Digital Archives of Refugee History: Resources, Challenges and Opportunities.

Digital Archives of Refugee History: Resources, Challenges and Opportunities.

By Paul V. Dudman, Archivist responsible for the Refugee Council Archive at the University of East London.


All too easily, refugee history can become lost history; the traces of people on the move rubbed out of national, and local history. What archives are currently available for the historian of refugee and migration movements within the digital environment and how can we encourage access to these resources and what further needs to be done in order to facilitate and preserve access to archival materials within this field?

In this post, I explore the potential for researching currently available digital resources in this field and focusing on refugee history and to consider the challenges ahead in terms of facilitating online access to both traditional and born-digital archive collections.  In this globalised and increasingly digital world, and with refugee and migration issues firmly situated in the global context, how can we approach the need for wider (digital) access to the history of the refugee and migrant movements?

Archives are an invaluable source of information, especially when looking to contextualise historical events and compare current trends with those of the past.  However, there can be a danger, especially when considering archives located within the boundaries of higher education institutions that they are somehow the preserve of the academic and not readily accessible to communities outside of the academy.  How can we, as archivists, ensure that we continue to widen access to, and engagement with, the collections within our care?  How can we ensure that both students, at all levels, and the wider communities that we represent, re both aware and have access to the rich heritage and historical narratives that our archives contain?

At the University of East London, we are facing the challenge of how we can facilitate access to our of archives including and refugee and migration collections, in a manner that both encourages and facilitates access but also ensures the long term preservation of both the traditional archive and its digital surrogates.  We are particularly concerned to meet an increasing demand for our materials, often in a digital format by researchers who are unable to access the reading room in person, married with a need to digitise traditional paper-based resources and to manage access and availability of born-digital resources within a stable information technology infrastructure.  How can we, as archivists, encourage students and non-academics to engage with our archives on refugee history? Indeed, how can we facilitate access to our materials and make them engaging beyond the narrow confines of the University?

In the field of refugee and forced migration studies, there have been some notable successes to highlight.  The Forced Migration Online (FMO) portal hosted by the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford has played a leading role in the provision of free online access to refugee and migration resources via its online digital library.  Whilst focusing primarily on grey literature (materials like working papers, conference papers and annual reports which are produced outside of mainstream academic or commercial publishing), the remit of the portal has been “designed for use by students, academics, practitioners, policy makers, the media, forced migrants or anyone else interested in the field of forced migration.” (Forced Migration Online, www.forcedmigration.org/).  The portal contains both a substantial digital library of free to access materials combined with specially developed research materials providing an easily readable expert guides and introductions to the literature on both thematic and region-specific materials.  The digital library provides access to in excess of 5,000 digital items documenting twentieth-century history of migration movements with materials accessed from partner institutions including the Refugee Studies Centre, Tufts University's Feinstein International Famine Center, Columbia University's Program on Forced Migration (based in the Center for Population and Family Health), the Czech Helsinki Committee in Prague, and the American University in Cairo's Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program and the Refugee Council Archive at UEL.” (Forced Migration Online, www.forcedmigration.org/digital-library/about).

Internationally, The Immigration History Research Center Archives, or IHRC Archives, located within the University of Minnesota, contains extensive resources on refugee and immigration issues including ethnicity, race and the refugee experiences whilst striving “to connect history to today’s experiences.” (IHRC Archives, https://www.lib.umn.edu/ihrca).  The IHRC Archives have developed an in-depth digitisation programme making materials available from the Archive to a public audience.  These have included a curated oral history collection entitled "Minnesota Immigrants"  as well as The Digitizing Immigrant Letters Project.  The work of the Immigration History Research Center Archives highlights how archives and curated collections can be used to make archival resources on refugee history accessible to a broader audience beyond the University.

Another good example in this area is the Centre for Human Rights Documentation and Research based at the University of Columbia in New York.  The CHRDR has been a pioneer in terms of making human rights and refugee-related materials accessible online especially in relation to their Human Rights Web Archive.  This acts as a searchable online resource of archived copies of human rights websites produced by multiple stakeholders including non-governmental organizations, national institutions, tribunals and individuals. It would also be improper not to mention the work of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and their development of their accessible Refworld database of resources and also ReliefWeb, with their ongoing work in managing access to an ever-growing data bank of thematic and country-specific materials on refugee, migration and related issues.

At UEL, we have established the Living Refugee Archive online portal as a means of eventually facilitating access to online resources on refugee and forced migration studies although this is very much still a work in process.  However, we are keen to develop new collaborations as a means of facilitating long-term access to resources on refugee history.  As a co-convenor of the IASFM (International Association for the Study of Forced Migration) Working Group for Archiving and Documentation of History of Forced Migration and Refugees and the lead convenor of the UK Oral History Society Migration Special Interest Group we are looking at ways we can collaborate in order to enhance online access to archival and oral history resources.  We hope this will be the first step in providing a comprehensive resource for accessing archival resources on refugee and migration history and facilitating accessibility.  

The history of migration and refugee movements cannot exist in isolation within the confines of academia.  It is essential for a fuller understanding of the current refugee and migration crisis that we continue to address the importance of cross collaboration beyond academia.  Our work to date has reinforced the view that for a genuine understanding of refugee history and its wider context, this requires collaboration and engagement across institutions, agencies, peoples and countries.  We have been fortunate that through our work with the Refugee Council Archive, we have been able to engage with, and receive invaluable insights, by seeking to engage beyond the academy and listening to the many voices involved.  History is the story of people’s lives and many of the people whose lives have shaped history have a legacy of crossing boundaries.  For us, today, crossing conceptual boundaries should be core to our work in addressing how we approach engaging with the refugee experience and the historical record.

We would welcome expressions of interest in any aspect of these project as well as details of any potential resources you would like to see included as part of the mapping exercise.  Equally, any thoughts or feedback would be much appreciated and you can contact me via email on p.v.dudman@uel.ac.uk or via Twitter @PaulDudman.

Postscript:  Between the time of writing this blog post and the final edit, the Forced Migration Online website has temporarily gone offline.  An historical snapshot of the website from the 14th December 2012 can be found online via the UK Web Archive.

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