Worth Repeating: Volkerwanderung: The Next 40 Year Crisis?

Posted By March 3, 2011 No Comments

The Mackenzie Institute has been around since 1986, and has been engaged in desk-top publishing since 1990. With a history like this, it seems useful to occasionally dust off old columns and re-examine them. Have our observations and conclusions stood the test of time?

The following is a reprint from our January 1991 newsletter.

Volkerwanderung is a term used to describe the mass migration of the peoples, especially the migrations of the 2nd to 11th Centuries AD. Despite the unpleasant reference to pre-War German theories of geopolitics and racial issues, the word is useful in describing what may well be the most critical security issue of coming decades.

The mass migrations of people due to the correlation of environmental and population pressures has been one of the most potent forces in human history. Until recently, population growth has generally kept pace with technology – and the relatively empty Western hemisphere was available for the past several centuries (to the great detriment of the Native American cultures). However, the exceptions have been devastating.

Population expansion in the Eurasian steppes generated the mass movements which overran cultures and toppled empires throughout the Middle East and Europe at several times in history. It is worth remembering that peoples on the move did not always come as conquerors. The grandfathers of the Visigoths who sacked Rome first crossed the Danube into the Roman Empire as refugees from the pressures placed on them by the Huns and Alans.

Throughout much of the world today hundreds of millions of people are desperate for a better life. Cultures based on cattle ranges, pasture and cropland are making open land out of the rainforests, and desert out of open land. Those who are squeezed off the land are swelling the fast-growing cities of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Those who were already in the cities and have sufficient resources to escape are trying to do so – searching for a better life in Europe or North Africa.

A new wrinkle: The failing and filthy industrial economies of Eastern Europe are also now contributing to the new Volkerwanderung.

The security problem presented by this new Volkerwanderung is unique and troublesome. The wealthier nations of the world have low (or even negative) population growth and aging populations. Immigration is necessary for economic growth. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants and ‘guest workers’ are welcomed every year. However, how does a nation cope with millions seeking admission, especially when many of those millions are not capable of providing a positive contribution to the economy that will support them? The easiest answer to that question is both draconian and unpalatable to any liberal democracy.

When the millions begging admission are followed by tens and then hundreds of millions, the easy answers may become the only feasible ones. But, remember that a sizeable portion of the young generation in the First World will be the children of immigrants from the Third. Remember also that the legions which finally failed Rome had many German auxiliaries.

The external threat is compounded by an internal problem. Like it or not, most people are often uncomfortable around those of an obviously different background. During times of stress, the usual antipathy frequently turns to active hostility. Already in Africa and parts of Asia, many refugee and migrant populations are being harshly treated by their reluctant hosts. Harassment of Mauritanians in Senegal, Bangladeshis in India, and Vietnamese migrants in Thailand and Hong Kong is only the thin edge of a thick wedge.

The prosperous cultures of Europe and North America are perhaps the most tolerant ones in human history, although many of their members might not believe this. That tolerance may be severely tested in the coming decades and may vanish altogether as social services become stretched, as new arrivals without wanted skills turn to crime and/or welfare to survive, and as competition for marginal jobs becomes tougher. Also the evolution of compassion to guilt to callousness and then to active hatred cannot be discounted either.

There isn’t much that can prevent the coming Volkerwanderung – it has already started. Europe is bracing for millions of Eastern Europeans, the Italians and Spanish are nervous about millions of desperate Africans, and tolerance for ‘guest workers’ from Asia and the Middle East is at a low ebb. The impetus behind Free Trade between Mexico and the US is as much strategic as economic – a belt of heavy industry as a line of defence against millions of Latin Americans in search of a decent life. The number of refugees only grows; it has never been reduced in the past decade.

Canada, like other nations, may soon have to make hard choices between compassion and callousness. One choice may allow Canada to retain the accumulated wealth that can ultimately be directed towards solutions, but that same choice may never allow us to feel morally certain again.


Comment 20 Years On: This piece was half-right and half-wrong. It should have been no great surprise to remember that most people will generate wealth when given the opportunity to do so – even impoverished refugees eventually start earning salaries and paying taxes when they can. Societies where economic opportunities are most available are doing well enough for now … as any Canadian can notice.

It should also have been no great surprise to notice that most people can rub along fairly well together in most ways. In Toronto, for example, when young Vietnamese and Angolans, Tamils and Brazilians meet together in office towers and schools, their common language is English. They use it to work, play and date with each other; and with those whose grandparents were born here.

At the same time, globalization and the end of the Cold War allowed much of the world to catch up with the West in many ways. Population growth has shrunk, prosperity has increased. Like all human progress, we take three steps forward and slide back two… but progress is made nonetheless.