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Old World Topic, New Discussion: A Look at Migration and Belonging

Who migrates, when they migrate, where they migrate, and why they migrate has a huge effect on cultural identity, acceptance and belonging. This is a hot current topic on news cycles worldwide, but it is certainly not a new phenomenon. Looking from a European perspective, editors Steven King and Anne Winter add an important contribution to this discussion with Migration, Settlement and Belonging in Europe, 1500-1930s: Comparative Perspectives, to be published this month. Below, the editors discuss the volume and their aim to make sense of these experiences across borders of place and time.




The British print and online media has for the last year been awash with compelling stories about abuses of the welfare system: the mother who has 11 children and feels the state should fund her life choices; the recent immigrants who are entitled to welfare benefits notwithstanding a lack of accumulated contribution; the ‘disabled’ welfare claimants who are exposed as professional dancers or scuba divers.


Sometimes sad — often farcical or comical — but always high profile, these stories feed into a wider and palpable sense in the popular imagination that the British welfare state is broken. All parties now agree, for instance, that the amount people can obtain from the State must be limited. Immigrants occupy a particular place in the popular imagination as people who play and drain the system. More widely drawn, communities in British towns, cities and villages are tussling over the simple question ‘Who belongs’?


On the answer to this question stands the acceptability or otherwise of individuals and families accessing welfare benefits. Politicians and the chattering classes, largely ignorant of even the most recent of British history, somehow imagine that the problems of defining who belongs and how to attach welfare benefits to different states of belonging are somehow new. They are not. From the fourteenth century and the accelerating fracture of the peasant system through to the post-1945 waves of immigration to Britain by people of colour, British communities and (often unwillingly) the national State have grappled with the question of who belongs.


The answers are often complex but more often than not have resonance with the most modern of concerns. In the nineteenth century, for instance, individuals, communities and the State worried about immigration and the concentration of immigrants in port towns.


The language employed in newspapers to describe immigrants in ports like Dover could easily have appeared in one of the more popular tabloids of 2013. On the other hand, when we look at applications for naturalisation on the part of immigrants, we find neighbours, work mates, friends and relatives by marriage queuing up to testify as to the merits of European, African and South American migrants. The resonance with modern prejudices against certain immigrant communities but not the individuals that constitute them, is profound.


Our book, and the chapters of the individual authors, address questions like these. When you read the chapters, the striking elision of the historical and the modern concern with belonging and associated entitlements to welfare rights will become clear. A work of history like ours could, probably should, become required reading for a group of European politicians in national, regional and local parliaments whose grasp of the lessons of history is at the very best tenuous.




Steven King is Professor of Medical Humanities and Economic History at the University of Leicester. He has published widely on the history of demography, poverty, and welfare. Some of his most recent publications include articles in the Journal of Family History and Annales HSS.


Anne Winter is Lecturer and Francqui Research Professor in the history department of the Vrije Universiteit-Brussel. Her publications include Migrants and Urban Change: Newcomers to Antwerp, 1760-1860 (Pickering & Chatto, 2009) and Gated Communities? Regulating Migration in Early Modern Cities (with Bert De Munck, Ashgate, 2012).


 Migration, Settlement and Belonging in Europe is Volume 23, International Studies in Social History