Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Roman Solution to Europe's Refugee Problem

Beppe Severgnini thinks Europe should handle the flood of refugees coming from Africa and the Middle East by treating them the way the Romans treated retired soldiers:
As Europe frets over what to do about the hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring onto the Continent, it occurs to me that the ancient Romans, as they so often do, might offer a solution.

The ancient Romans used to reward their legionnaires with plots of land, through a system known as “centuriation.” The Romans adopted the system in the fourth century B.C., when Rome was still a vibrant republic. But it lasted for hundreds of years, involving former servicemen from all over the empire.

Centuriation had several advantages. The first was, obviously, strategic, as it created a permanent military presence. The second was economic: Veterans would farm uncultivated areas, produce wealth that went back into the community, and take care of themselves. The third was demographic: Those early pioneers and their families populated vast tracts of Italy and the lands beyond.
I should note here that historians argue a lot about how empty the land given to veterans really was, and who had to be driven off to make room for them, and so on. But to continue:
So why don’t we try something similar with modern migrants?

True, they haven’t fought any wars for Italy; they’re running away from wars, in places like Syria, or escaping sub-Saharan poverty and authoritarian regimes. But they have the right skills. While well-educated migrants aim for Germany and Northern Europe, those who stay in Italy tend to be farmers, builders and artisans. Most of them are young and used to hard work. And parts of our country, from the rural south to the hilltop villages of central Italy, are depopulating fast. Italy is aging. It needs new people.

Mountain areas in Abruzzo and Molise are losing their inhabitants at a steady pace, and some villages have been deserted altogether. . . . With incomers to tend it, Italy’s lovely but fragile territory could be taken care of.
This plan is similar to another I like, Matt Yglesias's suggestion that we admit 100,000 Syrians and Iraqis on the condition that they live in Detroit for ten years. Across the United States and even more in Europe, voids are opening as young people flee rural areas and industrial cities. From California to Delaware, agriculture already depends on immigrants to survive, and according to Severgnini the same thing is true in Italy. I do understand that there are cultural issues for Europeans, who do not wish to see their countries become more like the Middle East. But it seems to me that the alternative is to watch huge parts of the continent empty out like the Scottish Highlands once did, the beloved landscape of olive groves and wheat fields slowly reverting to oak scrub or be taken over for efficient tree plantations. It is simply bizarre that in a world of seven billion people, farms are being abandoned for want of anyone to do the work, and villages are disappearing because nobody wants to live in them.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"I do understand that there are cultural issues for Europeans, who do not wish to see their countries become more like the Middle East."

The thing is, although Europe has never wanted to become more like the Middle East, at the same it secretly always has.

Even before the rise of Romantic Orientalism, and further back before even the Cape of Good Hope was rounded by da Gama, there were regular pilgrimages to and the occasional Crusades for "The Holy Lands" of the Levant, and certainly there was a massively influential trade system in place courtesy of the Byzantines, the Venetians, and the Genoese, bringing not just exotic trade goods, but also foreign ideas and knowledge Westward.

A significant number of common or regularly useful English words and often even the very ideas and things they represent originate directly from the Arabic world - admiral, algebra, arsenal, average, caravan, check, chemistry, coffee, cotton, jar, lacquer, lemon and lime, mattress, magazine, muslin, orange, rook, sash, sequin, serendipity, sofa, spinach, sugar, syrup, talisman, tangerine, tariff, tuna, zenith, and zero, among others.

We historically took great inspiration from Middle Eastern art, borrowed huge amounts of Middle Eastern medical knowledge, and copied or envied Middle Eastern technologies and systems. We readily bought up their exotic trade goods, and we hungrily absorbed their exotic tales and stories. So enamored was Europe with the offerings of the East that they embarked on perilous voyages beyond the edges of the known world just to find new ways to obtain these treasures. It was European fascination with the East which sparked the age of Colonialism and Imperialism, shaping the history of the world for centuries.

We've always hated the Middle East and beyond, and yet we've always secretly desperately wanted things from them too.