Monday, February 15, 2016

On the move

Today the refugee problem is in the centre of attention. At least in Europe, for, what many people in this part of the world don’t realize is that, say, in Tanzania, Vietnam or Chile the European refugee question is maybe only a little newspaper report among many others or a news item on TV at most. And I must say that even though the Netherlands receives the biggest stream of refugees since tens of years, in my little town you notice nothing of it. Moreover, the Netherlands has become a multicultural country through the years, so that it’s normal to see people of foreign origin and to hear foreign languages everywhere.
Although everyone here knows that there are refugee camps all over the country since already many years and that it is the same so in other countries, most people think that such big migrations are exceptional. Therefore, I think that it is good to put the phenomenon into perspective, not for playing it down and for saying that actually there is no need to help but for showing that being on the move and looking for a better place to live is not as uncommon as many people think. Even more, I dare to say that migrating is a human property. It’s in our genes, so to speak. Being on the run for violence and war is only the most extreme instance of it.
Take a look at history and you’ll see that migration is not only a phenomenon related to war and violence, but that it is almost related to daily life. Even if we consider the groups of people arriving in Europe via Turkey and Greece searching for a better life, we see that about half of them are not fleeing the wars in the Middle East but that they have blended into the crowds of war victims in order to enter Europe in pursuit of jobs. But actually most migration happens in a completely legal way. Take the Netherlands: through the years many people have migrated to Canada and Australia and to a lot of other countries in this world, inside and outside Europe. The USA wouldn’t have been the powerful nation it is today if not so many people from Europe and elsewhere had settled there. The Argentinean population is mainly of Italian and Spanish origin. Many people in Malagasy and Mauritius have their roots on the other side of the Indian Ocean. These are only a few examples but if we should study the problem in detail our conclusion would be that hardly any people has lived “eternally” on the site where it lives today. Since man started to go out of Africa in prehistory, he (and she) has always been on the move and stayed never longer than a number of generations on the same site. As Jean-Michel Delacomptée writes in a book on Montaigne: “Since the dawn of time it is the fate of humanity to leave its villages and see what exists elsewhere” (p. 122) Delacomptée refers here to tourism, but this quotation describes also very well man’s destiny to move for other reasons, often not freely and without necessity but pushed by war or a miserable life or pulled by the prospect of a better future.
During his conquest of Gaul in the first century BC, now and then Julius Caesar run across people who wanted to settle in the territory conquered by him or wanted to pass through it. Nowadays we should call them migrants or refugees. How did Caesar deal with them? I know of two cases, and I am afraid that they are typical of the way refugees and migrants were treated in those days. The Helvetians were moving from the present Switzerland and wanted to establish themselves in what is now South-western France. Caesar stopped them with his army and the result was a battle in which two third of the migrants (about 200,000 people, including women and children) were killed. The battle of Oss in the Netherlands was even more dramatic. The Tencteri en Usipetes were on the move and wanted to enter Northern Gaul, which was against Caesar’s will. Caesar sought a pretext for a battle and easily beat the unprepared opponents. Two tribes – several hundred thousand people all together, again including women and children – were completely extirpated. It’s a difficult question whether there has been any progress in history, but I think that’s not the way we want to treat migrants and refugees today, or at least most of us don’t want it...

Reference: Jean-Michel Delacomptée, Adieu Montaigne. Paris, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2015.

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