Migration – The Moving Other

© Oleg Dergachov


I –  Long Ago


In the beginning there was Migration…not Eden, not Providence, not the Prime Mover. If we dig deep and look far, we see that migrations have made us what we are. And the first of these displacements was millennia ago, out of Africa.

Human beings have always been on the move, so not only have the subjects of history been in movement, but the historians who narrate the journey along the way are themselves changing places. When we think of the human, the subject is moving – -and so is the observer.

And at this very moment, in the words of the American journalist Paul Salopek, we “are living through the greatest mass migration our species has ever known” as almost “a billion people are on the move today across the earth” (Salopek, “To Walk The World,” National Geographic, Dec. 2013). How we view this current movement is of enormous political and anthropological importance, since our judgment of the moving other is a test of our own observation and our political common sense. Salopek has embarked on a 7-year, 21,000 mile walk of his own in an attempt to  understand today’s movements of peoples by “seeking guidance,” as he puts it “from those who had walked before” – “600 centuries” in the past. So he is re-creating the human trek of long ago, he says, by going from Ethiopia, through Asia, down to Tierra del Fuego in South America:

Starting in humanity’s birthplace in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, I am retracing, on foot, the pathways of the ancestors who first discovered the Earth at least 60,000 years ago. (Salopek, 36)


(See the site: http://outofedenwalk.nationalgeographic.com/)

At the beginning of this year, 2014, I was having thoughts like these (without the trek!), because I was thinking of the parallel between ancient and modern migration, and considering as well this current issue of Montreal Serai.

I was also wondering about pre-history because I have been teaching a book that raises vital questions about the very first migrations of the human species — An Illustrated Short History of Progress (Anansi 2008) by the Canadian anthropologist and writer, Ronald Wright. This lively text derives from Wright’s 2004 CBC Radio Massey lectures that scanned the human journey from 3 million years ago to today, examining successive civilizations and the way their very achievements have engendered failure. The radio talks themselves spawned two book versions, as well as a 2011 film Surviving Progress, and various audiences have been attracted by the central argument. Repeatedly, says Wright, cultures have produced new techniques that procure forward-moving gains, but then human agents, usually elites, push a culture’s technology beyond natural limits, eventually undermining the natural structures upon which the society depends. The internal logic of “human systems”, says Wright, makes civilizers into civilization destroyers. He argues that this pattern underlies a number of different histories, involving various peoples: the Paleolithic hunters of mammoths; the Sumerians; the ancient Romans; the Mayans; the natives of Easter Island; and now, the people of today’s “global civilization.”

Like a number of contemporary biologists, anthropologists, and ecologists, Wright is very angry about our destruction of nature at this precise historical moment and the threat we pose to our own futurity. He draws a kind of police profile of humanity as “serial killers beyond reason” (Wright 85), perhaps doomed to crush ourselves unless we truly come to terms with our past in order to find remedies for the future.

Wright is a fine popularizer and writes vividly. But parts of his argument, echoed by many others in the last generation, involve blatant projections of present dilemmas upon the distant past in ways that show how tricky it is to interpret the meaning of human migrations– present or past.

Wright draws on the current picture of Homo erectus leaving Africa approximately one million years ago, and then Homo sapiens migrating northwards about 100,000 B.C.  and he takes details from both the “multi-regional” and the out –of- Africa hypotheses, without deciding between them.  It is uncertain whether our ancestors developed in many regions of Eurasia, or were all descendants of the last African emigration, as the Cro-Magnons of Europe appeared to be. [The term Cro-Magnon comes from a valley in southwestern France where abundant fossils have been found.] Around the Mediterranean, the Neanderthals (same species as Cro-Magnon? different?) lived slightly more sedentary lives from 130,000 to 30,000 years ago, and for 10,000 years –from 40,000 B.C. to 30,000 B.C. — the wrestler-like Neanderthals and the lithe Cro-Magnons over-lapped, especially in the Mid-East. Recent DNA studies show that modern humans carry some Neanderthal genes, and that fact in turn reinforces other evidence suggesting that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons interbred.

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We have a picture then of people – Homo sapiens — moving northwards and southwards at both edges of the Mediterranean, and perhaps all across Eurasia. The arc of probable travel reaches from Spain all the way to Australia. The figures involved are modest, maybe 100,000 individuals taken altogether. If we could reconstruct the pattern of human migrations, we would see a fine pattern of criss-crossing movements over a very large territory.

Then, around 50,000 B.C. a period of rapid climate changes occur, a precursor to the later end of glaciation.

And… after 30,000 B.C., the Neanderthals disappear.

Ronald Wright paints this canvas in measured tones, but then suddenly jumps to the conclusion that “wars” of annihilation must have taken place between migrating Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. And of the Neanderthals he concludes:

But if they were in fact a variant or race of modern man, then we must admit to ourselves that their death may have been the first genocide. Or worse, not the first – merely the first of which evidence survives. It may follow from this that we are descended from a million years of ruthless victories, genetically predisposed by the sins of our fathers to do likewise again and again. (Wright 31).

Then Wright dramatically moves on to invocations of “the bloodstained earth of Europe,” the “final solution” and “the slaughter of the Somme” to explain how our Cro-Magnon ancestors may have exterminated the Neanderthals. This image of our ancestors as a kind of killer species has a lot of currency among certain contemporary social scientists. Often cited, as well, is the fact that on all the continents the big game mammals disappeared at about the same time that migrant Homo sapiens came upon the scene.

Perhaps this sketch of Homo occidens (“man the killer”) is true – the American writer Jared Diamond has certainly given it great publicity – but the real evidence for this theory of early genocide is extremely sparse.

Wright, like others, projects the experience of modern European nation-states, and the guilt of our own civilization, onto the distant but still mysterious migrations and encounters of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons.

Perhaps our ancestors did wipe out our cousins, Homo neanderthalensis – but that idea remains unproven, and it obscures other possible causes of the Neanderthals’ disappearance.

For example, at the end of the last major period of glaciation there were dramatic changes of climate that were extremely rapid, involving serious temperature fluctuations. The Neanderthals hunted the big animals at very close range and had developed a culture intimately tied to the creatures they hunted. Giant mammoths and other large animals had closely adapted to specific climactic conditions that changed dramatically and very quickly – probably far more seriously than we are able to imagine. The stress on fauna was enormous, making them subject to natural population depletion and also, in all likelihood, to new pathogens for which they had no immunity, as the animals themselves shifted their migration patterns with increasing desperation. Such a decline of prey would then engender a similar downward cycle among the human hunting groups following the animals they depended upon.

No great Cro-Magnon killing need have occurred for the Neanderthals to disappear. Climate change was enough.

A complex set of migrations – involving both humans and animals – could easily have produced an end that would resemble a silent extinction. And yet we almost want to see genocide at work, visualizing bloodthirsty Cro-Magnons attacking their cousins, because of our deep narcissism– our need, I think, to project the mass murders of the twentieth century onto our ancestors.

Their complex wanderings become, quite crudely, marches to war of the type we have known.

I talked just recently about some of these questions of pre-history with Mark Blaker, a professor of Anthropology at Montreal’s Dawson College and he made an interesting comment.  “We are constantly looking for stereotypes,” he said, “and then what we discover is not precisely what we expected.”

Paul Salopek starts his National Geographic series with one simple sentence: “Walking is falling forward,” and walking is both the physical basis of his seven-year report and its central metaphor.

The aboriginal peoples of Australia have a rite of passage known as a “walkabout” into the wilderness during which the young become adult. When we imagine our distant, pre-historic ancestors and their Great Human Walkabout in Africa and Eurasia, it is as if we want to see them “falling” our way – as in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Fortunately, the truth is likely to be quite different, and most of the story remains to be written by future researchers.

In the meantime, the long ago is a reminder of how important migration has been and how difficult it is to understand.



Migration Now – The Moving Other today

International migration has never been as pervasive, or as

socio-economically and

politically significant, as it is today

The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World by Stephen Castles, Hein De Haas, and Mark J. Miller, Fifth Edition (The Guilford Press 2014)


In the first article of his continuing series for the National Geographic Paul Salopek mentions nearly “a billion people on the move today.” What he does not indicate in his piece is that he has arrived at that figure by adding two other global numbers from UN agencies: the 740 million people who are internal migrants, travelling inside countries on every continent, and the 214 million who truly are “international migrants” (Castles et al., 7-8).

The UN definition of a migrant is someone “living outside their country of birth for at least a year” (Castles 7). And indeed internal and external movements are often deeply connected. This process of global mobility is dynamic, ongoing, and it includes the most terrible forms of coercion as well as the free agency of millions of people.

A substantial literature exists on the subject, best represented by the indispensable handbook The Age of Migration, and many other works such as Khalid Koser’s International Migration: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2007).

(See the valuable site: http://www.age-of-migration.com/)

Despite the personal tragedies connected with these modern population movements, they remain transformative for both sending and receiving countries. However, because of the international inequality of exchange, richer countries benefit disproportionately from population flow and beneficial migration is, as it were, a privilege of the already rich countries, even if it is not so perceived.



As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman comments in Globalization: The Human Consequences (Cambridge 1998), “The riches are global, the misery is local,” and “mobility has become the most powerful and most coveted stratifying factor” in the globalized world (Castles 35). Nonetheless, as Castles and his colleagues indicate, “International migration is part of a transnational shift that is reshaping societies and politics around the globe” and “the continuing international population movements will increase the ethnic diversity of more and more countries” (Castles 13, 20).


The literature makes it clear that there are a certain number of distinct stereotypes and lesser known truths concerning the migrations now taking place:

1.  Stereotype: There is a greater and greater level of international immigration.

Truth: The level of international migration has remained at the same level – roughly 3% of world population – since 1945. According to 2010 figures, there are 214 million international migrants. Of course the global population has grown to above 7 billion, and non-migratory mobility (commuting, business trips, tourism) is vastly greater (Castles 34). Irregular migration is also significant and hard to measure. Since the end of World War II, North and South America, Oceania, and Europe have economically depended on immigration. Now other countries receive immigrants, such as Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Gabon, Kenya, Botswana, South Africa, Nigeria, Malaysia, Singapore, The Gulf States, Indonesia, China, India, Brazil, Ukraine, The Russian Federation, Chile, Venezuela, and Mexico.

2.  Stereotype: Immigrants “supply” problems and cause economic changes when they come to other countries.

Truth: Most immigration now is “demand-driven” and deeper socio-economic changes are producing immigration, not the other way around. Immigrants are blamed for features of contemporary capitalism that affect both them and host populations, but that commonality is obscured by racist reactions to newcomers.

3.  Stereotype: Immigrants are the poorest of the poor.

Truth: People who immigrate usually are not the most poor of their populations in their home country – those people tend to stay home. Instead, immigrants are people with some means, education, and prospects. Increasing levels of “education, income and connectivity are likely to fuel emigration” (Castles 196).

4.  Stereotype: Only certain countries are “immigration” countries.

Truth: Nearly every country in the world today is both a “sending” and a “receiving” country for international immigrants. The largest number of immigrants in the world live in the United States (35 million),but it is not widely known that one of the countries with the next largest number of immigrants is The Russian Federation with 13 million (Koser 5).

As Khalid Koser points out, “in the Russian Federation irregular migrants keep heavy industry working,” and at the present time the Russian Federation “has continued to attract immigrants from former Soviet Union republics (such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Ukraine) and China” (Castles 119). Ukraine is also a significant importer of immigrant labor with between 6 and 7 million foreign-born people inside the country (Koser 5).

There are even today private Chinese citizens going to Africa and Africans immigrating to China – the numbers are still small, but rapidly increasing.

5.  Stereotype: Immigrants to the United States, and other countries, always stay and never return home.

Truth: Among Europeans going to the Americas during the last one hundred years, between 25% and 40% returned to their countries of origin after a “sojourn” in the New World.

6.  Stereotype: Historically, the immigrant has freely chosen to move.

Truth: Much historical migration in the past has been coerced, the most significant example being the forced enslavement and deportation of 15 million Africans to the New World as slave labor.

7.     Stereotype: “Tough” immigration laws deter immigration and improve ethnic relations.

Truth: Apparently harsh legislation in the last decades has actually led to more people becoming determined to consolidate their immigration and remain in a host country on a permanent basis. Castles, Haas, and Miller observe that “harsh political discourse on immigration which obscures the real demand for migrant labour can be a catalyst for the very xenophobia and apocalyptic representations of a massive influx of migrants to which they claim to be a political-electoral response” (324). And these specialists add that a focus on origin country development creates the “false suggestion that migration is mainly driven by poverty, diverting the attention away from the demand-driven nature of much labour migration” (323).

Neo-liberal economic policies since the 1980s have meant that labor markets throughout the world have now become highly “segmented.” After 1945, mass production needs spurred international demand for labor. Then in the 1970s, labor-intensive production moved to low-wage economies. Now deregulated industries and weakened welfare states have created “segmented demand” for workers in certain kinds of jobs, especially in the service sector, and that change has led, particularly in Europe to “the racialization of exclusion and poverty” (Castles 254-255). In the case of off-shore production, the work does not always move to the workers, however; sometimes they are imported. The Italian textile city of Prato, for example, has more than 50,000 Chinese workers in the city living in difficult circumstances.

Migrant labor is simultaneously “essential” and “disadvantaged” and racism and rising inequality in receiving countries leads to the “racialization of ethnic difference” amid “the ‘dual crisis’ of national identity and the welfare state” (Castles 294). Hostility to immigrants is not only a feature of European life – it is being seen increasingly in Africa and the Middle East.

Meanwhile virtually every country in the world depends upon its migrants, yet political leaders and public debates “still generally treat migration as something fundamentally abnormal and problematic” (Castles 319).

What is the truth that many people do not want to face? With all the exploitation that is attached to it, immigration is an immensely powerful and enriching force.

Every country in Western Europe, for example, now has a significant number of foreign-born residents and nationals, and these new citizens are changing Europe in profound and often very good ways. At the same time, right-wing, nationalistic movements are on the rise precisely in response to the depth of the cultural change.

In the New World, the United States has about 13% foreign-born members of its population; in Canada the percentage is nearly 20%. And these two jurisdictions in particular have been thought of “immigration countries.” However in Europe, now, there are similar and sometimes higher proportions of foreign-born in the national population: for example, in Switzerland (26.6%), Ireland (17.3%) Belgium (13.9%), Germany (13%), and the U.K. (11.5%).

Most countries throughout the world need new, realistic immigration policies, but that political will is lacking. In 1990 the UN General Assembly passed the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. But as of 2013, only 46 member states out of 193 have ratified the document and these are “mainly countries of emigration; immigration countries have not been willing to support measures designed to protect migrants” (Castles P. 17 and P. 321).

The Age of Migration, in its latest edition, concludes with remarks about “Ethnic Diversity, social change and the nation state.” The authors insist that “the reality for most countries today is that they have to contend with a new type of pluralism” and “Monocultural and assimilationist models of national identity are no longer adequate for this new situation” (330). Majority populations – in many places – will have “to learn to live with cultural pluralism, even if it means modifying their own expectations of acceptable standards of behaviour and social conformity.”

Transnational networks, multiple identities, increased diversity — but also great gulfs–mark global cities such as New York, Toronto, Paris, London, Tokyo, Bangkok, and Sydney. And “It is out of this contradictory and multilayered character of the global city that its enormous energy, its cultural dynamism and its innovative capability emerge. But these coexist with potential for social breakdown, conflict, repression and violence” (329).

Migration is part of the global tension between dynamism and breakdown. It is where we came from in the distant past, and it is also where we are going in the future.

In the Twenty-First Century migration is one of the keys to the world we are making and that also is shaping us. We must see it for what it is. To “look for stereotypes,” to borrow the words of anthropologist Mark Blaker, is both unwise and dangerous. Instead we must be ready to appreciate, as Blaker puts it, that “what we discover is not precisely what we expected.”


Interesting links:



Illustration by: Oleg Dergachov. Oleg Dergachov is a Ukrainian painter, graphic artist, cartoonist and sculptor who works and teaches in his cozy Westmount studio in Montreal.