In 2015, Europe faced a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War, as more than a million individuals arrived on the continent. The contemporary refugee crisis has brought barbed wire fences, internment camps, and “no-man’s lands” back to the European landscape. We are not only in the midst of a “migration crisis,” however. The situation in Europe should also be understood as what Zygmunt Bauman has called a “migration panic.” A “migration panic,” like a “moral panic,” reflects and magnifies an alleged threat to a society. Mass migration has been reshaping European societies for at least 150 years, but it has not always induced the same responses.
What then, are the causes of migration panics, and what outcomes have they produced? This talk will turn to the history of Roma in the Habsburg Empire, a group long stigmatized for its allegedly intractable mobility, to reflect on these questions. We don’t typically analyze the history of refugees and Roma together, although both groups have been fodder for migration panics and objects of state efforts to govern migration. It is striking that before Europeans began to panic about refugees, Roma were the most visible targets for anxieties about freedom of mobility in the expanding European Union.
Throughout the twentieth century, states and international organizations repeatedly turned toward camps – refugee camps, internment camps, and concentration camps- in response to the perceived problem of disruptively mobile, unwanted, or stateless populations. The purposes of these camps has varied greatly but all sought to contain human mobility as a strategy for managing populations. In the years leading up to the First World War in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a chorus of voices began to call for the forcible internment of individuals labeled “Gypsies.” This represented a shift from earlier strategies for governing Roma, which typically entailed either policies of forcible sedentarization or deportation. The history of Roma in the Habsburg Empire may shed light on the origins of statelessness and internment more broadly in Modern Europe.