hen chaotically unhappy people risk everything to leave their homelands in search of a promised land they fully expect to find one. Their imaginations combine to suggest their arrival point, wherever it is, will afford relief and safe haven. If they knew horror at home, the new place will be without it. If they were displaced, the new venue will give umbrage. This is what the crazed but determined mind craves when it decides enough is enough and it’s time to uproot.
It is a reality that lies at the core of the so-called European migrant crisis, in which hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Muslims, are trekking east to west to escape sordid persecution in broken states now savaged by violence and bandied about in the hands of amoral insurgencies.
To liberals, the migrants are human beings, period, requiring the care and attention mandated by post-World War II humanitarianism. To nationalists, they are putative radicals eager to infiltrate the West. To many in the middle, confused by the meaning of the migrant tide, the newcomers are cultural strangers at best and potential job thieves at worst.
But these views and their many shadings tend to conceal any vision of the post-migration, after the flux has come to rest in Italy and France, in Germany and Sweden, in Denmark and Holland, in Spain and Norway. Migration is most moving and noteworthy when its human flows are on the move. Once they arrived and settled in as best they can the intense focus tends to fade away. The next step is absorption, amalgamation, incorporation, or lack thereof.
Since Europe fell into recession nearly a decade ago it’s the lacks that have been most evident. Immigrant communities in France — which has long experience in the vicissitudes of post-colonial integration — have at times risen up to decry their second-class status in modern France, claiming discrimination on any number of fronts, from employment to religion. The European dream, to many, has proved a “misprison of modern relief” — the phrase belongs to fantasist China Miélville’s — whose fluorescence soon dims to betray if not overturn madly hopeful visions. This has led “veteran” immigrants, those with at least a decade-long stake in their new country, to turn at times to the kind of radicalism they or their parents decried in fleeing their homelands. The ferocity of “original disenchantment,” the collective letdown that follows an immense and deeply held dream of the better, is inestimable. Those who dream of such a “better” want it badly enough to resent places either unable or apparently resistant to the accomplishment of the better. Dreamed-off European cities seen in Youtube videos and Instagram posts as sanctuaries gradually lose their pull and become what they are, places of economic confinement. The newly arrived are often stuck in poor outskirts. Assimilation, while possible, comes with humiliation. Outcast status is reinforced by closed communities of people who stick to the ways they brought them from their place of origin — something Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested five years ago when she controversially insisted the German experiment in “side-by-side” multicultural assimilation had “utterly failed.”
But failure works two ways. If the first failure belongs to the new host state, resigned to old resentments, the second is property of migrants who grow swiftly disillusioned with their vision, and increasingly resentful that their adopted homes resist cultural and religious interpretations of life they find vital and bracing. This where the “be careful what you wish for” ingredient betrays those migrants who hope to bring not only their families but also their cultural heritage with them. Add financial woes, and they arise swiftly, and the life-saving purpose of the migration sours, all the more for the youth that may have known little when they accompanied their parents West.
The American promised land concept depended on sprawl, and that sprawl —as well as the continent’s distance from Europe — eventually allowed the Irish and the Italians, the Poles and the Germans, to make peace in a country that in part had yet to be invented, so they united to invent it.
Europe was invented a long, long time ago. Many of its colonial immigrants have become part of a thriving, secular middle class, following the pattern of secularism France, Britain and other installed in the many countries it once controlled. This latest tide has little in common with its post-colonial precursors. It seeks relief and opportunity. It craves peace of mind and identity, though not necessarily a new national one. It wants above all to stake out more peaceful territory. Europe, xenophobia aside, would seem to qualify in every way. In fact, most migrants say they care little about the conditions they’ll find so long as they’re allowed a beachhead. It’s a harbor in a storm.
But such expressions are fleeting. They’re expressions of hope in its purest form, noble hope. The problem arises when such noble hope is betrayed, creating and potentially nurturing make-believe nostalgia for an antediluvian homeland that is the antechamber of religious or territorial radicalism.
The challenge facing Europe isn’t how to cope with the migrant flow — it will over time. The concern posed by a future horizon is the generalized disenchantment that crops up when the settled begin to second-guess their once-heroic exodus.