Why history matters

Why history matters

 Toon Lauwers

Toon Lauwers

23-year old student from Belgium, based in Brussels.
Masters of history at the catholic university of Leuven and specialise in migration studies, subaltern history, Jewish history, cultural anthropology and social history.

As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, one thing that people will undoubtedly remember about the 2010s is the so-called ‘European refugee crisis’. Although this term is widely used in newspapers and on television, it is a highly problematic one that shouldn’t be taken for granted. As I will argue, the term is charged with political motives and neglects a broader context. Furthermore, even remembering it as a unique historical event has much more to do with politics than with contemplating the past. History can tell us why.

In September 2015, the world was chocked by the tragic image of a 3-year old Syrian boy, whose drowned body had washed ashore on the Turkish coast. Aylan Kurdi and his family had boarded a small boat near Bodrum, hoping to reach one of the Greek islands safely and continue their journey towards Western Europe. After moving from one place to another in Syria and Turkey, they wished to find long-term refuge in the EU. Instead, Aylan, his mother and his 5-year old brother died in the Aegean Sea. His image came to represent the struggles and, often, fatal sufferings of the many refugees and migrants who risked their lives trying to reach the European continent.

The photo of the little boy in his red T-shirt, spread in newspapers and on social media, sparked worldwide outrage about the current migrant and refugee policy in the EU’s member states. As a reaction on the alarming conditions on the Balkan route and the bad treatment of refugees in Hungary, NGO’s and grassroots movements urged governments to respect human rights and provided refugees with all sort of help. Others, upset by sensational coverage in the press, were more pessimistic and saw the arrival of migrants and refugees as a danger to their jobs, culture or lifestyle. They blamed running traditional parties for not dealing with the matter more decisively and called for the protection of Europe’s cultural values by closing its borders for newcomers. Right-populist parties gained popularity by responding to this fear and anger and took the opportunity to push forward their own political agendas. They represented the ‘refugee crisis’ as an unseen challenge for their nations and a danger to their identity.

Sensational media reporting and right-populist rhetoric give the impression that the migration challenges that Europe faces nowadays are exceptional. Politicians deliberately call it a ‘crisis’ to justify unusual and drastic measures. Our own State Secretary of Asylum Policy and Migration frequently uses the term ‘chaos’ to describe what’s happening in Europe’s periphery and thus calls for tougher regulations. Last week, Italy’s far-right government refused to allow the Aquarius, a rescue boat with more than 600 migrants on board, to enter its ports is the latest example of the brutal anti-migration policies of some EU member states. Other countries already built fences, including Austria and Spain, the latter ironically taking in the refugees that Italy had just blocked from coming ashore.

Looking back at the European history of migration, it becomes clear that this ‘refugee crisis’ is actually far from exceptional and that Europe has been confronted with similar challenges in the past. In fact, Europe’s post-WWII history has witnessed many migratory movements, from the repatriation or resettlement of displaced persons after the war to the many Croatians, Serbians and Bosnians fleeing the violence in Yugoslavia. Or what about the many thousands of Czechoslovakians, Hungarians and Poles, escaping Soviet repression in Central- and Eastern Europe during the Cold War? These migratory flows and the challenges they brought seem to be already forgotten in the light of recent events. Why are the previous migrations not anchored in our collective memory? And why is the current one so heavily mediatised and politicized?

In my opinion, the real issue here is not the question whether or not to take in migrants but it is about something far more substantial, namely the future of EU and its member states. Since its inception, politicians, businessmen and intellectuals have always debated the possible directions that the EU should or could take. Some stand for a strong and centralized European Union, able to play its role on the global stage. Others prefer a loose confederation of states that respects each nation’s sovereignty and integrity. As neonationalism rises, the latter faction seems to win the upper hand. Just as the financial crisis in 2008 heated the discussion on financial dependence and solidarity among member states, this ‘refugee crisis’ is another example of how each EU-state follows their own interest.

In the end, it is all about who determines national and international policies in Europe. Should it be a supranational body that’s decides for Europe as a whole or will each country rule for itself? Under the slogan ‘Take Back Control’, right-wing politicians in the UK already lead their country out of the EU in 2016, promising that they would bring immigration to a halt. In December last year, the European Commission sued the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland over their refusal to comply with the EU’s agreement to relocate refugees. These three countries, along with Slovakia, will now also boycott the EU mini-summit on migration, which will take place in Brussels on Sunday June 24. Ironically, their own refugees were lucky enough to find shelter in Western Europe about 50 to 60 years ago. People never learn from their history, it seems.

Although history might not directly change the way we act in the present, it may stimulate us to think differently about that present. Studying our history forces us to put things, like a revolution or a crisis, into perspective and distinguish long-term developments from unprecedented extremes. Looking at global and European history in particular teaches us that migration and human mobility have been essential to our development and that it’s rather the norm than the exception. Furthermore, it’s a dynamic process that goes further back in time than just 2015 and will likely expand as our world increasingly globalizes. Studying the history of migration also enables us to expand our knowledge about these processes and dynamics. It provides us with the angles from which we can tackle the issue, revealing its nuances and versatility. We can use the theories that arise from such inquiries to make current debates about migration more constructive. They can help us to respond to challenges in a reasonable and humane way, rather than think or act out of fear or anger.

The ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe is not necessarily a crisis. Similar events have occurred before and Europe proved flexible enough to confront its challenges. If there is a crisis within the EU, then it’s a political one, in which European leaders fail to find common ground and follow their own national interest. Moreover, if we still want to speak of a ‘refugee crisis’, our attention should shift from the EU to the Middle East. In Lebanon only, a country of about 6 million people, more than 1 million Syrian refugees are currently residing in deplorable conditions. If someone is going through a crisis, they are