The refugee issue has deep historical roots that go back to the 14th century. The Black Death killed up to half the population of Europe, but it led to a concentration of efforts to make childbearing safer, which, in due course, gave rise to the first hints of the population explosion to follow.
In the 16th century, Europeans began travelling all over the world and it wasn’t long before they started settling abroad. This colonisation process wasn’t prompted merely by a spirit of adventure and the quest for gold, silver and other precious commodities but by the need for Europe’s growing population to find jobs. The trend intensified until the mid-20th century. The whole of the Americas and Australasia, parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa were thus colonised. Argentina’s population doubled within 20 years, thanks mostly to Italian and Spanish immigrants, including the parents of Pope Francis.
World War II brought this process to a halt. In effect, it spelled the end of the European colonial empires, though the winding-up process took four decades to complete. The decline in European birth rates meant there was no surplus population to become the new generation of settlers, so these empires started to wane from a lack of recruits.
Population movements, however, took a new turn. Almost imperceptibly the Third World had begun adopting First World medical standards, particularly in the management of childbirth. The result was a huge jump in the numbers of children who survived, followed by a growing need to export the new population surplus. Britain first experienced this with the arrival of West Indians who had been recruited as nurses for the National Health Service. The French, who had exported a million Europeans to Algeria during the 19th century, now found that growing numbers of native Algerians were coming to France.
The difficulties presented by the upsurge in indigenous populations in colonised countries were compounded by the disappearance of the colonial governments. The rule of law began to erode, and a new, sinister term came into use: The ‘failed state’. The first of these—Somaliland, Eritrea and Libya—were states of the former Italian empire. They became lawless dictatorships, eventually falling into chaos. In desperation, their hugely inflated populations started to seek sanctuary elsewhere.
The African-Asian population flood, now in full spate, was enormously increased by Muslim fundamentalism. Many imams began to preach that each Muslim wife—or wives—must give birth to a child a year. “We cannot compete with Western technology,” they extolled, “but we can outdo them in procreation”. Third World populations everywhere have increased, but the increase in predominantly Muslim states has been twice the rate of others.
Collapse of order
The detonator for the present refugee crisis was the so-called Arab Spring. Far from being the birth of democracy, that optimistic Western commentators first supposed, this series of events in North Africa and the Middle East marked a further and dramatic stage in the postimperial collapse of order and the proliferation of failed states.
Syria, which has ceased to exist as a geographical entity, has produced the largest numbers of terrified homeless. Eritrea and Libya are close behind, with almost every other territory in Africa also contributing refugees—and the numbers are growing. The supply of frightened Africans who will risk their lives to get to Europe is, in practical terms, limitless.
What’s particularly disturbing is that African states that once had bright futures are now teetering on the brink of ruin. South Africa is a case in point. If its mining industry goes under, the whole of sub-Saharan Africa will join the rush to get out.
The idea that the EU is the solution to the world’s refugee crisis is nonsense. The more people it takes in, the more will want to come. The only European state that has the capacity to accept massive numbers of refugees is Russia—but no one, not even Eritreans, wants to live in Putin’s kleptocracy. Putin bears a heavy responsibility for this crisis, because his armed support of Syria’s cruel and desperate Assad regime is the biggest factor in the expanding flood of homeless Syrians.
Removing Putin would be the single-most effective contribution toward stemming the flow of refugees. But who is to do that? President Obama, whose deliberate inactivity lies at the root of this crisis, refuses to do anything to help Europe. So we must grit our teeth and prepare for what is to come.
Paul Johnson is an eminent British historian and author
(This story appears in the 27 November, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)