There are approximately 260 million immigrants in the world. An immigrant is defined as someone residing in a country other than their place of birth. Of that number, roughly 50 million are “illegal immigrants” who lack official authorization to reside in their host country.
In 2017, roughly 3.4 percent of the world’s population of 7.7 billion people were classified as immigrants. In high-income countries, immigrants (legal and illegal) represent an average of 14 percent of the population. The percentage varies dramatically. In countries with large expatriate communities, like the Emirates, immigrants make up more than 80 percent of the population, although most will only be there for a short time and return home.
In Canada, immigrants comprise 21.9 percent of the population. In the U.S., the number is 14.3 percent. The U.S. has the largest number of immigrants of any country, at 46.6 million people; roughly a quarter of them lack official status. In Germany, immigrants comprise 14.9 percent of the population, compared to 13.2 percent in the United Kingdom and 11.1 percent in France. Japan’s immigrant population, by comparison, is a minuscule .63 percent.
In recent years, a variety of commentators have expressed concern that large-scale movement of predominantly Muslim immigrants into Europe is creating Islamic ghettos like Sint-Jans-Molenbeek in Brussels or Saint Denis in Paris. These communities are often described as no-go zones where police and civil administrators dare not enter; areas where civil law has often been unofficially replaced by Sharia law.
These areas are believed to have also become centres of support for jihadist violence, and for organizations like Islamic State and al-Qaeda. A string of terrorist attacks in Europe, like that on the Brussels airport or various ones in Paris, were planned and aided by individuals living in these neighbourhoods.
The existence of such communities is often described as a failure of assimilation, an outcome attributed to any number of causes: racism, a lack of education, endemic unemployment or lack of economic opportunities. In this view, assimilation is normal and inevitable. Its absence is the result of a failure of government action and should be remedied by appropriate programs to facilitate immigrant integration and assimilation.
But is assimilation either inevitable or customary?
The historical record suggests it’s not.
Historically, immigrant communities did not assimilate easily or quickly. Language, religious laws and practices, cultural and culinary traditions all functioned to discourage, prevent or, at the very least, slow down assimilation. This was as true of the Jewish diaspora to Egypt and Babylon as it was for the Roman ex-soldier colonies throughout the Mediterranean world or the barbarian migrations into the Roman Empire in antiquity.
It was equally true of the Norse colonization of Britain and Ireland in the eighth century, or the colonies of the Italian merchant republics in the 13th and 14th centuries. It was certainly true of the colonization of the New World by Europeans from the late 15th century on.
In all these instances, immigrants reproduced their distinct cultures, often creating facsimiles of their native lands. From architecture to food to religion, these communities faithfully recreated the world they left behind.
The same pattern held for the wave of migration over the 19th and 20th centuries. Newly-arrived immigrants often clustered in their communities, creating Little Italys or Chinatowns. The pattern has continued among more recent immigrants, like Koreans or Iranians, who also initially congregated in their own ethnic neighbourhoods.
The immigrant ‘melting pot’ that came to characterize countries like Canada, the U.S. or Australia has historically been the exception. But the melting pot was not as smooth or as quick as typically portrayed.
True, eventually, the inhabitants of the Little Italys and Chinatowns moved on, assimilating into their new societies, even while retaining elements of their traditional culture.
Moreover, in time, their descendants moved up the social hierarchy, assuming positions of civic and political leadership. It was a multigenerational process, however. And it was significantly aided by the rapid economic growth these countries experienced in the 19th and 20th centuries.
This is not an argument against immigration, nor is it postulating that new immigrants won’t assimilate. Rather, it underscores that assimilation is not easy. It’s a lengthy process that, even under ideal circumstances, may take two or three generations to run its course.
It also means that the lack of assimilation is not the result of a lack of social services or the failure of some government program. Nor will it be resolved by creating some new government bureaucracy to facilitate integration.
Finally, it also suggests that the behaviour of immigrant communities in the developed world, including that of Muslim immigrants in Europe, is not that different from the pattern of behaviour of past immigrant communities. In fact, it’s consistent with the historical experience.
It’s naïve to think that a country can let in large numbers of immigrants in the expectation that they will quickly turn into model citizens, who reflect the norms of the existing population. The greater the cultural divide between an immigrant and his new home, the longer and harder the process of assimilation will be.
Long term, immigration may be good for a society. But in the short term, it can be highly disruptive. No new government program is going to change that. It’s a fact that our politicians need to weigh when determining what’s an acceptable and sustainable level of immigration.
In case you’re wondering, I was an immigrant – twice, once in Canada and once in the United States.
Joseph V. Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.