Module II. The European Multinational and Multicultural Identity: assets and tensions, immigration and integration policies

3.1.2. Difference between European and American migration history

There are two factors which profoundly affect thinking on the issue of immigration in
Europe. The first is that it is a complex subject frequently simplified to the point of
misunderstanding in the media. One only has to ponder the causes and effects of migration (poverty, war, to cite but two) to realize the nature of this assertion. The second is that Europe is a neophyte in the handling of immigration compared with other countries and is therefore feeling its way in dealing with it. Let’s compare Europe and the US:

The first difference to be noted between the US and Europe in relation to immigrants of different ethnic groups is that in Europe they are almost all recent arrivals and most often from former colonies. So Europeans tend not to single out different minorities such as African-Americans who suffered huge disadvantages in the past. They are just “immigrants”, to some degree welcomed in times of high employment and resented in more austere economic conditions.

Of course, not all immigrants in Europe come from another distinct ethnicity. Italians, Portuguese and Greeks emigrated in their thousands after the Second World War to the wealthier countries of northern Europe. They also suffered discrimination. The same phenomenon is repeating itself with the new Member States of the European Union. The United States has been a magnet for migrants for two centuries and the country had immigration almost as its raison d’être. Europe has mostly been dealing with immigrants for just fifty years and absorbed them initially as a legacy of colonialism. Immigrants to the US have a vocation to become Americans; immigrants in Europe in the minds of citizens decidedly do not. 7

Activity 9

  • Make a sketch of migration histories within your own family.
  • Plot your families migration history on a map.
  • Think about why people migrated and what their long term perspective was.

To get inspired, visit this very well documented and informative English website:

7 Lewis, Richard. New Europeans, New Identities – Reflections on Europe’s Dilemma, working paper for The Institute for European Studies (VUB). Brussels, 2008. p 11-12

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