Famously, Donald Tusk proclaimed in a speech in September 2015 that, “Today, everything is immigration”. Nothing has happened since to lessen the force of that statement. Indeed, “everything” in Europe has always, not just today, been about migration and migrants. Note that I have dropped the first two letters: this makes a big difference. Immigration implies that people buy a one-way ticket, whereas “migration” takes account of regular return journeys and the prospect of returning to one’s place of origin – in other words, decisions not to burn bridges with one’s place of birth. Migration speaks of interrupted journeys and travel between different destinations. It acknowledges that migrants may simultaneously have a stake in more than one place.
The history of post-1945 Europe is a history of people on the move. Migrants including refugees have been neither marginal figures nor of fleeting significance, but have instead been integral to the history of the entire continent. In my latest book The Unsettling of Europe I wanted to connect the experiences of individuals who left their homes for one reason or another with the broad history of a continent that has been transformed, politically, economically, socially and culturally by migration.
Migration and migrants have come in various guises. Men, women and children alike were forced from their homes because of violence: in the aftermath of the Second World War, for example, ethnic German minorities were expelled from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia; refugees fled when communist parties triumphed in East-Central Europe. Two decades later, Greek Cypriots fled from northern Cyprus to the south following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. The disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s displaced more than four million people. In the second decade of the new millennium, political upheavals in the Middle East and in particular the civil war in Syria sparked talk of an unprecedented “European refugee crisis”. In truth, as I shall argue, it is not unprecedented. Nor – since most Syrian refugees have remained in the Middle East – is it fundamentally European, even though the political ripples reach many parts of Europe. Meanwhile, other stories, such as mass internal displacement in Ukraine, figure only intermittently on the international radar.