The most notorious part of Donald Trump’s campaign platform during the Republican primary was his promise to deport eleven million illegal immigrants from the United States. It’s a bold and alarming policy, but he’s not the first to use forced migration as political strategy. From forcing others into exile or foreign labor, displacing large groups during warfare, taking prisoners of war, or even enslaving others, forced migration has taken a number of shapes and forms in the past. While the only constant here is the devastating impact it has on the lives of those involved, it doesn’t always turn out well for the oppressors either.
In the sixth century BCE the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar swept through the kingdom of Judah and besieged the city of Jerusalem. After the city fell in 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar took the pro-Babylonian King Jehoiakim, his family, and aristocrats from the royal court to Babylon. There they remained for two generations until the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great sent the people back to the land of Israel. The trauma that surrounds the Babylonian Captivity is felt throughout the pages of the Hebrew Bible. A mere generation later the Persians would conquer Babylon and send the exiles home. For his role in this, the book of Isaiah names Cyrus the Great the messiah.
If the Babylonian exile was about a foreign force moving the Israelites to their capital city, there were a number of other foreign powers (the Romans, the Spanish, almost every Western European country) that wanted to expel Jews from within their borders. In 1290, King Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion, a legal measure that forced Jews – around 2,000 in all – out of England. In many ways the Edict was the culmination of two centuries of rising anti-Jewish sentiment, sentiments that included myths of blood-libel, accusations of extortion, rising taxation, and the requirement that Jews wear an identifying mark.
At least one motivation for the expulsion was Edward I’s dire financial situation. At the beginning of his reforms, when he expelled Jews from Gascony and English territory, he seized ownership of their property and transferred outstanding debts to the crown. He then used the promise of deportation as a means of galvanizing support for higher taxation. Whatever the precise impetus for the edict, Jews were formally banned from England until 1657.
In pop consciousness Spanish Catholics are notorious for their intolerance of dissenting religious groups. Every viewer of Monty Python knows that heretics can expect to face the inquisition. Whether reports of Spanish intolerance are exaggerated or not, in 1609 King Philip III of Spain ordered the expulsion of the Moriscos, (a perjorative term meaning “little-moor”), descendants of Spain’s Muslim population. Only a century before, the Spanish Archbishop Cisneros had forcibly converted the Muslim population to Catholicism, but popular sentiment feared that the Moriscos continued to be engaged in subversive crypto-Islamic rituals. Scholars debate how extensive and effective the expulsion actually was, but as many as 300,000 people were deported to North Africa and France.
The motivations for deportation often blended politics, religion, and ethnic bias. During the French and Indian War the British deported approximately 11,500 Acadians from what is now Canada. The Acadians were descendants of French colonists who settled in Eastern Canada’s maritime provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island). The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) had allowed the Acadians to keep their lands, but their refusal to sign an unconditional oath of allegiance to the British, coupled with efforts by a minority of Acadians to undermine British rule, led to a cooling of the agreement and rising suspicion among the Brits. After the Battle of Beausejour in 1755 the British began their deportation campaigns with a second wave of deportations following the defeat of the French at the Siege of Louisbourg. The deportations involved the ransacking and destruction of farms, to say nothing of the many Acadians who died of disease or drowned during the sea journeys from Canada.
In implementing the Great Upheaval (as it is often known), the British governor Charles Lawrence did not distinguish between the Acadians who had participated in anti-British military operations and those who had remained neutral throughout the conflict. Military anxieties can partially explain the expulsions, but as John Mack Faragher has argued, religio-ethnic factors (especially anti-Catholicism) played a large factor in driving the expulsion. To the British the great upheaval was a “great and noble scheme” that would count among “the greatest things that the English ever did in America,” but to us it is (along with the violence committed against indigenous peoples in North America) one of the first modern examples of ethnic cleansing.
In August 1947 British colonial rule came to an end in India. The changing of the guard was accompanied by the partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan, resulting in one of the largest forced migrations of the twentieth century. In the wake of the division an estimated 12 million people were displaced in the province of Punjab alone. Displacement was accompanied by extreme violence: scholarly estimates place the death toll at one million. Millions of people cannot be relocated without violence and widespread suffering.
The motivations for enforcing these kinds of migrations vary, but a common thread is fear of ethnic and religious difference. Financial profit clearly plays a part: Edward I used the promise of expulsion in order to curry favor for higher taxes in England. The Native American Trail of Tears allowed colonizers to seize land and natural resources. A similar phenomenon is evident in the displacement of aboriginal peoples in Australia. And, of course, when warfare involves the mass enslavement of peoples it can be a financial boon to those doing the enslaving. Profiteering off of forced migrations – whether you are a slave trader or a farmer purchasing the vacated lands of exiled Acadians – is complicity.
As Sarah Bond, Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa, has written, the most revealing aspect of forced migration is the language we use to describe it. Bond told me, “We tend to call willing migration of empowered people ‘colonization’ or ‘colonists,’ whereas disempowered people are ‘migrants.’ Semantics tell us a lot about whether the people do or do not have agency,” but it doesn’t describe the pattern of movement or the intentions of those involved. Describing a refugee as a migrant or “illegal” reveals our own cultural biases and fears. Describing immigrants, as Trump does, as “Trojan Horses” is problematic because it carries with it the promise of imminent destruction.
Portraying refugees as migrants and illegals dehumanizes them in ways that many find unethical, but the most surprising thing is that it may not even be all that productive. Historically speaking, forced migrations do not always benefit the powerful. In the Kingdom of Valencia, for example, where the majority of Moriscos was from the peasant class and therefore more easily deported, the deportation of 130,000 people led to a population decline and a severe economic downturn. The population shock was roughly equivalent to that of the Black Death. The outcome of forcing others to leave one’s country en masse is always violence and death, but it is also sometimes financial ruin.