A Brief History of Migrations

With all the current debate about migrants, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a recent article entitled “The Accidents of History That Shaped Global Migration” by James Watkins (https://www.ozy.com/acumen/the-accidents-of-history-that-shaped-global-migration/76888?).

I already knew that many Irish settled in Boston, especially during the Great Famine of 1845-49 when the potato crop failed (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_(Ireland)), because that was the closest U.S. port and they didn’t have the money to travel any further.

More recently, according to the article, immigrants from Thailand started arriving in Iceland (of all places) in 1979. No one knows for sure who was first, but apparently they were mostly women who had met Icelandic men traveling in Southeast Asia. (Having spent a year in Thailand myself, I can understand the attraction.) But the end result is today about a thousand of Iceland’s 20,000 immigrants are from Thailand.

Also, there has been large-scale emigration from the Cape Verde islands, off the west coast of Africa. Popular destinations have been Portugal, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, and… Massachusetts! It seems whaling ships from New Bedford, MA used to stop in the islands for supplies and crew in the 18th century. A few stayed in the U.S. and eventually others followed, until 300,000 Americans now claim Cape Verde ancestry. The same thing happened when Cape Verdeans started working on cruise ships in the 1960s and 1970s. Rotterdam was home port for some of these ships, so now more than 14,000 immigrants from Cape Verde are in the Netherlands. And an Italian community started when a few Capuchin friars worked as missionaries and hired young women as domestic workers; they began a wave of up to 10,000 Cape Verdeans to migrate to Rome and Naples. “It can be quite random why or how or where a migration flow starts,” says Jørgen Carling, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. “But once it’s started, there are really quite powerful mechanisms setting it in motion and increasing it.”

According to Professor Nikola Sander from the Population Research Center at the Netherlands’ University of Groningen, colonial history and language usually form the basis of migration pathways. But incidental connections can turn into full-blown permanent migratory links in a process sociologists call “cumulative causation.” This happens because migrants are more likely to follow the paths of friends and relatives than strike out on their own. Lewiston, Maine is the only U.S. city where the largest minority group is Somali — around 7,000 of a total population of 36,000. The first Somali refugee moved there from Portland in 2001; more followed simply from word of mouth.

A surprising migration link is from Lebanon to Brazil, where 6 percent of Brazil’s population is of Lebanese descent. Supposedly Dom Pedro II, the last emperor of Brazil, visited Lebanon in the 1870s and encouraged peasants to seek riches in Latin America, sparking an exodus. But in truth it was war and economic collapse that tore apart the Levant in the late 19th century. People who fled probably didn’t even understand where they were going, and if refused entry to the United States, went further south. Or they simply aimed for North America and missed.

Such is the real way migration works.

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