Between local autonomy and national migration policy. Dealing with foreigners in Brussels 1830-1890

Alexander Coppens, Anne Winter

Research Historical Research into Urban Transformation Processes (HOST)

Fonds voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek, 2011-2015

This research is part of a broader project that aims to investigate the role of local authorities in the development of national migration policies during the period 1750-1914 by uncovering continuities and changes as well as similarities and differences in the treatment of non-national migrants in two distinct urban contexts – Antwerp and Brussels – in a comparative and long perspective. In the existing historiography concerning the treatment of ‘foreigners’ in the long nineteenth century we can see a particular top-down focus highlighting the legal, political and philosophical aspects in the emergence of what we call today a ‘national migration policy’. One tends to ‘ignore’ or ‘forget’ that the national framework, which tried to shape migration policies in this period of strong political and economical transformation, was heavily dependent on lower levels of authority, in essence the provincial and, mainly, the local level. After all these local authorities had developed a strong tradition of ‘controlling’, or at least dealing with, migration on their territories for many centuries. They were moreover the main executors of the national migration policy in the nineteenth century. This inter-dependency and the field of tension between the local and the central/national level of authority is the main focus of this research project. From a bottom-up perspective using mainly, but not exclusively, source materials that were produced by the local authorities this research tries to evaluate the maneuverability which local authorities (still) had in the 19th century and the ways in which they used this to shape their own policies, according to their own interests. The hypothesis is that the mere emergence and existence of a national migration policy framework did not mean that century-old traditions and specific interests of local authorities (such as control over their relief expenses, the shaping of their own labor market and the maintenance of political stability) were put aside without further notice.