How has migration changed the world?

Throughout human history, men and women have travelled across continents and oceans, in search of opportunities, seeking refuge from war or persecution, or transported as slaves. In this piece written in 2018, eight experts discuss the impacts these people had on the places they settled – and the lands they left behind

Illustration depicting the migration of people across the world

“Migration was central to growth and sustainability for both ancient Greek and Roman civilisations”

Robert Garland is the Roy D and Margaret B Wooster Professor of the Classics at Colgate University, New York

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According to United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) figures, as of June 2018 there were 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.

An unprecedented crisis? Hardly. Though the scale was much smaller in antiquity, proportionately the suffering was just as great. Before the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC, the Athenians evacuated some 100,000 women, children, elderly and slaves to the Peloponnese and islands off the coast of Attica. When the Athenians finally arrived at their destinations, there were no medical services, no reception centres, no aid workers, no supplies of clothing, bedding or clean water to greet them. The evacuees returned to their homes to find them burned down – not once but twice. Had the Persian invasion been successful, they would have been either enslaved or massacred.

Both Greek and Roman civilisations were dependent upon the movement of displaced persons, though they rarely feature in ancient accounts, largely because no one much cared. The Greeks exported their surplus population around the Mediterranean.

When the island of Thera (now called Santorini) experienced a severe famine, it sent an expedition to Libya. The enterprise failed, and the would-be settlers sailed home. However, on their return their compatriots pelted them with rocks and ordered them not to land – such was the extremity of their hunger. Sending out boatloads of refugees has always been a hazardous enterprise and then as now, no doubt, many thousands perished at sea.

By contrast, Rome’s rapid demographic growth depended on an influx of foreigners, many of them refugees. Romulus, its first king, established an asylum on the Capitoline Hill “to which a mixed rabble, some free – others servile – fled from the neighbouring communities eager for new opportunities,” as the historian Livy put it.

Greek civilisation spread because of the willingness of its population to be displaced, whereas Roman civilisation grew because of the willingness of its population to accept outsiders. Migration was thus central to the growth and sustainability of both civilisations – a readiness to migrate and a readiness to host. That is no less true for the growth and sustainability of modern societies.


“Migration has had an enormous impact on the US – its economic and political development, culture and demography”

Jessica Gibbs is a lecturer at Aberystwyth University

Since its founding as an independent nation in the late 18th century, the United States has been home to many millions of migrants and the dream destination of millions more. Migration has had an enormous impact on the United States – its economic and political development, culture and demography. It has also shaped its foreign policy in important and enduring ways. The lively US interest in the Northern Ireland peace process under President Bill Clinton related to Irish-American identity, as did Fenian American advocacy for Irish independence in the 19th century.

Cubans demonstrate against Fidel Castro in Florida in 1994
Cubans demonstrate against Fidel Castro in Florida in 1994. Cuban conservatives who fled to the US during the revolution or after the communist regime took power became influential in US foreign policy (JAIME RAZURI/Getty Images)

During the Cold War, the openness of the US political system and the enormous power the United States wielded in the world, together with the refugee origins of much migration, encouraged the development of organised diasporic foreign policy lobbies.

One prominent example were Cubans, welcomed as refugees from the 1959 revolution and initially pawns of the CIA in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. However, as the Reagan administration came to office, his first national security advisor, Richard Allen, urged a small group of Cuban-American conservatives to create an American-style lobby. The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) became privileged participants in policymaking. They championed Reagan initiatives in Cuba, Central America and Angola, and received government funding for pet Cuba projects while contributing to politicians’ election campaigns. In the post-Cold War period, as old reasons for economic warfare against Cuba disappeared, Cuban-Americans and their congressional allies intensified sanctions in the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.

Whether this impact of migration is viewed as positive or negative depends partly on an evaluation of the objectives themselves. In contrast to CANF’s punitive approach, other groups lobbied Washington for more economic assistance or trading opportunities for their home country. Diasporic lobbies may provide a corrective in an environment otherwise dominated by economic or security interests, but they can also remove policy areas from debate by a wider public as politicians pander to a mobilised but unrepresentative section.


“Anti-colonial struggles and fights for universal human rights in the 20th century were shaped by migration”

Sumita Mukherjee is senior lecturer in history at the University of Bristol, and author of Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks (Oxford University Press, 2018)

Enforced migration underpinned much change. Transatlantic slavery involved the enforced displacement of African men, women and children. In addition, after the abolition of slavery an estimated 3.5 million Indians were forced into indentured bondage and displaced to colonial plantations in the Caribbean, Africa and parts of the Pacific. The labour of African slaves, indentured Indians and Chinese workers shaped the infrastructures and economies of so much of the world, through the building of railways and roads, and through the wealth generated through their plantation labour.

But how do we measure change? The original question implies that change is easy to measure and easy to notice. Change does not just take place because ‘great individuals’ shape history. How do we measure the stealth of migration – the long-term changes that migrant communities have influenced, shaping language, food, music and other forms of culture? How do we measure shifts in social attitudes over time?

Migration shaped European empires and the nature of imperial conquest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Colonial officials, military officials, merchants, missionaries and labourers from Europe were involved in migrations to colonise various parts of the world, through trade, conquest or settlement. Communities were changed in many ways through contact with these European migrants, not least through decimation or subjection.

Kwame Nkrumah, first president of independent Ghana, dances with Queen Elizabeth II in 1961
Kwame Nkrumah, first president of independent Ghana, dances with Queen Elizabeth II in 1961. Nkrumah’s time studying in the US and the UK informed his later efforts to win independence for his country (Central Press/Getty Images)

But imperial migration was not one-way. Migration also helped to eventually dismantle empires. Anti-colonial struggles and fights for universal human rights in the 20th century have been shaped by migration. Many leaders of anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa started their political careers as students in European or American universities. Feminist struggles were similarly shaped by migrants.

Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and Jawaharlal Nehru had formative student experiences in Britain that they brought to the nationalist struggles in Ghana, Kenya and India, respectively. Migration has been hugely beneficial for aspiring political leaders through the centuries – in meeting new people, in learning about different societies and cultures, in communicating important messages, and in realising how connected we are as human beings, whatever our background.


“The greater the mix of peoples, the more cities have flourished culturally and economically”

David Abulafia is emeritus professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge University. His books include The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Allen Lane, 2011)

We are all migrants, at least by descent. The ‘racial purity’ preached by the Nazis has no biological foundation whatsoever. Studies of the human genome reveal that every population consists of a mixture – even, beyond sub-Saharan Africa, a mixture with our Neanderthal cousins.

Two groups of migrants can be distinguished. On the one hand, we have peoples who have moved en masse, such as the Germanic peoples who invaded the Roman empire (and were themselves a great ethnic mix), or the enormous wave of European settlers in the Americas, or the vast numbers of African slaves transported to the Americas over several centuries in vile conditions.

The arrival of the Germanic invaders caused the breakdown of the old political, social and economic order as these newcomers established their own kingdoms from the fifth century AD onwards. These became the basis for several of the states we recognise today: the Franks in France, the Angles and Saxons in England. Yet this was a complex legacy – the marriage of Roman and Germanic cultures – as is revealed by the survival in Spain, Italy and France of languages based on Latin, not German.

The second group of migrants consists of small groups of merchants who transformed the economy of places they settled. Beginning with the ancient Phoenicians around 900 BC, the Mediterranean – from Lebanon to beyond the Strait of Gibraltar – became an integrated trading zone. The Phoenicians shipped silver and copper from Spain and elsewhere to the Middle East, and they also transformed north Africa by founding a flourishing and famous city at Carthage, near modern Tunis. These exploits were repeated across the millennia by others who brought their business skills to every city in the Mediterranean: Genoese, Venetians, Portuguese Jews, Armenians, and so on.

The greater the mix of peoples, the more the world’s cities have flourished culturally and economically. The simple answer to the question ‘how have migrants changed the world?’ is that migrants have made the world.


“Enslaved people, working under brutal conditions, helped generate individual wealth and fuel Britain’s national industrialisation”

Meleisa Ono-George is senior teaching fellow in Caribbean history at the University of Warwick

When people consider the Anglo-Caribbean region and migration, they may think only of postwar migration of Caribbean people to Britain – the Windrush generation. However, from the first English settlement in the region, the Caribbean has been both the destination for and source of migrant labour from across the British empire and the world.

English colonial involvement in the region from the 1620s ensured a steady flow of migrants to the Caribbean in search of opportunity and a better life for themselves and their families. With few such opportunities at home, indentured labourers from the British Isles moved to the region to work on tobacco plantations in hopes of achieving some wealth after a short contract. As sugar plantations developed in the mid-17th century, opportunities for indentured European labourers declined as they were replaced by forced migrants – enslaved people from the African continent.

Enslaved people worked under brutal conditions but, by their labour, helped generate incredible wealth for individuals and fuelled national industrialisation in Britain. The introduction of enslaved labour did not stop British migration to the region. Many men (and rather fewer women) migrated to the Caribbean with the intention of exploiting the opportunities that developed throughout the 18th century around sugar production, hoping to make their own fortunes.

But migration to and from the Anglo-Caribbean was not just from Europe or Africa. Following the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean in 1834, planters sought workers from Asia. Indentured labourers from India and, to a lesser extent, China migrated to the region to work plantations throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century. While many returned at the end of their contracts, many more remained.

Migration, whether forced or free, created large-scale shifts in demographics and the establishment of diaspora communities. These communities have contributed to the culture, ideas and wealth of the countries in which they settled, creating the globalised world that is so familiar to us today.


“The real global migrants with lasting impacts were often the objects that travelled with people in the Roman empire”

Martin Pitts is associate professor in Roman archaeology at the University of Exeter, and author of Globalisation and the Roman World: World History, Connectivity and Material Culture (Cambridge, 2015)

Migrants had a huge impact on the success and longevity of the Roman empire. The urbanisation of a peripheral province such as Britannia would have been impossible without high levels of human mobility. Migrant communities settled several of Britain’s first cities, notably London, Colchester and York.

The Roman system depended on soldiers, colonists and their families from the breadth of the empire, living in new settlements on confiscated land – as illustrated by the tombstone of centurion Marcus Favonius Facilis, one of the first Romans of Italian descent who we know died near the new veteran colony of Colonia Claudia Victricensis (Colchester) shortly after the invasion of AD 43. He had gone to the trouble of importing his tombstone all the way from the Rhineland, where his legion was previously based.

However, the real global migrants with lasting impacts were often the objects that travelled with people, illustrated by three cremations excavated at Roman Exeter, which was established in AD 55 as a legionary fortress and initially inhabited by men of largely Italian origin. The first grave (AD 55–70) contained objects typical of cemeteries at legionary bases across Europe, such as red-gloss terra sigillata pottery and glass vessels. The cups and plates in such graves were at the forefront of a Roman consumer revolution, and were essential in the spread of new dining practices throughout Britannia.

Roman soldiers set up camp, as depicted in a scene from Trajan's column
Roman soldiers set up camp, as depicted in a scene from Trajan’s column (completed AD113). “The Roman system depended on soldiers, colonist and their families from the breadth of the empire”, explains Martin Pitts (DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images)

Another grave of the same period contained an unusual decorated beaker but no sigillata, instead resembling the graves of local communities some 200 miles away in Essex and even farther afield in northern Gaul. These selections highlight the culturally diverse customs of the Roman military, and may indicate that the grave belonged to a Gallic auxiliary soldier.

A third grave dates from AD 70–90, after the Roman army had left. Revealing the influx of local people in the city’s population, the grave includes a locally made Durotrigan-style bowl but also lots of terra sigillata plates and cups, illustrating the uptake of globalised practices and the influence of migration even after the military had moved on.


“Migrants changed the world when colonising European empires began to enslave, educate, rule and kill others”

Marlou Schrover is professor in economic and social history with a special interest in migration at Leiden University

Migration history did not start when Syrians left refugee camps after April 2015. Nor did it start with the migrations from the former European colonies to Europe in the postwar decades.

Migrants certainly did change the world when European empires embarked on their colonial projects, and in tandem developed pseudoscientific racist theories on which the colonisers based the right to enslave, educate, rule and kill others.

So when, then, did migration history start? With the arrival of modern humans in Europe 40,000 years ago, replacing and interbreeding with the Neanderthals? That might be too much ground to cover. The truth is that people have always migrated, either to find work, fortune, love or freedom, or because somebody forced them onto a boat, train or plane, or drove them out on foot. There are few people on this planet today who can trace their family tree for three generations without encountering a migrant of sorts. Migration is as much part of life as marriage, birth and death.

The Potato Eaters, by Vincent van Gogh, 1885
Vincent van Gogh’s ‘The Potato eaters’ (1885). “Dutch peasants stopped eating potatoes for breakfast because they no longer had to, not because the arrival of migrants changed their world”, says Marlou Schrover (Photo 12/Getty Images)

Some of my students in the Netherlands organise US-style baby or bridal showers, but this has nothing to do with large-scale American migration to Europe, and more with growing up watching American sitcoms. Similarly, the popularity of Italian food in north-western Europe since the 1960s was partly connected with the migration of Italian guest-workers – but much more a result of new opportunities for holidays in Italy. For several years the September issue of the glossy monthly magazine Allerhande, one of the most popular titles in the Netherlands, presented Italian recipes under headlines such as ‘What shall we eat after our holiday?’, not ‘What our new migrants have to teach us’.

Societies change for a large number of reasons. Dutch peasants stopped eating potatoes with vinegar and coffee for breakfast – immortalised in van Gogh’s painting – because they no longer had to, not because the arrival of migrants changed their world.

Did migration change the world? Of course it did. But technological and economic changes were far more important.


“The arrival in North America of England’s more ‘vivid people’ was a positive thing for the world”

James Evans is a historian, broadcaster and author of Emigrants: Why the English Sailed to the New World (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017)

Otto von Bismarck and Winston Churchill – two figures with very different views on many things – did at least agree on one point in particular: the most important fact in world history is that North America speaks English. From a less lofty vantage point, I think that they were right.

Additionally, the fact that the United States speaks English – a fact that also stands proxy for the defining role of English law and culture – is the single most powerful example of a way in which migrants (the hundreds of thousands of English men, women and children who travelled across the North Atlantic during the 17th century) have changed the world.

Funnily enough, the position of English today as a global language owes little to England but everything to the fact that the US – the world’s most powerful country – speaks it. In a census conducted more than 30 years ago, some 40 million US citizens claimed descent from an English migrant. Today, the total is much larger – and that’s not even considering Canadians.

Historians have talked of a “swarming” of the English (the image of bees in a hive has been common in discussions of population), impressed by what they have called a “huge flow of people”. It’s interesting that in the ‘New World’, many words that today seem distinctively American – for example, the use of the word ‘fall’ for the autumn season – were in fact commonly used in 1600s England before falling into disuse in the mother country.

Of course, migrants have not improved things for everyone: the arriving multitudes of Europeans certainly didn’t improve things for the Native American populations they encountered – just as they didn’t for subject populations on numerous other occasions and in many other destinations in colonial history.

They did change things, though, and on balance the arrival in North America of those described as being England’s more “vivid people” – younger, more energetic and determined to improve things for themselves – is a positive thing for the world. I would also argue that, for all the uncertainty that rapid immigration might bring, in postwar England as a whole it has been a positive thing – diversifying its culture, and adding dynamism and a willingness to take on different work in a job market that might otherwise have struggled to adapt to a world that has changed very fast.


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This content first appeared in issue 11 of BBC World Histories magazine