From the History of Refugees to Refugee History

From the History of Refugees to Refugee History

Image: Italian refugees on road to safety

I count myself lucky to belong to a growing group of historians who are trying to make sense of mass population displacement in the 20th century and in the new millennium. Other historians can speak for themselves, so in these brief remarks I want to consider what it means to me to write about refugees from a historical perspective – and, I should emphasise, from the perspective of someone who is not himself a refugee.

The launch of this major collaborative enterprise is an opportunity to reflect on what might be meant by ‘refugee history’.

Allow me a few personal remarks by way of introduction. I came to the study of refugees via an indirect route. Whereas the early part of my academic career was devoted largely to topics in Russian economic history, some 20 years ago I had the opportunity of a two-year British Academy Research Readership to write a social and economic history of Russia’s First World War. I intended to write a few paragraphs on population displacement, but I found that I was collecting more and more riveting material on the enormous but almost wholly overlooked ‘refugee crisis’ that afflicted upwards of seven million people in the Russian Empire during the First World War. Writing a book on this subject changed the course of my academic life, because it forced me to consider how non-refugees, government officials and what we would now call non-state actors engaged with refugees, many of whom were ethnically non-Russian, and how they experienced displacement. It was a short step from tackling the rich archival and newspaper material to asking what happened after the war, but a rather longer step to asking where the wartime refugee crisis belongs in the overall history of the 20th century.

What might seem to be a fairly obscure episode in refugee history disclosed issues of broader significance. First, the rhetoric of a ‘flood’ and ‘avalanche’ of refugees who were deemed a threat to public health and the social order anticipated the vocabulary that subsequently became familiar in other places, but this derision was accompanied by evidence of what might be called everyday humanitarianism that can make a big difference to the lives of refugees. Second, there was a willingness to try and ‘let the refugee speak’ by collecting personal testimony and material culture to create a record of displacement; this yielded limited results, but it speaks to a very modern preoccupation with the refugee voice. Finally, refugees were not passive, but instead fought back. The response of the autocratic Russian state – criticised by liberal opponents and constrained in wartime by limited resources – was to disperse refugees across the country and license them to organise their own assistance that enabled non-Russian refugees in particular to link their welfare to political opportunities outside the framework of the status quo, in new states they could call their own. Displacement, in other words, yielded a kind of liberation.

In the course of this research I became intrigued by the way in which social scientists and cultural theorists conceptualised refugees at other times and in other sites of mass displacement. I was inspired by classic studies by social anthropologists such as Renee Hirschon, Peter Loizos, Liisa Malkki, and Barbara Harrell-Bond, all of whom had done magnificent ethnographic work with refugee informants and with aid workers. This reinforced by conviction that it was vital for historians to consider a range of testimony in order to understand how refugees negotiated displacement.

I’ve now spent more than a decade teaching a course to final-year undergraduates on ‘Refugees in modern world history’ in which we look at global episodes and sites of displacement, varieties of ‘problem-solving’, refugees’ testimony, cultural representations of refugees, and so on. Further research and reading as well as working with excellent groups of students led me to write a monograph on the UN campaign to assist refugees during World Refugee Year, 1959-60, and a broad history of refugees in the 20th century.

Never has the subject seemed timelier or more troubling than in 2016. It’s a sign of the intensity of public debate and academic preoccupation that a number of workshops and conferences in the UK and internationally have brought historians together to discuss the history of refugees. Having participated in several such events in the space of a few months, I want to take the opportunity of the launch of Refugee History to ask what is at stake here and whether it’s possible to map the contours of this emerging field. What follows is necessarily selective and abbreviated.

First, refugee history is about refugees, but it’s about more than refugees. We need to think about the multiple relations that govern what journalist Robert Kee once called the ‘refugee world’, between refugees and states – old states, warring states, collapsing states, embryonic states, and new states; between refugees and inter-governmental organisations; between refugees and non-governmental organisations and aid workers; between refugees and non-refugees, including people who could not or did not flee. Each relationship discloses a history of mixed and sometimes contradictory and irreconcilable motives, ideologies, expectations, anxieties that need to be contextualised and explained. This matrix – I call it ‘refugeedom’, adopting a term that gained currency in Russia during the First World War – rests upon asymmetrical power relations, but this does not mean that refugees have been and are unable to exercise a degree of agency as they navigate refugeedom. As suggested earlier, much depends upon the context.

A second, related point is that refugeedom invites us to think about the shifting grounds of what Pierre Bourdieu called the ‘classification struggle’ or what Ian Hacking terms ‘making up people’. The labelling process is partly about policy-making and legal framework, but it’s also about vernacular terminology and about the ways in which refugees might accept, reject, or transcend the label. Historians need to show how the process of categorisation operated in specific circumstances: if you like, how refugees came to be made and unmade. Scholars including Pamela Ballinger, Ilana Feldman, Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, and Laura Madokoro as well as many doctoral students are leading the way in demonstrating how careful archival research and oral testimony can create a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which ‘people in motion’ have negotiated the refugee label, and with what consequences.     

Third, there has been an important shift in the historiography. Classic books on the evolution of the international refugee regime, including by John Hope Simpson and Jacques Vernant (published respectively before and after the Second World War) and by Gil Loescher, Kim Salomon, and Claudena Skran towards the end of the 20th century, focused primarily on institutional history. Other monographs by scholars including Michael Marrus, Tony Kushner and Katharine Knox supplied important detail about the causes of mass displacement and the public response to refugees, as well as tracing the development of government policy and international diplomacy, notably in continental Europe and the UK. A notable intervention came from a group of political scientists led by Aristide Zolberg – significant, because it placed the emphasis on what they termed ‘escape from violence’, rather than the primacy given under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention to an individual’s fear of persecution on specific grounds. By so doing, and because of the global scope of their study, they opened up fresh areas for consideration.

In more recent years, however, it’s possible to detect a growing interest in the experiences of refugees themselves. This is not difficult to understand. With the post-war rise of social history, many historians wished to analyse how marginalised groups such as enslaved groups, peasantries, working-class men and women, and others found a voice and developed a degree of agency even under powerful constraints of various kinds. It isn’t difficult to see how historians of refugees have drawn inspiration from this body of work, although there is more to be done to incorporate the perspectives of gender history, the history of the body and newer histories of emotion into the subject at large.

This brings me to my final point. Those of us who identify as practitioners of refugee history need to be careful in method and approach. One is the danger of essentialisation – of reducing complex differences including differences of class, status, age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, education and occupation to what Roland Barthes called the timeless ‘essence of refugees’. In one of his brilliant short essays in Mythologies, he launched an excoriating attack on the use of images devoid of context and explanation. Historians are by definition alert to the pitfalls of de-historicisation. Another challenge derives from the understandable wish to see things from the refugee’s point of view, which is a valid objective provided that those of us who are not refugees reflect on our stance and the assumptions that we may bring to the evidence. In my view, historians should do more to show how refugees have authored their own history, as writers of petitions and other statements designed in part to locate themselves in a longer history of persecution and displacement, and explicitly or implicitly to advance a political case for recognition and restitution.

In sum, my argument is that refugee history is about how refugees were made (and made themselves), and how they negotiated regimes of power and the frequently reductive assumptions made about their ‘quality’ and uniformity – in other words, how they too helped constitute refugeedom. 

Hidden Histories, Forgotten Narratives

Hidden Histories, Forgotten Narratives

But How Can I Trust You?

But How Can I Trust You?