Refugees in Europe: A Forty Years' Crisis?

Refugees in Europe: A Forty Years' Crisis?

A review by Refugee History’s co-editor Becky Taylor of Matthew Frank and Jessica Reinisch (eds) Refugees in Europe, 1919-59.

Frank and Reinisch’s excellent collection draws together some of the key historians and current leading research on refugee history. This area of twentieth century history was once something of a scholarly backwater, but the 2015 refugee ‘crisis’ prompted a spurt of intellectual activity. The work underpinning this volume, however, pre-dates this surge, and the authors draw on long and deep engagement not only with refugee history, but with sustained thinking about its relationship to nation-state formation, the emergence of different forms of internationalism and to different forms of belonging. Refugees in Europe originated in an international conference held in 2010, timed to coincide with the fifty year anniversary of the UN’s first World Refugee Year (1959-60), and which has already produced an important special issue in the Journal of Contemporary History.  

Since 2015, politicians have sometimes looked to history to provide explanations and solutions for the challenges currently posed to ‘Fortress Europe’ by the mass arrival of refugees from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. While flattering to historians, as the editors point out in their introduction, this is also a problem -- ‘a strong moral case alone does not make for good history’ (p.5).  What is needed is close attention to the historical context surrounding each refugee movement; only then can we accurately identify the patterns and particulars to refugee history.

Extending E. H. Carr’s identification in 1939 of a ‘twenty year crisis’ of the preceding two decades, this book explores the idea that the years 1919-59 can usefully be considered as a whole. This forty year timeframe stretches our thinking about refugee crises beyond a period dominated by Nazi policies and consequent refugee movements, foregrounds the relation between the rise and fall of the European nation state and the creation of refugees as an ‘international problem,’ Many of the contributors highlight the ways in which the ‘crisis’ was something artificially created by a ‘European-dominated international order of nation-states’ which forced refugees ‘into the gaps’ created by the newly constructed international order underpinned by passports, visas and entry restrictions.

But the collection also usefully takes on beyond Europe.  Mark Levene contribution points out how the precarity of Jewish citizenship within the Ottoman successor states was already apparent at the 1878 Congress of Berlin, when the newly created Rumania refused to recognise its Jewish population. Further, he argues that post-Versailles Jews were simply ‘among many peoples who were exposed to the winds of radical change’ (p.86) as the multi-ethnic European imperial ‘rim-lands’ gave way to successor states based on the principle of nationally-identified polities.  Similarly, Manasek’s illuminating chapter on the treatment of refugees in the Balkan Ottoman territories demonstrates that international concern over refugees was already emerging in the second half of the nineteenth century. Both Peter Gatrell’s and Tony Kushner’s chapters also explore the long-standing attitudes which underpinned treatment of refugees, notably the unquestioned assumption that they were a threat or a drain on the resources of any receiving nation, and that if they had rights, then these were conditional and could be ignored.

The global perspective is essential. Britain may have portrayed itself as the beacon of liberal democracy and bulwark against the authoritarian regimes of the Continent but it was not unique in this. The Ottoman empire based its own refusal to surrender Hungarian and Polish refugees from the 1848 revolutions on its understanding of political asylum as an international institution, ‘thereby using European norms to assert its sovereign rights and international legitimation’ (p.69). In this sense the internationalist institutions and recognitions of rights which developed 1919-59 under the auspices of the League of Nations, discussed in Barbara Metzger’s chapter, did not invent but rather replaced pre-existing international norms over the rights of political refugees to gain safe asylum.

In different ways a number of chapters make explicit the relationship between refugees and colonialism. Matthew Frank considers the myth of ‘vacant places’ which underpinned the assumptions surrounding Roosevelt’s ‘M’ Project, reminding us that it was part of a far larger colonialist mind-set expressed at the 1938 Évian Conference and before, that the ‘problem’ of the refugees could be solved by removing them en masse to Madagascar, Ethiopia, Tanganyika, Angola, British or Dutch Guiana, Alaska or the Dominican Republic. The legacy of colonial-settler think in refugee policy, as Levene shows, fed support for the new state of Israel in atonement for the failure to respond to Jewish refugees, which also served to create two new groups of ‘perpetual refugees’, the Arabs of Palestine and the Arab Jews from across the Middle East. Glen Peterson, focusing on Malayan refugees fleeing the British to China, reveals just how much the post-1945 international refugee regime - which failed even to formally acknowledge the existence of refugees outside Europe before 1967 – was ‘deeply informed by histories of colonialism, racial exclusion and Western constructions of non-European “Others”’

From the later end of this history, Claire Eldridge considers the impact of brutal decolonisation – the French war in Algeria – on refugee movements. In doing so she pushes against the narrative set out in Zara Steiner’s chapter, demonstrating how at a time when immigration regimes were becoming more formalised, the movement of pieds-noirs and harkis from Algeria to France was only ever treated as domestic matter. These refugees also demand that we interrogate Steiner’s general statement that decolonisation in Africa, at least in the early years, ‘barely affected Europe.’

Locating the roots of the post-1919 refugee crisis in the emergence of post-imperial nation-states and international norms in the nineteenth century; insisting that we look beyond Western Europe and America; and in teasing out the relationship between European attitudes towards refugees and colonialism, this volume is a significant to the growing field of refugee history. It also answers the editors’ question posed in their introduction – do academic historians matter? When they produce such rich, nuanced and authoritative accounts of the past as this, then surely the answer is ‘yes’.

 

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