Hidden Histories, Forgotten Narratives

Hidden Histories, Forgotten Narratives

Hidden Histories, Forgotten Narratives: How can archives document, preserve and make accessible the material culture and first-hand testimonies of modern migration?

By Paul V. Dudman, Archivist at the University of East London @PaulDudman

The paper will reflect upon existing civic engagement projects utilising the Refugee Council Archive at the University of East London. Our work has raised important questions including “Are refugee archives well-represented in relation to the preservation of lived experience of refugees and migrants? If not, why is this? Who get excluded from refugee-archives, and in what ways?” The result has been the creation of a Living Refugee Archive and an investigation of oral history methodology to help restore the endangered refugee voices to the archival record.

For over a decade I have been the Archivist responsible for the Refugee Council Archive here at the University of East London.  The Refugee Council itself is one of the largest voluntary sector organisations offering services and support to refugees.  Founded in 1951 in response to the creation of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, the British Council for Aid to Refugees (BCAR) and the Standing Conference on Refugees (SCOR) are founded and subsequently merge to form the Refugee Council in 1981.   Throughout this period, an archive started to formulate which not only documented the history of the Refugee Council itself, but which also acted as a repository for external materials which documented the refugee experience through history.  Records were saved which helped document the Hungarian Uprising in orical responses to refugee issues.  Surviving archival recn, thtee on Refugees were founded, la1956; the expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin in 1972; the flight of the Vietnamese Boat People in the late 1990s and the breakup of the Former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The surviving Archive of the Refugee Council therefore documents both the history of the Refugee Council as an organisation through the narratives included within correspondence, minutes, case files, administrative and policy materials.  However, there is also a thematic special collection of published books and journals, reports and grey literature incorporating working papers, conference papers, leaflets, newsletters, case studies, field reports, statistical data, press cuttings and audio-visual materials.  To date we have catalogued in excess of 35,000 items.

Question raises how truly representative are they of the refugee experience? Archives are the backbone of our nation’s history, but how has the legacy of migration been traditionally documented within these collections?  Has our national history adversely impacted upon public perception of refugees by not allowing their voices to be heard?  Have our historians and archivists ignored most refugee movements and `silenced’ those involved in the struggles? Can refugee voices and true history of migration be re-installed on the historical record?

Refugee voices and first-hand testimonies can be very important when used in conjunction with policy documents and academic research, especially as Patricia Hynes (2003,p.1) points out refugees are the experts of their own experience. But how accessible are these narratives of lived experiences within the surviving archival record?  These are the questions that I have long debated with myself, especially as our existing collection focus heavily on the policy and academic research approaches to the refugee experience, whilst seemingly overlook the actual narratives of the refugees themselves.

I attempted to address the gap between policy documents and lived narratives of refugees in the Autumn of 2014 when UEL launched its new civic engagement agenda, and as a part of this, an internal civic engagement fund.  The aim of this fund was to finance internal projects for up to £5,000 with the express aim of engaging with local communities.  This presented the Archive with an opportunity to fund a small pilot project looking to undertake the collection of oral history recordings of refugees and migrants and to establish a Living Refugee Archive portal to host the oral history recordings and provide a point of engagement for the wider community.

Undertaken in conjunction with a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Migration, Refugees and Belonging, Dr. Rumana Hashem, this interdisciplinary project enabled us to engage with a number of academics; community activists, oral history researchers and third sector practitioners and students- nationally and internationally. We have addressed a number of important epistemological questions. These included questions around how Archives engage with the wider community, especially where this community has traditionally been under-represented and may be reluctant to engage with perceived “authority” institutions. Issues surrounding the ethics of undertaking oral history work with refugees and migrants was a re-occurring theme as was the very process of how we archive and make accessible our archival holdings. Given the limited space here, it is impossible to detail on these complex issues. I aim to discuss these in a future writing on Refugee History.     

Paul V. Dudman.  E-mail:  p.v.dudman@uel.ac.uk

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