Gatrell’s eye for detail and sensitivity make this a compelling account that challenges the “us” and “them” framing into which much discussion of migration is forced. Its great strength is that it treats the emotional and cultural aspects of the subject with as much respect as the historical facts and figures. Among the many vivid stories to be found here, one that sticks in my mind is that of the Swiss journalist who, when asked about Italian workers in his country in the mid-60s, wryly commented: “We asked for hands, but we got people instead.”
Although there is little that Gatrell does not explore, The Unsettling of Europe is more than a chronicle of facts and events. At a time when the literature on migration grows daily, with ever more memoirs, histories, reportage and accounts of survival and loss, of the horrors of flight and resettlement camps, Gatrell provides a balanced and valuable overview. However familiar the material, by pulling back to the larger picture he has provided much-needed context to the issues facing governments today.
...The Unsettling of Europe is a positive and sympathetic book that seeks to rebalance the conversation. It is a bold, meticulously researched and frequently compelling account. It draws on a vast testimony, and spans history, film, literature and culture. In an era in which debates about migration find their expression through populist billboards, elections or contested economic data, Gatrell presents migrants “as flesh-and-blood people, with their own motives, aspirations, and anxieties, not an abstract entity”... Given this focus, a perhaps inevitable weakness of the book is that it can be as one-sided as the debate over migration that it criticises. It focuses almost exclusively on the beneficial aspects of this demographic churn and never quite engages seriously enough with the arguments of those who call not for an end to migration but a slower rate of change and more energy devoted to integration.
This is not a book for trade-offs or dilemmas and Gatrell is too incurious to consider how a desirable degree of migration openness can be reconciled both with most peoples’ preference for a relatively stable way of life and with the tenacity of attachment to nation states and citizenship, which is surely the real lesson of the post-war European story.
One strength of the book is its focus on the stories of individual migrants, the communities in which they arrived, and their continued connections, at least in some cases, with their countries of origin... Gatrell’s nuanced and sympathetic treatment of the variety of the immigrant experience – and its impact on European societies – can also be seen as a rejoinder to two recent, well-publicised books. As HL Mencken wrote: “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” Douglas Murray, author of The Strange Death of Europe, an extended mixture of conspiracy theory and bigotry, wants some version of Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration. Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift argues for ethnic – that is, white – preference in immigration policies to preserve a supposedly threatened “white identity”. Gatrell, however, offers no such simplicities. He recognises – as the title makes clear – that migration can be unsettling, both for migrants and the societies where they arrive.
The Unsettling of Europe is a definitive book in which Peter Gatrell, a historian of population movement at the University of Manchester, proves that “what we used to have” is a chimerical idea. As is the often repeated notion that today’s migration levels — immigration and emigration (although the second is rarely mentioned) — are “unprecedented”.
For all the ‘ruin in the human soul’ the displacement of survivors caused, in the words of one American author-witness, ethnic homogenisation failed as a measure against future trouble. Our collective attention span is short, and national memory selective. In 21st-century Europe, when politicians equate ‘migration’ with ‘crisis’, Gatrell’s calmly humanist history fills a large memory hole. These compelling opening narratives reveal how the countries of Europe as we know them today were shaped by waves of traumatised people crossing arbitrary new borders, and why ‘opportunity migration was central to the history of post-war Europe’. The extent of that migration dwarfs anything seen since.
One of the greatest strengths of the book is Gatrell’s consistent attention to the voices of migrants themselves, not only as recorded in sociological research but in writing, drama or film. There is some poignant reflection on how the returning migrant is doubly a stranger – crystallised in a 1984 Yugoslavian film about a worker making a brief return visit to his village and finding a pair of men’s boots outside his door. He assumes his wife has taken a lover; but in fact they belong to his son, now an adult, whom he has not seen for years. So many narratives flash out the Catch-22 situations that can trap migrants of all kinds...The conclusions of the book are modest, mostly to do with what needs to be remembered and recognised when we are lured by the clichés so effectively dismantled by the research summarised by Gatrell.
Gatrell is good at pinpointing recurrent migratory patterns across time and geography. Just as Bosnia of all places has become the recipient of Middle Eastern refugees following the Balkan land route, so Italy, Spain, and Greece are unwilling hosts to maritime refugees from the global South, having themselves produced vast numbers of migrants during their own difficult decades.
A delight of the book is Gatrell’s frequent use of what Svetlana Alexievich calls ‘the lone human voice’ to show how ‘contingency and personal connections’ are behind each ‘ordinary or extraordinary’ story of migration.