Global crises and migrant futures (an historical view)

Published 2 July 2020 / By John Starosta Galante

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This article is co-published with Routed: Migration and (Im)mobility Magazine in its special issue of “Epidemics, labour and mobility


All historians study changes over time. Yet they debate how and why changes occur. One type of debate revolves around whether change happens incrementally over long periods or in revolutionary bursts. Quite often it is some combination, but what combination and how does that matter?

In the field of migration history, this debate is exceedingly common. Does, for example, a migrant – or related ethnic – community acquire political inclusion through drawn-out processes of expanded influence in economic, social, and cultural matters that affect politics? Or is inclusion achieved simply through citizenship or the election of a member of that community to high office? If it is both, how do incremental and watershed events relate to one another?

I study global crises and migrant communities, currently through a project that examines the impacts of World War I and the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic on Italian communities in South America. What I have found is that periods of crisis can accelerate change, transforming incremental processes into revolutionary ones. Crises can speed up the restructuring of countries and communities of origin of migrants, the reorientation of countries and communities of migrant settlement, and the remaking of cross-border networks among places and peoples.

So how might a global crisis that severely inhibits mobility – like the one COVID-19 has ignited – impact a community made up of immigrants and their descendants? We cannot predict the future. But we can look to the past to develop hypotheses on how that future may evolve.

In the 1910s, there were roughly 2.5 million Italians living in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, according to Italian government data. The largest concentrations of immigrants and their South America-born descendants resided in the metropolitan areas of Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Montevideo. Large waves of migration, which moved in both directions across the Atlantic, began in the 1870s. When World War I began, these Italians ranged from indigent new arrivals to families with firm roots in South America (who maintained, however, connections to their places of origin).

The demographic weight of these communities was akin to present-day Algerians in France, Indians in the United Arab Emirates, Malaysians in Singapore, and Mexicans in the United States. The transnational networks in which they were situated were equally robust. People, correspondence, money, goods, ideas, and other items circulated and transcended borders, then as now, if at a slower pace.

Beginning in 1915, when Italy entered the war, transatlantic migrations nearly stopped. Emigration restrictions in Italy, economic crisis in South America, submarine warfare in the Atlantic, reduced steamship traffic, and concerns of virus contagion were among the reasons. The Italian government reported about 250,000 departures for Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay from 1912 to 1914, roughly 83,000 per year. From 1915 to 1918, only 15,000 left, about 3,750 annually, a 95% reduction [1]. Repatriation rates, following a jump in 1914, also declined precipitously, but there was net migration into Italy through the end of the war and the pandemic. Constraints to physical mobility between countries of origin and residence were prominent impacts of the global crisis on cross-border networks built upon decades of mass migration.

Despite the drop in migratory flows, connections remained – and even intensified – during the crises. Italian-language newspapers in South America overflowed with news of Italy, replacing local items. Mutual-aid organisations in Italian enclaves held fundraisers to support relief efforts in Italy. Immigrants and their children used remittance networks to purchase Italian war and recovery bonds. Italian Red Cross units in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and São Paulo collected clothing, food, and other materials for transatlantic delivery. Even labour unions, many virulently opposed to the war, turned their attention toward political and ideological battles in Italy. The war and influenza epidemic drew Italians closer to their country and communities of origin and protracted the widespread use of cross-border exchanges during the crises, migratory constraints notwithstanding.

The war and flu nevertheless accentuated elements of difference and distance between Italians in Italy and South America. These crises hardened borders that did not immediately open when the belligerence ended and public health improved. Sustained limitations on physical mobility meant that a neighbour, a neighbourhood, a job, a union, a business, a family, a church, a political party, and a government in a place of residence would ultimately matter more than one in a place of origin. In the 1920s, post-war isolationism metamorphosed into nationalism that encouraged immigrants and immigrant descendants to favour one allegiance over another, most often leading to closer identifications with countries of residence. Migratory flows eventually resumed, but citizenship and resident status were more critical than before.

Italians in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and São Paulo were always ‘becoming American’ when they resided in these places, but the conflicts and quarantines of the 1915-1919 period accelerated the generation of Italo-Argentine, Italo-Brazilian, and Italo-Uruguayan communities from the previously Italian ones [2]. These protracted processes of change sped up amid crisis; incremental change became revolutionary.

As the COVID-19 virus spreads around the world in 2020, parallels have emerged. Mass migratory flows stopped abruptly. Some migrants – Venezuelans, Ethiopians, and Indians among them – are reversing migratory trends and returning home. Many others are hardening connections with the places they left, through media consumption, correspondence, and solidarity across borders. Monetary flows through existing networks to buttress the finances of transnational families, businesses, and communities seem likely, although detailed evidence is not readily available. In sum, cross-border networks built on mass migratory flows are thickening in some ways, even as mobility is constrained.

The long-term repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis – particularly the economic, social, and likely political ones it has spawned – remain unknown. But if history is a guide, it is probable that an extended period of limited mobility will have considerable impacts on migrants, ethnic communities, and their cross-border networks. Immigrants and their descendants may turn more toward countries of residence to pursue economic opportunities, cultural expressions, social advocacy, and political inclusion. The development of hybrid and hyphenated identifications may advance more quickly as countries and communities of residence become more indispensable than places of origin. And isolationism may engender new forms of nationalism that may involve greater inclusion of immigrants and their descendants (who are not going anywhere).

Each of these processes is already underway in countries like Australia, Germany, and South Africa that host millions of immigrants. These processes are rarely linear or even-tempered. But, as this history illustrates, the crises of the past few months and the coming years should accelerate them.

John Starosta Galante is a scholar of Latin American, migration, and global histories. His current research examines the experiences of Italian communities in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and São Paulo during the late 1910s. He is currently an Assistant Teaching Professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, USA.


Notes and references

[1] Commissariato Generale dell’Emigrazione. 1926. Annuario statistico della emigrazione italiana dal 1876 al 1925. Rome: Edizione del Commissariato Generale dell’Emigrazione.

[2] John Starosta Galante. 2018. ‘Buenos Aires and the making of italo-argentinidad, 1915–1919’. Storia e regione, 27(1).




Red Cross poster 1917