No one is a native of the place we call home.—Mohsin Hamid, National Geographic, August 2019
Without interbreeding due to successive waves of migrants, “Europeans” would not exist.—Paul Salopek, National Geographic, August 2019
Imagine you are standing in a queue at a supermarket checkout when the lady behind you says, in a loud, angry voice, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from!” You are so dumbfounded by her rudeness that you can’t think of a suitable reply. What can you say to someone who takes one look at you and judges you as unworthy, even as too dangerous, to stay in her country—which is actually your country too.
This has never happened to me, even though I am an economic refugee. My family paid £10 each to escape by boat from hard times in their home country. They sought the land of opportunity and settled in Australia. They weren’t running from tyranny or oppression, but from rationing in the United Kingdom after the Second World War. They wanted to start afresh and put the horrors of the Great Depression and the aftermath of conflict behind them. They came in a respectable ocean liner and Australia welcomed them—even though it didn’t always accept their qualifications and Pommy bastard wasn’t a term of endearment.
I have never been assailed by the question Why don’t you go back to where you came from? because, as a white Anglo-Saxon, it is hard to identify me as the enemy. I am a good migrant. If you look Asian or Middle Eastern or have dark skin, you are fair game to people who judge on outward appearance.
I was recounting the checkout experience I witnessed to a group of friends when one them, of Sri Lankan heritage, said that this was a common experience for him too. Whenever a reactionary politician sounds off about race, my friend avoids hardware stores and shopping malls because of the insults he is subjected to. Our friend has lived in Australia most of his life; he is kind, highly educated, hard-working and has contributed a lot to society.
Unreasonable people seem to be gaining the upper hand. They feel entitled to say whatever they like, no matter how ill informed, unthinking, hurtful or damaging. They are happy to make a judgement about a person after a single glance, or after watching a reality TV show, listening to a shock jock, or looking at an Instagram post—and they are destroying our civil society.
Some people in wealthy developed countries are against particular migrants because of perceived racial, cultural and religious differences. We humans seem to be innately suspicious of people who are different from us. Some even believe that taking in people who are unlike them will dilute—even pollute—their culture. Even the legitimate right of refugees to flee atrocities is placed in jeopardy by labelling them terrorists, criminals, economic refugees or immoral people.
But the fact is that we are all migrants—we always have been. We have all come from somewhere else and belonged to other groups. The only constant is that we all belong to a migratory species called Homo sapiens. If we were to go back to where we came from, we would all have to return to Africa, where our story starts. The first Homo sapiens to settle in Europe left Africa about 45,000 years ago. They probably had black skin and light eyes and were hunter-gatherers. They mixed with our very close relatives, the Neanderthals. So, for a long time, we have not been a pure species.
About 8,000 years ago, Neolithic farmers started moving into Europe from Anatolia. With their light skins and dark eyes and farming lifestyle, they were very different from the original hunter-gatherers. A third major migration into Europe started about 5,000 years ago, involving the Yamnaya from the steppes of Russia and Ukraine. They were nomadic people, who drove cattle, rode horses and used wagons, spoke Indo-European languages and may have carried the plague.
If you look at the DNA profile of people in Europe today, the ancestry of these three groups is quite clear and quite varied. For example, English people are largely descended from Neolithic farmers and Yamnaya people in equal measure, with a little hunter-gatherer ancestry. In contrast, people from Sardinia have a largely Neolithic farmer heritage with only a little Yamnaya and hunter-gatherer ancestry.
There have been many migrations since these three major ones. The Romans went everywhere. But modern-day Greeks and Italians are not the same as the ancient Greeks and Romans, due to the waves of Vandals, Goths and Huns that swept across Europe from the east and north, putting an end to the Roman Empire. Then we have Celts, Picts, Scots, Gauls, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Jutes, Danes—and Vikings who, once Frenchified, became the Normans. Europe is one great big melting pot, there is nothing racially pure about it. The same thing happened elsewhere in the world.
It is irrational to discriminate against a group of people on the grounds of race because race has no basis in science. So called racial divisions, assumed to exist because people look different, do not have a genetic basis. We have diverged but our so-called races are not genetically discrete because, over thousands of years, we have also merged and remerged. Instead, race is a handy term we use to identify people as other or different. We are rather threatened by others. Sometimes with good cause—but, at other times, pogroms have been carried out against various groups of people who have posed no threat at all. Fear of others can quickly turn into hatred of whole groups and such fear is often whipped up by politicians and commentators as a way of gaining supporters. There is no greater sense of entitlement than feeling superior to others and therefore treating them in ways that you would find totally unacceptable were they members of your own group.
The prospect of being overwhelmed by large numbers of refugees and migrants is at the heart of a lot of the anxiety about the flow of people looking for new homes and opportunities. This is understandable because there are large numbers of people on the move around the world: 3% of the 7.6 billion people on Earth (258m) live outside their country of origin.
People move to other countries to escape devastating wars, as have the more than 5 million Syrian refugees who lost everything; they move to escape persecution for things that we would consider a democratic right in our own countries; or to escape violence, crime and chaos. People move because economic circumstances do not allow them to make a living in their own country. They move because of poverty and lack of social security. They move because over-population and environmental degradation mean that their land can no longer support them; and they move because they are seeking opportunities not only for themselves, but for their children. We would do the same if we were in their shoes.
But it is unsurprising that people become upset, outraged, fearful and angry about refugees and migrants when told about a million angry, ungrateful military age male Syrians swarming into a European country within a year. That would make anyone want to close the borders. But some facts have been put aside in this fear mongering. Such as the fact that, because of the civil war, much of Syria has been destroyed, around 500,000 people have been killed and many others maimed, tortured and otherwise traumatised by both sides of the conflict. Out of a population of 22 million, over 6 million have been displaced within Syria, and those that were able to (around 5.5m) have fled to other countries, mainly Middle Eastern countries, where many live below the poverty line and face a very uncertain future. Around a million have sought asylum in Europe, mainly in Germany. They were not all men and they did not all go there to cause strife.
In fact, research shows that Syrian refugees are generally not motivated by the desire to do harm to the countries they move to and that the danger that the West will be flooded by Syrian radicals is exaggerated. Those who seek asylum in the west are usually pro-west to begin with. One hopes that they will be made to feel welcome in their new countries, rather than treated with unkindness, racism and hostility. Most of these refugees do not hold radical religious or political beliefs and most want to return to their own country as soon as they can. There should be vetting of those seeking asylum in Europe—but they should not automatically be labelled as bad migrants.
Even when many of the migrants are men, as is the case with many of those who turn up in Spain from Africa, they are often primarily interested in earning money to send back to their families. Such migrants add to the prosperity of Europe. According to the OECD, over the past decade, 70% of the increase in Europe’s workforce was due to migrants and this was important to help grow the economy. Furthermore, they found that the inflow of migrants did not have a major impact on any country’s GDP.
There are many potential threats and we humans are very good at worrying about them. We are particularly good at erecting both metaphorical and physical barriers to protect us from the unseen hordes that we know are out there. Belonging to a group, especially if that group has powerful leaders and supports the status quo, is one way of feeling secure. Deep down, we clearly realise that this kind of behaviour is profoundly unkind and unfair because we tend to justify this position with the filmiest of reasons.
One in seven humans migrate—either within their own country, as when rural people move to cities, or to another country. More and more people are moving because of the effects of climate change. It is estimated that, by the year 2050, more than 140 million people could become climate refugees, who will all need to live somewhere and somehow. This will pose an even greater challenge than the influx of African refugees and migrants from across the Mediterranean into Europe or of Hispanic people trying to get into the United States from Central America because life is so bleak where they come from.
It will be hard to maintain an us and them attitude over the next decades, as increasingly large numbers of displaced people move in order to survive. We will need to become better at sharing—and we could gain a lot in the process. What we need is pragmatic, innovative and compassionate solutions. We need to challenge the persistence of prejudice, so that new people can be integrated into our societies in a civil, kind and orderly way—which will be good for them and good for us. To do this, we need to be clear about our values and expect newcomers to embrace them. For this very reason, fear, racism, superiority, entitlement and discrimination should form no part of those values.
We should feel at one with other humans in need because we are all very, very closely related. We share a common humanity, however we try to mask it. But giving up our tribes in favour of a global village seems an impossible step for some.