes. This background is incredibly important because, at least in the United States, a the rhetoric around refugees centers around Muslims, and while it’s true that Islam is the dominant religion in Syria, it is not Muslims who are fleeing the region but Syrians, who are not necessarily Muslim.
Why then, is all the rhetoric aimed at Muslims? Enter IS (more commonly known as ISIS – the Islamic State [of Iraq and Syria]). I hesitate to call IS a group of revolutionaries as that seems to conjure up a certain amount of sympathy, but IS seeks to overthrow the government in Iraq and Syria to establish a Caliphate, a Theocracy not completely unlike the government in Vatican City in that there would be one person who leads the nation at the orders of God. Although the similarities end there. What brings the attention of the world to IS is their brutality and cruelty, which has provoked criticism from Muslims worldwide, literally drawing condemnation from Al-Qaeda.
IS subscribes to a belief first put forward by a guy named Qutb that the West (read the United States and Western Europe) has been persecuting Muslims ever since they dissolved the Ottoman Empire following World War I. As a result, the only way for Muslims to redeem or even defend themselves is through aggression against the west, and anyone, even other Muslims, who disagree.
Part of the core ideology is aggression towards the west and nonbelievers, but IS lack the resources to declare a full scale war (not to mention the legitimacy and sovereignty). Because of this IS has instead engaged in guerrilla warfare tactics on civilian targets (or more generally, terrorism). IS members have entered various countries all around the world most likely as a refugee from one of the war torn countries. Exactly how often this has happened is a subject of intense debate and is difficult to track by its very nature – someone can’t be identified as a terrorist until after an act of terror. Trying to escape your crazy IS uncle means you have ties to IS, but it doesn’t mean a plot to bomb civilians. On the flipside, a Muslim who otherwise may not have bought into the idea that the Western world has been waging war on a way of life, might be persuaded otherwise by the US and Europe’s military presence there, and a subsequent loss of home.
I don’t want to spend too much time discussing how often the above happens, but it’s important to note that while asylum seekers have committed terrorist attacks, so have natives inspired by IS ideology. One study suggests that while foot soldiers have used refugee routes for the purpose of terrorism, IS likely isn’t coordinating an effort to do so.
In short, many refugees are hoping to escape a violent civil war between violent factions hoping to hold onto or change the government. Among these refugees are self-proclaimed members of IS who hope to instill fear, promote terrorism and gain legitimacy through aggression against their perceived enemies.
Has it happened before?
Refugees are a fairly modern concept. While it’s fairly easy to apply the concept retroactively, it’s worth noting that the term wasn’t a legal concept until after World War II. In this definition, the United Nations declared (or perhaps recognized) that all humans have the fundamental right to seek asylum in other countries to escape persecution. This is not to be confused with the terms “migrant” or “asylum seeker.”
An asylum seeker is someone who has applied for refugee status in a foreign country. Refugee status is internationally recognized and protected by international law. All refugees were at one point asylum seekers, but all asylum seekers may not become refugees if their application is denied. Contrasting these two terms is migrant.
A migrant is someone who is leaving their country to better their lives – not necessarily because it’s dangerous to return home.
I found several similar scenarios dotted throughout history. I did quite a bit of reading and briefly outline what occurred and analyze how applicable they might be to our current situation.
The Goths in the Eastern Roman Empire
One of the earliest examples of refugees I could find was in Roman history.
The Huns were a relatively unorganized nomadic people of war that would eventually cause the Fall of Rome. Their origins aren’t particularly clear, but some believed they originate from modern day Kazakhstan. In their ruthless expansion westward, they took a liking to the resource rich lands in modern day Romania, occupied by the Visigoths in 374 CE.
The Goths, a group of Germanic tribes co-led by Fritigern and Alavivus asked the Emperor of Rome, Valens, for sanctuary from the invading Huns. Valens agreed promising both protection and farmland. Some Goths who arrived later were turned away by Valens though by this time their number may have reached as high as 200,000, though that’s likely an exaggeration.
These refugees were admitted with the intention of taxing them, using their labor on farms, and most importantly as auxiliaries in a campaign in Persia, which the Goths agreed to. However, things immediately got out of hand. The refugees were not provided food, and in fact, the food that was supposed to go to them was hijacked by the governor of the area who then sold the refugees dog meat in exchange for their children, who would become slaves.
The Goths and Romans had a somewhat turbulent history having been at war only six years before. That’s important context to consider, but it doesn’t change the fact that refugees were mistreated and their leaders assassinated. This led the Goths to revolt, which is now known as the battle of Adrianople. This battle ended up being Rome’s most crushing defeat since the days of Hannibal.
How similar is it to our current crisis?
It’s hard to say as a lot of the finer details were lost to history. Cultural norms were certainly different. Slavery and military conscription were the norm. However, it is telling that people have asked for asylum in neighboring countries for 1600 years. One might also draw a parallel between the persecution of the Goths and subsequent rebellion to the perceived persecution of Islam in dismantling the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent violence carried out today by IS. Both the Goths and Romans had also been at war in years prior as well. The rationale behind whether to allow immigration however, was not based on whether these immigrants may harm civilians, as it is today, but rather whether the immigrants could work and serve in the military.
The Alhambra Decree
The Alhambra Decree was simply a decree by the government of Spain in 1492 that said Jews could no longer live in Spain. Convert or move.
This was a bit of an extension of a 1480 decree that segregated Jews and Christians. In 1492 it was decided that because “there were some wicked Christians who Judaized,” Jews and Christians could no longer coexist. The Jews must go. The whole text is worth reading if you feel so inclined.
Many countries had a very different reaction to where these Jews fled to. Perhaps surprisingly, Muslim majority countries such as the Ottoman Empire welcomed them. Other Christian majority countries – in particular Portugal – were less kind. In fact, only 4 years after receiving refugees, the King of Portugal declared his intent to marry the heir to the Spanish throne, Isabella. As a condition of the marriage, Spain mandated that Portugal expel all Jews. In the end, most were tortured into converting to Christianity.
What happened to the Ottoman Empire and Portugal after this? Was there any tangible difference to their economy, safety, livelihood or any other metric based on their treatment of religious refugees?
The Ottoman Empire actually flourished. Jews brought new technologies, culture, and more to the Ottoman Empire and the first printing press was established there by Jews in 1493. The leader of the Ottomans, Beyazit the Just, purportedly proclaimed, “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!” It very well could be that because the Muslims and Jews had a shared history of persecution from Europe that they were more willing to coexist.
In Portugal, after declaring all Jews must leave, the decision was changed a year later by King Manuel that instead of evacuating, Jews must convert. This decision would lead to the Lisbon massacre, where Catholics beat and burned hundreds of families of recent converts to Catholicism. Not even infants were spared.
Interestingly, after forced conversion, the massacre, and the subsequent forced emigration, many Jews still felt loyalty to the Portuguese Monarch.
In this case, we do have immigrants who are discriminated against based on their religion, and these immigrants were refugees. These Jews, however, were seen as a legitimate threat to the way of life of Spanish Catholics – hence the aforementioned segregation. A religion threatening your way of life might sound familiar. Donald Trump mentioned Islamic Immigration threatening our way of life during his campaign, so did the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, which gained 5 seats in their most recent election. So did a prominent ally of Italy’s former prime minister. And this is all only in the west, where values of freedom of religion are supposed to reign free. Things are even worse in the east where China has admitted to “reeducation camps” for Muslims.
There are a lot parallels between the plight of the Jews in the 15th century and Muslims today between relegating a person to one aspect of their identity, and leaving one country only to be persecuted in another. There are significant differences, however, in the role of religion in day to day life. Separation of church and state was still very far off. The Catholic church was intertwined with the government and corruption ran rampant. This corruption would lead to Martin Luther’s 95 theses in following years.
FDR’s Beware of Refugees Speech
The above examples of history fall short in one important aspect, it was a different time. While people often react the same in similar circumstances, it’s not fair to compare conscription in Rome to conscription during the Vietnam war because military service was viewed very differently. Likewise, it may not be fair to compare refugees of the past to refugees of today. However, there are a few modern examples that are strikingly similar to the suspicion held against immigrants from the middle east today. Perhaps most relevant, is Jewish migrants during World War II. Jews during this time were met with equal skepticism. FDR turned away Jewish Refugees by the boatload, fearful of spies entering the country under the guise of being a refugee.
In a speech, he even said:
Today’s threat to our national security is not a matter of military weapons alone. We know of new methods of attack. The Trojan Horse. The Fifth Column that betrays a nation unprepared for treachery. Spies, saboteurs and traitors are the actors in this new strategy. With all of these we must and will deal vigorously.
It would hard to find a more relevant passage from history with regards to the current refugee crisis. It matches the distrust of persecuted religious migrants for fear of harming the nation in which we live.
We’ve all heard about the holocaust, but it’s an important reminder that, like today, no country wanted to accept refugees.
The Bosnian War was the biggest war I’d never heard of. Whether it’s a product of an America-centric education system when it comes to teaching history, or me sleeping through that lesson is anyone’s guess, but here’s some background in case anyone doesn’t know. Because it’s such a modern example, I think it’s a great fit for a comparison to our modern crisis.
The Bosnian War broke up Yugoslavia, killed well over 100,000 people, involved the first genocide in Europe since World War II, and displaced over 2 million people. I think that this video does a nice job of summarizing the situation and conflict. While it’s truly much more complicated, in summary, Croatia declared independence. Serbia used what was left of the Yugoslavic army to prevent them from doing so. War crimes, including genocide, were committed. So many people died and were lost in rubble that as of 2017, bodies and remains were still being identified and sent to their respective families.
Whether the Bosnian War was a Civil War or International War is up for debate, and I’m not qualified enough to make an assertion one way or the other.
While refugees from this war weren’t viewed as potential spies, it’s relevance lies in its recency. The politicians of today were watching the news when these events occurred. In addition, the violence and brutality these refugees encountered is on par with that of IS. Serbian forces specifically targeted homes for destruction to prevent Bosniaks from ever being able to return home.
In addition many of the persecuted were also Muslims. Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were specifically targeted for genocide by the Serbian forces. Trials for these cases ended less than a year ago.
Germany is a focal point then and now, and their response to both crises were quite different. During the Bosnian War, Germany acted much like Portugal after the Alhambra decree in that it accepted refugees, and then shortly after told them to leave despite getting jobs, learning German and attending school. Germany in both cases seemed to be very open to refugees on the onset, and then changed its tone after they began to arrive.
While the level of coordinated genocide isn’t occurring in Syria as it was in Yugoslavia, it might not be fair to say it’s not occurring at all. The brutality, religious persecution, civil war are all the same. The only arguable difference might be the skepticism of the intent of the refugees.
The Effects of Refugees
It’s certainly easy to write a blog about how countries exercise poor ethics for denying refugees. However, the flip side of this coin, and the one that’s often trumpeted by conservative politicians, is the effect and strain that refugees have on the accepting country. In truth, the effect is little understood. One study actually found that the local economy benefited. Essentially, the refugees produced more value than they received in aid.
While the hosting cost certainly impacts the hosting country, it’s worth noting there are several international aid organizations that help offset the cost. Even so, one of the bigger impacts is that on infrastructure and the local ecosystem. A large influx in population means land, fuel, water, food and shelter materials are in higher demand than normal. Sometimes, this can lead to higher development in a given area. Other times, people live in squalid conditions for years afterwards – as Angelina Jolie found on a recent trip to Bosnia where people are still living in near homelessness.
Interestingly, I found that the refugees in Europe and America count for a tiny portion of the total number of Syrian refugees. The vast majority, about 90%, are displaced internally within Syria or neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, or Egypt. Only about 7.6% are in Europe – mostly in Germany, and less than 1% have come to the United States. The United States hosts more refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo than any other nation.
Skepticism of refugees is widespread and eternal. However, the danger they pose has historically been minimal and vastly overstated. It is far more common for the host country to exploit people at their most vulnerable. The effects of hosting refugees are not well understood, and that should inform our dialogue when discussing refugees. However, we should also note when other countries are pulling more than their fair share, and more importantly resist the historical precedent to make the lives of refugees more difficult than they already are. A person whose home was reduced to rubble and fled for their life need not be persecuted in the country they fled to for protection.