Crisis in Context: The Migrants’ Story

Crisis in Context: The Migrants’ Story

The sense of “crisis” today is largely a result of our economic anxieties, but is also caused by propaganda and the messages that governments chose to project.

An event hosted by the Archive programme.

Published 27 Jan 2016

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  • History proves that assimilation is never linear or easy.  It is a reciprocal process between immigrants and their new home, and in the past has been significantly affected by whether or not immigrants saw their settlement in the new country as for the long-term. Immigrants must learn what is needed in order to fit in: for example, without learning the language they will remain outside of society. Governments and societies must also integrate immigrants. Their efforts can make the process significantly smoother: the integration of American immigrants was a slow and troubled process, largely because citizens continued to regard “hyphenated Americans” with suspicion until after World War Two.
  • The mass immigration of the twentieth century presented one major difficulty for Europe: the legal status of migrants who were unable to return home. This problem also faces Europe today, but it is difficult for individual governments to implement long-term solutions when they face intense short-term pressures from the electoral cycle. After the war, a solution was developed in the form of Nansen passports issued by the League of Nations’ commission on refugees, demonstrating the importance of political cooperation on an international level to tackle such challenges.
  • The sense of “crisis” today is largely a result of our economic anxieties, but is also caused by propaganda and the messages that governments chose to project. Though migration is nothing new, this particular “crisis” is distinct from those of the past: it is defined by war and conflict in the Islamic world.


Migrants have always moved in search of a better life.  Peter Heather, Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London compared the way the migrating Goths viewed their destination—the Roman Empire—with the way many perceive Europe today: it was “a land of plenty”. Similarly, Katya Andreyev, lecturer in Modern History at the Russian and East European Studies Centre, University of Oxford, explained how Russian émigrés—whether they were fleeing Tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union—hoped to find a life free of persecution. Gary Gerstle, Professor of American History at the University of Cambridge explored why America has always been exceptionally attractive to migrants: just like Rome many centuries before, it was “the land of plenty, the land of work, and the land of opportunity.”

Once migrants settle, integration and assimilation has never been an easy, quick, homogenous, or even desirable process, the panel agreed. For migrating barbarians, integration was eventually achieved by presenting themselves in a way that was acceptable to the Romans, Professor Heather explained, as exemplified by the Emperor Theodoric. Andreyev argued that different groups of migrants wanted to preserve different things: Jews, migrating in search of religious freedom, would integrate in different ways and compromise different parts of their culture compared to the intellectuals that also fled the Soviet Union. There was also the problem of their legal status: in the aftermath of the war, the League of Nations dealt with this by issuing Nansen passports to the refugees who could not return home. Yet migrants can also change the societies that they settle in: Professor Gerstle explained that, for migrants to the United States two or three generations on, “the new people have been assimilated, but they have also begun to transform America.”

Integration is not always important to emigrants. In the early days of the Soviet Union, it was not imperative to those fleeing Russia because they planned to return home once the Soviet “experiment” had ended.  Attitudes changed, Dr Andreyev explained, once it became clear that the Soviet Union was not a short-term government. Moreover, even if it is desired, it is not always possible. Professor Gerstle noted how international events can hugely influence the process of assimilation: doubts over the loyalty of “hyphenated Americans” during World War One led to a loss of confidence in the ability of emigrants to be successfully assimilated in American society, and the 1924 Immigration Act largely cut of America from immigration. Problems of migration and the complexities of assimilation can be exacerbated by false public perception, both in historical instances and today. These perceptions can be manipulated by political agendas and latent fears can be fed on negative portrayals of the outsider.

The panel agreed that attitudes towards today’s migrant crisis are shaped by the post-crash economic landscape, and—as is the case throughout history—the effect of government’s messages. In addition, Gerstle suggested that the biggest difference today is the impact of war and revolution in the Islamic world: as a result, “we are dealing with a refugee crisis on a completely unprecedented scale.” Politicians face many difficulties in dealing with the crisis, discussed the panel, because they are under intense short-term pressure from elections: the problems of migration are complex, and the cycles of assimilation are not the same as political cycles. For any viable solution to be attempted, politicians need to cooperate on an international scale.

The panel was moderated by Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser at the Legatum Institute.

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About the Speakers

Katya Andreyev is a lecturer in Modern History at the Russian and East European Studies Centre, University of Oxford. She has published on the history of the USSR, including Russian emigration in the 20th century, and is also interested in Russian Imperial history and émigré and dissident culture. She will be speaking about Russian émigrés after 1917, which is the current focus of her work.

Peter Heather is a Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London. His research interests lie in the later Roman Empire and its successor states, and his publications on these matters focus on the Goth and Visigoth kingdoms of the medieval period. Recently, he has examined issues of migration and ethnicity among the groups who dismantled the western half of the Roman Empire. On the panel, he will focus on barbarian tribe movements at the end of the Roman Empire.

Gary Gerstle has been Professor of American History at University of Cambridge since 2014, following a three-decade career in the United States. He is a social and political historian of the modern period, and focuses on the ways in which Americans constituted themselves as a nation, and the role that immigration and race have had in that process. He will be speaking on American immigration, from the sixteenth century colonial settlements to large-scale nineteenth century migrations.