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Migration is a recurring theme in human history. Building walls is useless and damaging.



Tempo di lettura: 7 minuti



A lucid analysis by Italo-Australian historian Gianni Pezzano which shows that the phenomenon of migration has always existed and over time has changed the face of the world. In ancient, but better organized societies migrants were the key to the development of territories.

By Gianni Pezzano



Modern day Italy is not just the result of thousands of years of wars and great artists, but a large part of its history over the last century is due to the role of millions of Italians forced to migrate due to wars. For this reason it was sad to see the non welcome of refugees in Gorina near Ferrara in recent days. We Italians should be the first to gather in those who are fleeing from disastrous wars and economic strife as our relatives and friends did for more than a century. We should be the ones who best understand the state of mind of those who leave their countries for the unknown because they left horror and war in their home countries.

Sadly the country has forgotten the huge price paid by migrants, as it has also forgotten their fundamental economic contribution during the 50s and 60s without which Italy’s economic Boom of those years would not have been possible. In addition these same migrants and their descendants created the market for many products that Italy now exports to the world and not only the ingredients for the Italian dishes that the entire world eats.

If we look back in History we see how Julius Caesar in his books of the Wars in Gaul describes that one of the reasons that led to the wars was the arrival of waves of tribes from Eastern Europe. According to historians this migration was huge, in the hundreds of thousands. Caesar did not know the reason, if it were to flee an invader, due to a natural disaster, or a plague or other sickness. In any case one thing is certain, this example from the classical period lets us understand very well that the phenomenon of migration is not at all new.

I began in the Roman period because the Romans practiced a very practical and targeted form of migration. The Australian historian Stephen Dando Collins wrote a series of books on individual Roman Legions and in the first of these, “Caesar’s Legions”, he narrates the history of the Tenth Legion and explains how the legions were enrolled and discharged the legionaries. Each legion had a recruiting ground and in the case of the Tenth it was in Spain where the legionaries enrolled for periods of 16 or 20 tears according to the period of history. We all know that when they were discharged they were given a tract of land, but Dando Collins explains how this land could have been in their home territories, or in military colonies.

These colonies were spread around the borders of the Empire and some retain references to their origins in their names, one obvious example is Cologne in Germany and another is Colchester in England, a country where the ending “chester” denotes roman origins. In the case of the legionaries of the Tenth who for four centuries were enrolled in Spain, served and then could decide whether to live in their military colony this city still exists and it does not have the English “chester”, nor reveal its origins such as the city in Germany, today this ex roman colony is called Beirut.

Always in the Middle East, there was another example of migration under another name which shows how human beings always look for new places to make a life for themselves. Although the Crusades were called by Pope Urban II for obvious religious reasons the occasion was greeted by many European aristocrats as the chance to make themselves new holdings in the Holy Land. A large part of the knights who took part in the Crusades were second and third sons who had little chance of inheriting the family lands and so the Pope’s appeal was particularly attractive for them. Unfortunately we are still feeling the effects of the ambitions these knights in the present day.

When we speak about Japan we think about a closed society and a genetically pure population with little overseas influence, but the reality of the Japanese population is very different. The very fact that Japan is made up of a series of islands should make us understand that a large population could not have originated on the islands.   According to recent DNA analysis those which we call Japanese are descendants of Korean migrants and the ethnic minority known as the Ainu is made up of the descendants with the closest links to the population before the arrival of the Koreans.

The country with the greatest ethnic diversity and is proud of this record is the United States. We know that it is a country where the only indigenous population is composed of the descendants of the Indians, but few know that the Pilgrim Fathers came to the New World to flee religious persecution in Europe. The country continues to accept refugees from wars but, as we are seeing during the current presidential campaign, too many Americans have forgotten the origins of their country.

The case of Irish migration is unique. The English had decided that the potato would have been the perfect solution to feed the population, especially the Catholics under the Protestant conquerors. It was accepted so widely by the population that in a short space of time it became their staple food and so much so that when the crop was hit by a disease a huge famine followed that killed many and led to a major migration, principally to the United States.

Few today remember the Saint Louis, the so called “Ship of Shame” that in 1939 carried a thousand German Jews fleeing from the Nazi Terror. These refugees were refused by the United States and Cuba and so its Captain had no choice but to take his passengers back to Europe where many were accepted in other countries, but the escape was futile. With the outbreak of war and the German invasions many of them died in the Nazi concentration camps.

The Nazis had a specific plan for migration for their population and this was the basis for their invasion of Eastern Europe. In his book Mein Kampf (My struggle) Adolf Hitler preached the concept of Lebensraum (Living space), a wide expanse where the German territory could expand into a new German Empire, or Reich, in which a part of the population would have formed its vassals and the others forced to leave. This aspect of the German dictatorship has been largely forgotten.

Today we see a reflection on today’s situation in the great French film Les jeux interdits (Forbidden Games) by director René Clément which tells story of the German invasion of France through the eyes of two children. The film begins with a mass of French refugees fleeing the German invaders and the German airplanes strafing the refugees, killing the mother of one of the children. The film uses apparently harmless games by the children to explain the human cost of war and we have only to read today’s papers and watch the news bulletins to see that these tragedies still occur.

Over the last few decades archeologists have been able to show unequivocally that the origin of Man are in Africa and the discovery of the remains of the Australipithicus afarensis “Lucy” in 1974 was the key to understanding where to direct research in the future. It takes little to understand that Lucy’s descendants are now in every continent and that they could only have reached there through migration. Basically the history of Man is the history of migration.

The decision to leave home for a new land is never easy and always involves enormous personal cost that only those who have felt it could understand. At the beginning it was on foot, maybe because home could no longer feed the population, possibly due to sickness, or maybe some natural disaster that has been forgotten over time. In any case, migration has led to the empires that have risen and fallen in the past and migration is some form has created every country we now see.

Those who try to block refugees and migrants, whether in Italy, or in any European country that talks about blocking their borders with walls, as does Trump in the United States with his proposal to build a wall between that country and Mexico, has not learned that migration, in all its forms whether pacific or belligerent is the history of Man. Stopping migration completely would be like King Canute who ordered the tide to stop and even now the world laughs at his naïveté. 

There has always been migration and it will always be with us. What the world must learn is not to demand that people remain in war zones, or where there is disease or famine. The solution begins by helping those who flee their countries to find refuge and even then this is not the true or ultimate solution.

The world must find the means to set in place definitive solutions to the situations we see around the world and the world’s heads of government have the duty to find resolutions that go beyond the conflicts. The international community must be able to find the means to intervene as quickly as possible in countries hit by natural disasters, by disease, wars and other tragedies. And the whole world must understand that the numbers of refugees and migrants are not cold impersonal figures, but that each number that makes up the statistics represents a human being with the same right to life and happiness that we have the fortune of enjoying in Europe.

As a world we must ensure that those who migrate do so because they decide to make a new life for themselves and not because they are forced to do so because of dictators, or fanatic groups. It is not a solution that can come quickly, it is a process which will take some time because the conditions that created this situation go back decades and in some cases centuries. Up till now the international community has refused to commit itself to finding definitive solutions and as long as heads of government do not find the courage and commitment to take the steps necessary we will continue to see refugees fleeing and dying in boats.

Must we truly wait for an enormous tragedy to understand once and for all that we have waited too long?

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