Historians' Books

History, Historians and the Immigration Debate: Going Back to Where We Came From

Eureka Henrich , Julian M. Simpson (eds) |

Immigration debates have become central to political life not only in Brexit Britain, but around the globe. Promises to reduce migrant intakes, limit the movement of non-citizens and prevent the arrival of those seeking asylum are common across the political spectrum. The ‘irregular’ movement of peoples who threaten to challenge these aims is a regular feature on the front pages of our now-global online news media. Fuelling these stories is the sense that we are facing a migrant crisis - an unprecedented situation that states are ill-equipped to manage.  

The ideological battle lines of these debates are dug deep and belie the complexity and constancy of human movement in the past and present. We believe that a dearth of historical perspective at the heart of the debate has encouraged the present polarisation, and, as historians of migration, we are keenly aware of the wealth of knowledge and expertise that is largely untapped by governments and civil servants. History, Historians and the Immigration Debate: Going Back to Where We Came From is an attempt to start a new conversation about migration, one that draws from the past in order to inform the present, and that treats historical research as a valuable tool which can widen the realm of the possible. As one of our contributors, Klaus Neumann, argues in a chapter on the ‘hidden history’ of the right to and of asylum, it is history’s ‘dead ends’ which ‘allow us to imagine futures that are more than endlessly reproduced versions of the present’.

History, Historians and the Immigration Debate is structured geographically, with three central sections on Australia and New Zealand, Asia and Europe. Two additional sections bookend these case studies. The first addresses the profession of history, the role migration history plays within it and the choices historians make when framing their research. The last takes a step back to consider migration globally. The aim is to offer a global perspective on the relevance of migration history and its future.

A guiding idea throughout the writing and editing process has been to interrogate and subvert that most typical of injunctions directed at migrants: to ‘go back to where you came from’. The notion that a person ‘comes from’ a single place, and therefore is ‘out of place’ when encountered elsewhere, is grounded in perceptions of race, nation and locality which are constructed and historically contingent. To reveal these contingencies the historians featured in the book ‘go back’ chronologically and present evidence of human mobility which challenges, surprises or shifts perceptions of what is ‘new’ or ‘natural’ about migration. We find, for instance, through Mina Roces’ research that Filipina marriage migrants in Australia and their advocates worked together in the 1980s and 1990s to change federal immigration policy, successfully preventing the serial sponsorship of Filipina wives by Australian men who had abused or murdered their spouses. The question of ‘where we come from’ has also prompted us to reflect on our own professional identities as historians of migration, and to trace how migration history has developed in relation to the broader field of historical studies. This is a theme that is also addressed by a number of our contributors, making History, Historians and the Immigration Debate a useful source for both the past and possible futures of migration history.

EXTRACT: The politics of migration history

Our concerns about the tenor of current ‘immigration debates’, and the general reluctance of historians to engage in them, are not without precedent. Almost three decades ago, similar considerations prompted Gérard Noiriel to write his landmark history of immigration in France, The French Melting Pot: Immigration, Citizenship and National Identity. As he recalls in the English-language translation:

My purpose… was not to intervene directly in the public controversy but, rather, by setting the historical record straight, to confront these efforts to manipulate the past. I wanted to show that the indifference displayed by French historians on this issue had encouraged nationalist propaganda by fostering a genuine phenomenon of collective amnesia about the extraordinary role played by immigration in the renewal of the French population during the twentieth century.

The ‘collective amnesia’ diagnosed by Noiriel recurs in the historical record whenever an apparently ‘new’ group appears to resist integration or assimilation -- in this case, North African Muslim immigrants served as the subjects of anxiety. Controverting the idea of migration as a problematic new phenomenon, and instead ‘setting the historical record straight’, became the important project of many migration historians working within nationalist historiographies from the 1980s onwards. In European countries, which have historically been reluctant to accept migratory movements as an integral part of their development, this was a radical proposal. As Leo Lucassen points out, ‘Ellis Islands’ - places that commemorate the entry of migrants into a country and create a context for remembering and reflecting on such processes -- are hard to locate in the European landscape. The close links between the development in Western Europe of the concept of the nation-state, with a stable homogeneous citizenry, and the profession of history is one possible explanation that has been put forward to explain this lack of engagement.

If historians had been blind to the centrality of migration in the development of contemporary nations, politicians were blissfully ignorant. As the British pioneer of migration history Colin Holmes noted: ‘It might be convenient, an apt political rationalization of a policy decision, to proclaim that Britain is not “an immigration country”. However, it is a remark that has no historical substance’.

Whether asserting the positive economic and cultural contributions of migrant groups in the nation, or revealing preceding waves of various classes of newcomers, such as refugees, what united the wave of ‘new migration historians’ in the 1980s was a desire to demonstrate that migrants deserved a central place in nation-building narratives, rather than being relegated to the side-lines of historical change. This trend was inflected differently in settler societies such as the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. There the positive narrative of the ‘nation of immigrants’, what Australian historian Graeme Davison calls ‘the great voyage’, was already a familiar, albeit benign, vehicle for celebrating national progress (official choreographed celebrations and ‘birthdays’ such as the annual Waitangi Day in New Zealand, the Australian Bicentenary in 1988 and the American Bicentenary in 1976 all drew on this archetypal story). Rather than a drastic challenge to previous national narratives, social historians in these countries pointed to the silences and conflations within them – the violent conflict and dispossession of Indigenous peoples which made possible colonial expansions, the racial and ethnic diversity and changing composition of the migrant intake in supposedly ‘white’ settler societies, the forced migration of convicts, slaves and indentured labourers alongside free emigrants which made the imperial enterprise profitable, and the policies enacted by colonial governments to police their newly-drawn borders. Race relations and attention to gender were key to these histories, and post-colonial theories challenged and reinvigorated the literature in the 1990s by questioning dominant Western-centric narratives.

Alongside this scholarship appeared ethno-specific studies. Historians of particular groups, such as the Scots, Chinese or Italians, were engaged in the important and validating project of writing minority migrant groups into the story of immigrant nations -- a project that was shared by many family historians searching for their ‘roots’. While some transcended national boundaries to consider the global flow of ethnic groups, most stuck to the nation — or destination — as the frame of analysis. Their questions concerned who came, when, why, and what they contributed to their adopted country — an approach that, however useful, tends to produce immigrant success stories in which newcomers successfully assimilate and become grateful citizens. Pushing against this celebratory narrative, or the ‘Ellis Island paradigm’ of immigration history, has in recent years become a priority for historians in post-colonial settler societies.

Despite the efflorescence of many strands of migration history in recent decades, and the mission to bring migration from the periphery to the centre, the writings of migration historians have ironically remained on the margins of the mainstream historical discipline.  In both avowedly ‘immigrant’ nations and those which resist that categorisation, there developed clusters of historians whose work spoke to small circles of like-minded specialists — be it in convict transportation, slavery, empire migration schemes, or post-colonial migration — but rarely did this work influence broader theoretical or historiographical trends. The result is what has recently been dubbed ‘the splendid isolation of migration history’ — a splintering and side-lining of a literature which we believe has made it harder for specialists to come together and influence the increasingly anxious discourses on immigration outside the academy.

In his 2012 book The Battle of Britishness: Migrant Journeys, 1685 to the Present, Tony Kushner traced the journeys of migrants to Britain, and the ways that those journeys have been remembered (or forgotten) in Britain today. Responding to a review of the book, he drew attention to the ‘obsessive national and international concern about migration’ and argued that in this context:

…historians have a role – professional and moral – to show that British history is about migration within its borders and also in relation to immigration and emigration. It is a history, like all national histories, that is about movement. For too long the study of migration in British history has been left to a handful of specialists… but ignored by the so-called mainstream.

The implication, reminiscent of Noiriel’s argument concerning France in the 1980s, is that in the absence of a historical profession engaged publicly in the history of migration, the past has been vulnerable to those keen to ‘exploit it with a restrictionist or discriminatory agenda’.

Individuals like Noiriel and Kushner, by their choice of questions and thorough methods of social history research, have brought their work to bear on broader discussions outside their institutions. But as a group, the historical profession has not yet engaged confidently in debates about migration. Perhaps the most promising leap forward in the field in recent years has been the embrace of the global as a framework for historical analysis. ‘Going global’ has implications for how historians ‘do history’ — the further away from specialisation we go, the more we must rely on other experts and scholars, often outside our discipline. In Migration History in World History, Lucassen, Lucassen and Manning draw together sociological, historical and anthropological approaches to migration. By introducing historians to different methodologies and periods of study -- often far beyond the comfort zone of written records — the authors are able to start a conversation about the nature of mobility in human history — one that has influenced the underlying arguments in this volume.

Another important influence on our thinking about migration has been the work of historians engaged in the ‘new imperial history’.  Drawing attention to the political, cultural, ideological and demographic legacies of imperialism encourages us to recognise connections between imperial movements and contemporary migrations, such as post-war migration from Britain’s former colonies to the UK. These connections have been repeatedly invoked by migrants themselves in the powerful slogan, ‘we are here because you were there’. And crucially, as Antoinette Burton argues, the process of interrogating imperial legacies involves ‘unmasking’ national historiographies and their attendant national identities which are themselves products of empire. Global or world history and the ‘new imperial history’ have the potential to re-frame migration in ways that can influence public debate, but reaching that potential will require historians to write for, speak to and engage with audiences beyond their colleagues and students.

Excerpted from Julian M. Simpson and Eureka Henrich, ‘From the Margins of History to the Political Mainstream: Putting Migration History Centre Stage’ in Simpson and Henrich (eds), History, Historians and the Immigration Debate: Going Back to Where We Came From (Palgrave Macmillan 2019), 15-32.

About the Authors

Eureka Henrich is a Research Fellow in Conflict, Memory and Legacy at the University of Hertfordshire and an Honorary Associate of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London. Her work explores histories of migration, health, heritage and memory in Australian and transnational contexts. Her publications include ‘Museums, History and Migration in Australia’, History Compass 11/10 (2013): 783-800, and ‘Mobility, Migration and Modern Memory’ in The Past in the Present: History, Memory and Public Life (Routledge, 2018). 

Julian M. Simpson is an independent researcher and writer based in the North of England. He has published widely on the history of migration and the relationship between history and policy. He is the author of Migrant Architects of the NHS: South Asian doctors and the reinvention of British general practice (1940s-1980s) (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018).

The book will be launched at the Migration Museum in Lambeth on Thursday 28th February from 6.30pm. Details and tickets on Eventbrite.

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