But How Can I Trust You?
Like any word, ‘refugee’ means different things in different contexts. Legally speaking, in the UK, the term ‘refugee’ is used to describe someone whose request for asylum has already been granted. But in everyday use ‘refugee’ is not used to refer to someone with indefinite leave to remain in the UK - the migrants/refugees travelling to Greece, living in camps in Kenya, leaving Eritrea (for example) - are anything but secure in their status.
The imagery associated with refugees is also loaded with implications. In some of the literature published by charitable organisations and the media, the refugee is presented as a victim – desperate and bedraggled. Such forms of representation are accurate a lot of the time. Yet they can mean that smart, well-fed looking refugees are assumed to be inauthentic. Lynda Mannik, for instance, found that photographs of well-dressed Estonian refugees travelling to Canada in 1948 were met with observations such as, ‘they don’t look like refugees; they don’t look like they are suffering at all’. Assumptions about what it is to be a refugee explain the negative reactions prompted by images of present-day refugees with smartphones (google ‘refugees cell phones’). Why do these people have a decent smartphone if they are desperately fleeing their homeland? Short answer: ‘refugee’ is a word that refers to people from all kinds of social, political, cultural and economic backgrounds. They don’t have a home but they might have something.
Of course, you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. Scruffy looking refugees on the Greek island of Kos were famously (and controversially) condemned by the Daily Mail for being ‘straggly’, wearing ‘filthy clothes’ and washing ‘grubby-looking’ scarves.
This same struggle for trust and respect was shared by the refugees who left Spain during and after the Spanish civil war (1936-1939). For many of the people whose stories I read and listened to, becoming a refugee entailed the loss of ‘recognition’. I have borrowed this vocabulary from the French sociologist and philosopher Bourdieu, who sought to explain why certain people in society are seen as ‘noteworthy, well-regarded [and] recognised’. He wasn’t talking about the struggle to access the right to be recognised as a citizen or the right to enter a particular country. But I think the idea of no longer being recognised conveys the impact of being displaced from one’s social space – you are not just displaced from a location, but also a lifestyle and a position in society. This language also focuses our attention on the ways in which refugees attempt to be perceived, to be recognised as the person they were before disaster struck – the person they believe they still are.
The Spanish refugees who walked over the Pyrenees into France during the winter of 1938-1939 often arrived with no proof of their past: all of their possessions were left behind, their clothes were dirty, their identification papers lost, incomplete or inadequate. A reference from someone respectable or a piece of paper which conferred upon them a title, or even a smart new suit, could overcome these difficulties, proving that they were indeed who they said they were. The search for proof of one’s inherent respectability was both a bureaucratic necessity and the search for proof of an existing identity or self. Perhaps the first stage of any policy plan or humanitarian action now must be to recognise refugees, to allow them to be perceived.
Key facts about Spanish civil war refugees
- 500,000 refugees left Spain during and after hostilities (1936-1939); 300,000 refugees had returned to Spain by 1945
- The majority went to France. The largest movement of people took place in the winter of 1938-1939, with hundreds of thousands of people walking over the Pyrenees as part of the ‘retirada’ (retreat).
- The French incarcerated at least 220,000 Spanish refugees in concentration camps based on beaches, in sports stadia and other large abandoned buildings. Many of these camps did not allow for the free movement of people. Some refugees were incarcerated for up to 6 months, many died in the camps as a result of malnutrition and extreme cold.
- At least 7,000 Spanish refugees were transported and incarcerated in the Nazi concentration camp Mathausen
- Spanish refugees were also dispersed across Europe: for example, I have seen letters in which Spaniards recount being forced to labour for the Nazis in Jersey during the 1940s (Personal Archive of Rafael Heras, Fundacion Largo Caballero, Letter from Ramon and Rosario to the Heras family, dated 29 May 1964).
- 20,000 refugees travelled to Mexico (from France or French North Africa). Other countries which accepted Spanish refugees include the USSR, Argentina, UK, the US and Chile.
Short bibliography: Soo, Scott, The Routes to Exile: France and the Spanish Civil War Refugees, 1939-2009 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013); Dreyfus -Armand, Geneviève, El Exilio de Los Republicanos Españoles En Francia: De La Guerra Civil a La Muerte de Franco, translated by Dolors Poch (Barcelona: Crítica, 2000); Pla Brugat, Dolores, Els exiliats catalans: un estudio de la emigración republicana española en México (Colonia Roma, México DF: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1999)
 Refugee Council, ‘Who’s who’: <http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/policy_research/the_truth_about_asylum/the_facts_about_asylum> [accessed 29 Jun. 2014]; the ‘refugee’ is defined in international law by the 1951 UN Convention: <http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html> [accessed 29 Jun. 2014].
 Prem Kumar Rajaram, ‘Humanitarianism and Representations of the Refugee’, Journal of Refugee Studies 15:3 (2002), pp. 247–64; T. Wright, ‘Moving Images: The Media Representation of Refugees’, Visual Studies 17:1 (2002), pp. 53–66.
 Lynda Mannik, ‘Public and Private Photographs of Refugees: The Problem of Representation’, Visual Studies 27:3 (2012), pp. 262-276 (p.263).
 All quotations, Bourdieu, The Social Space’, pp.732-733
 In referring to a social space and a life style, I again borrow from Bourdieu, see: ‘Habitus’ in Habitus: A Sense of Place, edited by Jean Hillier and Emma Rooksby, 2 edn (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), pp.27-34, (p.29).