Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Migration of Slavs and Other History Lessons

I paid scant attention to Trump's promises to build "The Wall" until I came across an article about the construction of a wall around Baghdad. Trump repeatedly made it known that his wall was inspired by Israel's, but it was the construction of the wall around Baghdad that made me pause. Visions of the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China and  walls around medieval cities came to mind and were followed by the images of less historic barriers, such as security fences around concentration camps, prison complexes and American gated communities. Most of them have been built for protection from attacks, but some fences serve only to keep the undesirable in or out. 

One of my first history lessons dealt with the Migration of Slavs  (Seoba Slavena)  from their oldest known homeland in Western Asia to Russia, and from there to Eastern Europe and beyond. The process that might have begun around 2000 B.C. was long and complicated - so complicated in fact that I never learned the lesson properly. The only thing that really stuck was the title "Seoba Slavena," often used in the Croatian slang to refer to any major, or messy, or inexplicable move.

What I do know is that the people populating Europe today have descended from various ancient tribes, whose origins remain a subject of contention, and ever-emerging new demographic theories. One I found interesting recently is the Ghengis Khan-legacy theory, which suggests that a significant percentage of men around the world, including Europe, are descendants of the 13th-century invader.

Ancient Slavs

Mongolian hordes swept through much of Eastern Europe in the 13th century, and as the invaders killed, raped and pillaged along the way, it is quite possible that they left their genetic mark on the local populations. Impregnable fortresses and hefty walls may have slowed them down, but did not stop them. They eventually retreated when a strong Mongolian leader died back home.

It would be wrong to deny the importance of walls in the defense of medieval cities, such as Dubrovnik. For centuries, the Adriatic port had repelled invaders with success. But eventually, the wall alone was not enough to protect Dubrovnik's independence, and the city-state had to pay dues first to the Venetians, then to the Ottomans to avoid war. And, of course, the wall did nothing to stop Napoleon. Today, Dubrovnik's great ramparts serve to attract tourists. The same goes for the Great Wall of China and historic walled cities around the world. 

The Berlin Wall, or what's left of it, also attracts tourists, but not with its beauty or grandeur. Only a few ugly grey concrete blocks remain to provoke horror, rather than admiration, and there is a lengthy section decorated by international artists. It is somewhat unique in that it was built by those living outside to prevent escape into the enclosure rather than the other way round. We know how that ended. I hope the Iraqi government has some long-term plans for the Baghdad wall.

When there's a will  (I almost said when there's a wall), there's a way.  People who want to breach a wall badly enough either to conquer or to escape, very often succeed, and if they don't, time eventually makes the wall irrelevant. History books are full of examples of successful sieges. They also are full of great migration stories.  Even the Bible has one.

Migration stories remind me of weather reports. When there is too much pressure at one end, the mass of air, or water, moves to relieve it and we can be hit by storms, floods, tsunamis and whatnot until the calm settles in. When huge populations start moving at once, they also create havoc and spark fear.  

We live in a world in which about 60 million people are displaced by conflict - more than at any other time in recorded history. One in every 122 humans is either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. According to the UNHCR, if those people formed a country, it would be the world's 24th biggest. Many temporary refugee camps have turned into permanent tent cities, with the largest, Dadaab in Kenya, housing half a million people.
Dadaab, Kenya
Since the beginning of the millennium, numerous studies have discussed Europe's and Japan's aging and declining populations that have resulted from low child birth rates. These populations have not seen much conflict since World War Two, with the exception of Yugoslavia's bloody demise in the early 1990s.

Some of the world's poorest countries have very high birth rates and therefore large young populations. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than one third of the people are aged 10 to 24. In the Arab countries, young people are the fastest growing segment.  Some 60% of the population is under 25 years old, making this one of the most youthful regions in the world.  

The unemployment in this age group is as high as 50 % and in many regions even higher, while the prospects of improvement during the lifetime of these young people are minimal. According to researchers, overpopulation combined with poverty and weak governance produces disruptive demographic. Elizabeth Leahy of Population Action International said the restive element is composed of a society's younger generations.

"What we found is that countries in which at least 60 percent of the population was under the age of 30 were overwhelmingly the most likely to have experienced civil conflict. Eighty percent of all outbreaks of civil conflict between 1970 and 1999 occurred in those types of countries that had overwhelmingly young populations," said Leah.  

The pressure of discontent has been growing for years with very little attention paid to it. The Arab Spring was largely unexpected. When trickles of migrants heading for Europe turned into huge waves last year, many people were incredulous and shocked.  One friend asked me: why now?  I answered: why not earlier? Social media went viral with the prophecies of late Baba Vanga, a blind Bulgarian seeress who allegedly had predicted that Europe would be taken over by Muslims.  

Western European governments are dealing with the waves of migrants about the same way they would with victims of a natural disaster, which is to say they house them in temporary shelters and distribute food and clothing.  When floods become threatening, they seek to curb the flow.  Some, like the Hungarians, have put up a fence, which serves to divert the river away from their border,  but creates an overflow in other places.

Trump said: "Walls work. Ask Israel!" In terms of our lifetime, and this year's election, he may be right.  But in a wider context of human history, Dubrovnik may be a better example.  

The migrants who make a new life in Europe will add a new coil to the continent's already complex demographic history.  Maybe 2000 years from now some other kid will remember his lesson about a great migration, but his will not have the same title as mine. 

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