It was a scorching August afternoon, like every August afternoon in the United Arab Emirates. The A400 Airbus had taken off from Al-Minhad Air Base, in the sandy outskirts of Dubai. The airfield, operated by the Emirati military, looked spectral and abandoned, its roads almost as desert as the surrounds. The stillness was only sometimes interrupted by the odd Australian soldier, wandering alone in the sun at 50ºC. A stiff upper lip, stubbornly worn, may have been hidden under his surgical mask, witness to Australia’s Eternal Anglo roots. A quintessentially covidian stamp of futility and regulatory excess, but alas: the sun’s tropical beams may vaporise the virus, but not crush a bugman’s devotions.
The calm appearance of the base’s outdoor spaces betrayed the truth. As the headquarters of an allied Joint Task force, it supported all Australian operations in the Middle East, and the ongoing, rushed evacuations from Afghanistan had represented a sudden spike in activity for the Australian and British personnel stationed there. The stress was, arguably, welcome. While being posted to Dubai had meant a few months’ extra pay and regular weekend escapades to the city for the troops, coronavirus had put an end to that, and foreign military were now not allowed off base to prevent the spread. An ironic precaution in a city that, by Christmas 2020, was receiving five daily flights from Heathrow, proudly flaunting itself as the perfect pandemic vacation.
The Spanish Medevac crew that operated the A400 seemed to agree. They had been deployed, in some cases with barely two days’ notice, to evacuate their own Afghan collaborators. The operation had to be rushed when videos of desperate refugees falling from airplanes made their way into the news, amping media pressure from red to unbearable. The timing hadn’t allowed for anything else: the Spaniards booked rooms in a nice hotel in the city and looked considerably refreshed, despite the lack of sleep. It was their seventh trip to Kabul in eight days.
After a week’s worth of evacuations, the loading at Hamid Karzai International Airport had been mastered almost to perfection. The stream of refugees, previously filtered, screened and secured by Special Forces on the ground, had formed two neat lines at the back ramp of the plane. Women and children had been counted apart and given the few available seats; men were secured to the floor with blue polyester webbing straps. Everyone had of course been given a mask, which was not to be removed during the three-hour flight to Dubai.
The aircraft loadmaster, a burly Spanish Sergeant Major, tried not to step on any of the exhausted passengers sleeping all around him, once their fear and stress had worn off. Most of them did not know the loadmaster was checking for holes in the airframe. At the time of take-off, there had been an explosion followed by gunfire. Most of the crew had not noticed either; orders were the engine was to be kept running while on Afghan soil, so the propeller stifled the sound of anything else. The pilot did, however, notice a commotion. From the cockpit’s vantage, he saw a truck carrying dead or dying people on the hopper. He deftly slipped the Spanish A400 into the line of German carriers about to leave the country.
The plane was luckily unblemished and returned to Dubai without incident. Once there, the Afghans were put on a regular plane to Madrid; upon arrival, some would maybe move on to other destinations. To maximise passenger capacity, baggage was mostly restricted to basics: winter clothes, small valuables, the odd university diploma. The 2015 memes about refugees all being engineers and doctors rang somewhat true now: most of these evacuees had had to be someone; they had something to lose under Taliban rule. A third of them were women; another third, small children. Their relative affluence as a group did not in any way dampen their personal tragedy.
The suicide bomber that killed a few American servicemen and dozens of refugees on August 26 marked the end of air evacuations from Kabul for any Western country still effecting them. Thousands of Western collaborators, and many others with whom the new regime had matters to settle, were forced to find alternative ways out. Some, having connections, managed discreet exfiltrations with the help of foreign governments, carried out from Pakistan and other neighbouring countries. Others, the majority, would scatter along Central Asia and the Middle East, gathering in specific nodes: Iraq, Lebanon, the UAE, Uzbekistan, Syria. The profile of these adventurers, for lack of a better term, is eclectic: an assorted mix of unfortunate public servants who never made it to the planes, bold opportunists, poverty-stricken refugees, and runaway idealists/traitors (depending on whom you ask).
A few weeks later, about a hundred people belonging to this Afghan diaspora found themselves at the Polish-Belarussian border, joining hundreds of migrants hailing mostly from Iraq, but also from places as remote as the Congo. Sleeping in the forest and with winter looming, they had been enlisted with varying degrees of willingness into one of the hybrid campaigns unleashed at the limes of the European Union—the American Empire’s Eastern March. A kind of mercenary work, more-or-less involuntary; a common trade among adventurers of every stripe through History.
Apparently, the asylum seekers waiting at the border had been taken there by the Belarusian authorities after arriving by plane from the aforesaid nodes. The theory is easy to prove, as the identity of the migrants is established. Unlike travelers arriving by sea or by land, anyone who takes a plane today is scanned, identified, and registered. The covidian regime has even provided a new filtering category, a fresh layer of restrictions added onto the ones introduced by 9/11. A veneer of biological affiliation—infected, vaccinated and so forth—is added to the political and economic classifications of passport and customs. Nothing new, really—arrivals to 1900s New York were also asked about syphilis and tuberculosis—but nothing old, either.
The migratory routes of the 20th century traced an arborescent shape across the globe. Its roots, draining the Old World of its human sap, converged as trunks leading towards specific chokepoints—Buenos Aires, Ellis Island—branching out into the wider New World. The population flux was certainly not laminar; people often made their fortunes and sailed back to the Old Country, didn’t reach their destination, or stumbled around for a while before settling somewhere. There was, however, an axis to be found within the turbulence; a vector unequivocally pointing west and south.
The 21st century’s migratory architecture is less well-defined. The technological explosion in communications and in transport has frozen it into a rhizomatic object, a complex web of intertwined roots with no clear direction. The modern immigrant-adventurer navigates links and nodes of a distributed network of airports, roads and rail-tracks, each with its own rules, procedures and standards and, crucially, all with their own different authorities. All are also fused into indistinctness by virtue of coexisting in a total global Culture.
This culture has a specific shape and texture: it is spherical and smooth. Like a marble, it has no beginning and no end, and yet it is small and finite. Oswald Spengler saw Culture as Becoming and Civilization as a Thing-Become; so this marble, this Thing That Is To Be, probably tells us something about the Civilization that will take its place. But let’s not rush into conclusions. Many events need to unfold yet.
In the grand scheme of things, the mass arrival of immigrants to Europe in the last few years is but a brief episode in a larger Migration Period. After all, the Barbarian Invasions that preceded the Fall of Rome spanned almost three centuries: a chain of events loosely triggered by the 375 AD Hunnic attacks on the Pontic Steppe, culminating with the Lombard conquest of Italy in 568 AD. Pandemics happened during that time, too: most notably, Justinian’s Plague in 541 AD, with a horrendous death toll and ensuing economic misery.
When we see African and Middle Eastern immigrants slowly claiming the Northern shores of the Mediterranean for themselves—entering through Algeciras, Lampedusa and Istanbul—we’re seeing a Great Replacement going on, no question. But what is still in place, by definition, does not need replacing.
So who, exactly, is being replaced? It is indeed Europeans, but not those of the withering stock that stayed on in the Old Country. The empty space that’s being replenished by newcomers has the shape of those who left (and who keep leaving) for the promise of the New World. Evidently, the context in which these demographic reconfigurations make sense spans more than a couple of decades.
The Age of Mass Migration (1850-1950) saw unprecedented demographic movements; not only across the Atlantic: just the partition of India in 1947 caused the displacement of 18 million people, igniting the process that gifted the world with two new nuclear powers, India (1974) and Pakistan (1998). The forced population displacements carried out by the Soviet Union in its sphere of influence also transformed the demographic and political landscape of the entire region irreversibly. The chaotic, conflictive and historically aggrieved ethno-religious kaleidoscope that was Central and Eastern Europe before the Second World War—what Timothy Snyder called the Bloodlands—became the enduringly intricate, if much more intelligible, geopolitical space we know today.
The greatest migration corridors still lead to the usual suspects—the US, Germany, France—but among the fifteen most important ones we can now find a few unusual names: names like Iran and Kazakhstan, Russia and the Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Turkey, Pakistan and India. The United Arab Emirates, where this essay began, is also on the list; 88% of Dubai’s residents are foreigners.
It seems the covidian regime will outlast the virus; though covid will eventually phase out and die out, too. Many things appear to be happening at once, but none of them will in itself define the New Era to come. Only cumulative changes accrued over long historic arcs can. And as is so often the case, things that seem to us sudden or fast or abrupt are but the long tails of submerged, long-standing and pervasive trends.
Cornelius Stahlblau is a military physician and Spenglerian witness at the outskirts of the Empire. You can read his substack at The Outpost, and follow him on Twitter @Stahlblau4.