Europe's Shifting Borders Migration Returns to the Continent

By Tara Zahra


By Tara Zahra, Co-Chair, Pozen Family Center for Human Rights Faculty Board

Mass migration has been reshaping Europe and North and South America for at least 150 years, but not always in the same way. At some points, it has provoked the erection of walls and a wave of deportations and detentions. At other moments, states have actually competed to recruit migrants to fuel their economies, settle land, or make up for declining birthrates.

These days, the world seems to have opted for the first approach. Barbed wire fences and internment camps have come back to Europe as thousands of refugees have been stranded between state borders. Right-wing governments with anti-migrant platforms have taken power in Poland and Hungary. After campaigning to “stop the invasion of the Muslims,” Norbert Hofer’s far-right Freedom Party lost Austria’s 2016 presidential election by only 30,000 votes. And parties from the Danish People’s Party to the French National Front have expanded their constituencies with promises to close borders and stop the flow of goods and people. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, a victory propelled by animosity toward migration and globalization. And in November, American voters elected Donald Trump to be their forty-fifth president, after Trump campaigned with promises to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, ban Muslim immigration, and deport illegal aliens. His recent executive order that placed a hold on refugees and on immigration from seven Muslim countries suggests he intends to keep those promises.

The ideas promoted by these parties and politicians have existed for a long time, although the targets have shifted—from Irish, Italians, and Jews in the early twentieth century to Muslims and Mexicans in the twenty-first. In Europe, anti-migrant parties gained ground in the 1970s and 1980s following the oil shock. After recruiting migrant labor for two decades, France, the United Kingdom, and West Germany all restricted immigration in the 1970s. But the last time the world saw a migration panic at today’s pitch was arguably the 1930s, when the plight of thousands of Jewish refugees was met with indifference by Western governments, all of whom took a “not in my back yard” approach to refugee resettlement. 

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