issue 223 - September 1991
SIMPLY - The history of borders
1. Ancient migrations
Human history is the history of migration and the most sophisticated civilizations arose where human traffic was heaviest. The Ancient Near East, the Indian sub-continent, China, the Americas, Europe – all had constant influxes of migrants bringing new ideas and change. And in ancient Greece the Delphic priests regarded the right of unfettered movement as one of four freedoms distinguishing liberty from slavery. Because they did not feel responsible for newcomers, rulers often saw them as an asset rather than a liability. They would add to a region’s wealth, contribute to taxes and serve in local armies.
2. Bonded serfs
People moved constantly all over the world – be they Vikings, Crusaders or Chinese emigrants. Large scale restrictions, however, were imposed with the introduction of serfdom in Europe under the Roman Empire during the third and fourth centuries AD. Initially, controls were lax but under the Roman Emperor Constantine (AD 309–37) serfs were forbidden to leave their work place and had to accept whatever conditions their lords imposed. The Romans even introduced the first ‘passport’ – a document requesting safe passage for the bearer. By mediaeval times a large part of Europe’s population was bound in place and traded like chattels. Movement was considered inimical to order and the possibility for human migration was restricted mainly to wars.
3. Nation states
But during the early Renaissance period a new social order emerged founded on wage labourers. Serfdom started to die out, but was not replaced by free movement. Instead rulers and governments tried to increase the power of the state. People were viewed as wealth, a valuable workforce to be kept within a country’s borders. Rulers even encouraged immigration by offering newcomers citizenship, tax incentives and other benefits. The ideology of nationalism which was developing at this time united a vast range of cultural groups and classes on the basis of loyalty to the state while designating others as ‘outsiders’. Countries like Spain and France ordered mass expulsions of ethnic or religious minorities. By the end of the 16th century Jews had been driven out of most of Western and Central Europe and an estimated 175,000 Protestants were expelled from the Spanish Netherlands.
4. Slave labour
More horrific than these expulsions, however, was the shipment of millions of West Africans to slavery in the Americas – the largest involuntary migration in history. It was nothing new – Islamic states had been enslaving Africans since 650AD – but Europeans wanted them as labourers to help them push forward the frontiers in the New World. In all, between eight and ten million Africans were taken to the Americas from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century – four to five times the number of European colonialists arriving in Africa during the same period. Dr David Livingstone, the nineteenth century missionary, claimed that at least ten lives were lost for each slave that arrived.
5. Colonial controls
Although they needed to populate their colonies, most European governments tried to maintain strict control over who the settlers should be. Spanish citizens could only enter Spanish colonies with a licence proving they were ‘neither Jews nor Moors, nor children of such, nor sons or grandsons of any that have been punished, condemned or burnt as heretics, or for heretical crimes’. Anyone going illegally would forfeit their property, be forced to return to Spain at their own expense and be excommunicated. The death penalty was imposed in 1607 for any ship’s officer illegally carrying passengers to the Indies. The British, however, had the opposite attitude and shipped their dissenters overseas to places like Australia. And when they opened their colonies to settlement in the early eighteenth century, domestic depopulation became a serious problem. National passports were introduced and by the end of the eighteenth century were obligatory in most European countries.
6. Right to leave
By the end of the seventeenth century ‘liberal’ thinkers like John Locke were questioning a ruler’s right to restrict the movement of the individual. Such questions gained support from a new school of economics led by Adam Smith, which preached the virtues of free trade and a free labour market. Border controls were relaxed and for a few decades monied people in the West could largely choose where they went. The need to increase domestic populations was replaced by a concern with over-population as social unrest and unemployment had grown by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The British Government began organizing and assisting emigration. Other European countries followed suit and the New World was settled in the following century by people exercising this right to leave.
7. Changing course
However during the nineteenth century the migration flow reversed. People no longer surged from developed Europe to new areas of the globe. Instead migrants streamed northwards from less developed areas: North Africans into France, Italian peasants to New York. Racism proliferated as nationalists cultivated the view of outsiders as dangerous to the health of a nation – a threat to its security and way of life. European countries which had been open to political exiles during Victorian times began restricting the entry of immigrants. These controls grew stronger after 1848 when the revolutions produced a flood of political refugees from the German states and Hungary, and intensified at the close of the century after a wave of anarchist attacks.
8. War wounds
Waves of refugees swept across Europe in the early twentieth century. Hundreds of thousands roamed the Balkan peninsula in the decade before World War One. The post-war political realignment of territories that occurred after the four great European empires collapsed made many more thousands homeless. By the 1920s immigration controls were tightened and passports – which had fallen into disuse in many places – were reintroduced. The Second World War brought another exodus as intensified aerial bombardment left massive numbers homeless. Hitler’s Luftwaffe scattered tens of thousands in the Blitzkrieg of Poland and France, while the British and Americans deliberately uprooted massive numbers of civilians to facilitate the invasion of the German Reich. States turned a cold eye upon these newcomers; the Allies provided not one ship to carry Jewish escapees from Romania, Turkey or other countries when doing so might have saved thousands of lives.
9. Fortress world
Nation-building in the Third World during the twentieth century has created mass migrations on an unprecedented scale. New regimes have persecuted ethnic minorities in attempts to ‘consolidate’ the nation while dissident voices have been silenced by large–scale human rights abuses. Wars, poverty, environmental degradation have also left millions homeless. But faced by the rising tidal wave of need, the West has tightened immigration controls further still. Even traditional places of refuge for asylum-seekers are vanishing, as schemes to deport refugees are implemented and asylum claims are dismissed. Moreover, immigration controls are set to tighten still further, especially with the creation of a single European Community in 1992, which will deny access to outsiders except as part of a strictly controlled workforce.
Source: Much of this material derives from Closed Borders: The Contemporary Assault on the Freedom of Movement by Alan Dowty (Yale University Press, 1987)
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