Refugee history has emerged as an important field of scholarship without anyone writing a manifesto or charting a course that scholars might follow. It has developed in piecemeal fashion, fuelled by an interest in the experiences of individuals and communities caught up in wars and other disasters and affected by upheavals such as border changes, decolonization and the formation of new states. It gained further traction as the phrase ‘refugee crisis’ began to appear regularly in the Western news media after 2014.Footnote 1 It seemed to draw inspiration from the challenge to methodological nationalism and from the transnational turn, familiar to readers of the Journal of Global History.Footnote 2 Consciously or otherwise, this scholarship has been inspired by debates in the later twentieth century relating to labour history, women’s history, gender history and the history of slavery.Footnote 3 Above all, it emerged not only because of an interest in victimized and silenced groups, but also because refugees’ presence and their marginality promised to illuminate key aspects of twentieth-century history including global histories of people on the move and the diasporas they created.Footnote 4
By asking ‘What is refugee history, now?’, we seek in this article to take stock of this emerging field and to suggest further promising lines of enquiry.Footnote 5 We propose a refugee-focused approach that explores how such individuals and communities experienced and negotiated displacement and how they engaged in the past with the category of refugee. In what follows, we take account of different political and institutional contexts and constraints and examine a range of dynamic encounters with multiple actors.
We begin by suggesting that refugees, as individuals and groups, historically crafted their own spheres of being that can be obscured by an adherence to the categorical order imposed by modern states and the refugee regime. Refugees sometimes had (or sought to have) minimal interaction with these institutions. A broader framework is therefore needed. We employ the concept of ‘refugeedom’ to advance refugee history at different levels of investigation, including the global. The term originated in Russia during the First World War against the backdrop of unprecedented mass and multi-ethnic displacement of civilians. In the febrile politics of late tsarist Russia, it designated refugees as a new social category of concern. At the same time, displacement encouraged non-Russian patriotic intelligentsias to articulate and launch programmes of relief that instilled a sense of national identity that challenged imperial governance and subsequently carried over into post-war sovereign successor states. Refugeedom thus pointed to social and political upheaval. It also provided refugees with the opportunity to articulate their experiences of conflict, relief and resettlement.Footnote 6
On these original foundations, we use the term ‘refugeedom’ to enlarge the historical field of vision beyond the presumptions around the refugee regime, whether in its incarnation at the international, national, regional or local level.Footnote 7 Refugee history is more than various studies of institutions that managed refugees, let alone studies that serve to embellish the history of the nation state. Those studies, however, illuminating on their own terms, can excise displaced persons from the centre of the histories they tell and efface the social, economic, cultural and political worlds that refugees helped to create. Refugeedom makes it possible to grasp how refugees engaged with their categorization, whether by identifying with an official and externally imposed designation on the one hand or diverging or refusing it on the other. It is a means of acknowledging the power of the state, whether as the prime mover of displacement or as gatekeeper, but it does not presuppose that only the state-refugee nexus is primary and foundational. Refugeedom also invites a focus on the global: in particular, global events and processes that generated mass population displacement but also global and diasporic connections that take due account of non-state-centred experiences and practices.Footnote 8
Methodologically, our preferred starting point for writing refugeedom into refugee history is to make the displaced more visible as purposeful agents by locating them on their own terms rather than those imposed by governments, prevailing state or institutional legal and administrative categories, or humanitarians. The following sections deploy refugeedom as a framework to think with refugees about refugee history. Bearing in mind that a full historiographic overview is not possible, the first section focuses on the influence of policy-driven refugee studies on the existing historiography. We then consider how refugees were positioned in relation to the state, including the part they played in co-constituting the state. Underscoring refugee agencies in these processes, historians can better understand the worlds that refugees made in displacement. Refugees also understood their own displacement through interactions with non-state interfaces and spaces, and the penultimate section supports critical methodological approaches to address realities that are difficult to capture within a state-centric framework. The final section adopts the methodological premise that source, voice and authorship are integral to framing refugees beyond statist or policy-driven perspectives and argues that this must be set alongside questions of the availability of sources and the politics of the archive and memory. We conclude with some summary remarks about refugee history and global history.
History, policy and the refugee regime
The proliferation of scholarship and a handful of overarching surveys make it impossible to speak any longer of ‘a general amnesia’, in the words of Philip Marfleet, regarding the active position of refugees in modern history. Yet, it remains difficult to identify a conceptual framework for refugee history.Footnote 9 Whether it is a subfield of history or a subfield of interdisciplinary refugee studies, a growing number of scholars would probably identify themselves as practitioners of refugee history. Several research projects, online resources and other promising initiatives are also labelled as such.Footnote 10
Our starting point addresses the need to conceptualize refugee history as something more than a succession of case studies and to go beyond disconnected histories of institutional intervention. Current scholarship offers little by way of representing refugees’ experiences and existences on their own terms even as refugee history has addressed the realities of mass displacement on a global scale.Footnote 11 We are interested in the question of how refugee history can map contingencies and ambiguities of refugee lives and their interactions with each other, with host states, with their own national spaces and with global refugee regimes. This does not mean portraying displacement in essentialized fashion, as if the figure of ‘the refugee’ is self-evident.Footnote 12 Addressing how to write histories of refugeedom, our overview begins to engage with Paul Kramer’s call as to the ways historians can think with rather than of refugees.Footnote 13
As has often been remarked, policy imperatives and prescriptions have long shaped the broader field of refugee studies.Footnote 14 In a vintage article that outlined parameters for the study of displaced persons, political scientist Barry Stein sought to identify ‘the recurring patterned nature of refugee problems’. He argued that those problems were neither temporary nor unique. Stein suggested that social scientists, as well as refugee aid agencies, should examine the situation of ‘refugees everywhere from a broad historical perspective that views them as recurring phenomena with identifiable and often identical patterns of behaviour and sets of causalities’. However, refugees in his analysis responded largely passively to the circumstances they faced; hence, Stein emphasized the need for external ‘guidance’ towards refugees.Footnote 15
Other more historically-informed research was closely connected with debates on refugee policy.Footnote 16 This produced voluminous accounts of institutions that intervened on behalf of refugees while keeping refugees firmly in the background.Footnote 17 Perhaps because of this early scholarly angle, historians of migration, including Oscar Handlin, were sometimes consulted by policymakers who dealt with refugee issues.Footnote 18 With the rise of refugee studies in the 1980s as a field of research, this connection between government policy and academia did little to encourage historians.Footnote 19 Methodologically, the literature in refugee studies has opened up a rich vein for historians to exploit by problematizing formal legal and administrative definitions and approaches, while recognizing that dominant legal categories and manifestations of the refugee regime are products of the nation state order.Footnote 20 Yet, even recent interdisciplinary scholarship has discussed historical case studies or the development of legal categorizations in terms of what ‘may prove to be of use in a present-day context’.Footnote 21 Historians are occasionally wont to apply the same ‘lessons learned’ approach to phenomenon: a recent study of relief and resettlement projects for displaced Russian and Soviet Jews explicitly invites contemporary policymakers to consider agricultural development initiatives as a means to ‘empower’ refugees. This history is offered as an illustration of the ‘practical mobilisation of history to build a better, somewhat more just world’.Footnote 22 It demonstrates a mining of data to showcase neither refugees’ roles as historical actors nor their lived realities, but rather the particular elements of their situations which can be pointedly instrumentalized as ‘lessons’.Footnote 23
Some pushback to this policy-driven focus came from exiled political leaders and activists, some of them historians. As part of an effort to keep specific communities of refugees and others in the public eye, Palestinian exiles and refugees, for instance, kept up a steady stream of publications in which refugees occupy centre stage. The substantial literature relating to the 1948 nakba (catastrophe) is significant in relation to an ongoing political struggle. Whether these accounts shaped the field of refugee history more broadly is less clear.Footnote 24
This is not to discount the landmark publications of scholars from other disciplines whose work has been important to later generations of historians. Sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, human geographers, international lawyers and others – pioneers such as Eugene Kulischer, Louise Holborn and Joseph Schechtman, joined later by Elizabeth Colson, Barbara Harrell-Bond, Aristide Zolberg, Howard Adelman, Liisa H. Malkki and Jennifer Hyndman – made fundamental contributions to the study of mass population displacement. In doing so, they often incorporated a historical perspective.Footnote 25
Emerging out of earlier policy-driven research on refugees, historians have written the prehistory of legal and institutional provision and studies of the interwar refugee regime and the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. We are now much better informed about the operations of the League of Nations specifically on behalf of Russian and Armenian refugees, which reveal a more complex picture than is suggested by older histories of its failings concerning Jewish refugees in the mid-late 1930s. As is now clear, the Office of the High Commissioner had limited capacity, but it launched innovations such as the Nansen Passport that relied upon a degree of international cooperation to enable the movement of refugees in search of employment. The League also provided a forum for international lawyers to discuss the nature of the ‘refugee problem’, a term that became embedded into later scholarship.Footnote 26 At the same time, a focus on the refugee regime produces an incomplete picture, since millions of people never came within its purview. The experiences of Greeks and Turks who were the subject of the involuntary population transfer in 1923 are a case in point.Footnote 27
When the Second World War ended, the Allies drew up plans for the management of an estimated forty million European civilians. They drew a distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘Displaced Persons’. Whereas the former came to be described as ‘civilians not outside the national boundaries of their country’, the latter was defined as ‘outside the national boundaries of their country by reason of the war’ and expected to return to their countries of origin with the assistance of Allied authorities. A significant minority refused for political reasons to repatriate.Footnote 28
In the context of the global Cold War, the International Refugee Organization (IRO) and subsequently UNHCR became the main instruments for supporting European refugees in situ and in assisting others to resettle in third countries, provided refugees could demonstrate their eligibility under the terms of the Convention by providing evidence of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’.Footnote 29
Post-war efforts to resettle demonstrate how institutions framed a Eurocentric and Atlanticist project on a global scale. The resettlement of DPs testified to global power relations. The IRO matched the needs of international organizations that wanted to close the DP operation and of Western countries that needed a cheap labour force and suffered labour shortage in particular sectors. The global dimension of resettlement comes to the fore in histories focused on the experience of refugees moved between Europe, North and South America, Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, the IRO embraced ideas of global development: it enlisted numerous non-governmental organizations to match DPs with employment opportunities in parts of the world in need of labour across various sectors, including sites with ongoing projects of post-war reconstruction. The historical experiences of refugees in resettlement schemes such as these shifted local and regional demographics in host states, which in turn affected the ways in which refugees experienced shifting categorizations of DP, immigrant, and eventually, citizen.Footnote 30
Yet, while the IRO had success in resettling particular refugees after the Second World War, the global or universal perspectives adopted by the UN and the UNHCR fell short of accommodating global realities for millions of refugees. These realities included statelessness and loss of nationality as a result of colonial rule or displacement caused by reasons not covered under the 1951 Convention.Footnote 31 Palestinian refugees are an obvious example: their displacement resulted in the creation of a dedicated agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, to provide assistance in countries of ‘temporary’ asylum.Footnote 32 Other organizations stepped in to fill gaps in protection and assistance, as when the Organisation of African Unity instituted a regional regime in 1969 to administer persons displaced because of decolonization conflicts across the continent.Footnote 33 In other cases, such as Hong Kong, international assistance did little to support refugees.Footnote 34 The resulting gaps in the state or international protection and assistance towards non-European refugees after 1951 offer lines of inquiry that would highlight the initiatives refugees took on their own account.
An area studies perspective can be helpful in drawing attention to regional or local refugee regimes and practices, as in work on East Asia and South Asia that draws attention to ‘transnational and translocal processes that exist alongside the international practices shaping the management of forced migration’.Footnote 35 Likewise, critical work on the post-1945 category of ‘national refugees’ discloses how countless refugees fell outside the framework of the international refugee regime, either because they were assumed to find a route to citizenship or because they were deemed not to have crossed an international frontier even if as in the case of Italian refugees, they had been forced out of Italy’s former colonial possessions.Footnote 36
In order to reorient scholarship on twentieth-century refugees towards practices that better inform global history, an obvious line of inquiry is how to move refugee history beyond deterministic borders of the state to allow greater focus on the global. For instance, current research on states that were not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees promises to generate new insights.Footnote 37 Studying the history of colonized territories in Asia, Africa and the Middle East does more than enrich the non-western historical narrative: it yields important understandings of how attempts to manage refugees developed within and beyond the Eurocentric framework of protection and assistance.Footnote 38
This is not to say that a sharp dividing line can be drawn between developments in Europe and in colonial settings. To take one example, the flight of refugees from Ethiopia following the brutal Italian conquest in 1935 prompted a realization on the part of British officials in Kenya that they had – however reluctantly – a responsibility towards soldiers and civilians alike: the colonial governor recalled the plight of Assyrian refugees he encountered in Iraq a decade previously, many of whom had been left high and dry. Liberal opinion in Britain supported efforts to protect refugees who suffered at the hands of fascist rule, whether in Italy, Spain or Germany.Footnote 39 The transnational can be framed by considering other case studies in relation to the Global South without siphoning them off and confining the study of non-European refugees to geographical sub-areas. A global history approach makes possible a deeper historical grasp of the movement of refugees – a ‘pluralizing history’ as well as a pluralizing geography.Footnote 40
Where do these different components of the historiography leave refugees? By this we mean refugees ‘in history’ – their experiences, above all, and how they interpreted those experiences, in other words, refugees who not only ‘made history’ but who also sought to locate themselves in history, whether it be the history of the ‘nation’ or of other entities. The remainder of the article offers new approaches and perspectives that provide a framework in which refugeedom might enable a conversation between refugee history and global history.
Refugeedom and the state
It is well-understood that the formation of new states after the two world wars was a ‘refugee-generating process’, as Aristide Zolberg famously put it.Footnote 41 An emerging historiography also points to the reverse relationship: how refugees help to constitute the state: the nation state, the proto-state, the fledgling state. This directs attention to the co-constitution of refugees and the state, including the dynamics of population displacement and programmes of national (re)construction. These dynamics can likewise be understood within the framework of refugeedom in that the term invites a focus on multiple and interrelated actors.Footnote 42
The following section historically contextualizes the definitions and categorizations used by states, international institutions and regional and local administrations to document refugee populations, with a critical eye on refugees’ agency in articulating their status on their own terms. It traces how a historical focus on refugeedom can reframe the role of refugees in constituting other aspects of the modern state. Exploring these objectives contributes new angles in refugee history. First, it can help explain global processes: for instance, the circulation of categorizations of displaced persons disrupted global norms in relation to early immigration controls as well as in conflicts over border sovereignty in the decolonized Global South. The global impact of refugee movements constituted other elements of state formation, leading to hardened ideological stances on the part of both refugees and governments: this includes not only the case of the United States of America and Britain turning boats of Jewish refugees away during the Second World War, but the response to this by China and Japan.Footnote 43 The second contribution to refugee history is to launch a discussion on the worlds that refugees created. That is to say, the global circulation and global impact of refugees shaped new pasts, presents and futures as well as new imaginaries, politics, spaces and trajectories.
In relation to definition and categorization of displaced persons, we can draw a distinction between international legal definitions, government distinctions and vernacular usage. Those groups and individuals caught up in situations of mass displacement engaged with the definitions and categorization foisted upon them. Palestinian refugees embraced the label in so far as it drew attention to their exiled status and affirmed their determination to resist local integration or resettlement.Footnote 44 In the Indian subcontinent, on the other hand, Partition-era refugees rejected the label of ‘refugee’ and insisted that their entitlement to be regarded as full citizens.Footnote 45 By contrast, Latvian DPs who reached the UK after the Second World War under the European Volunteer Workers scheme was deemed by officials and employers to be economic migrants, whereas they perceived themselves as refugees from communism forced from their national homeland.Footnote 46 In the midst of global displacement, these kinds of regional and national self-representation carried considerable political significance.
The stakes were high in other cases too. For example, Vietnamese refugees had to contend with debates as to whether they were ‘genuine’ refugees or economic migrants, and thus whether they were entitled to be resettled or should be repatriated to Vietnam. Meanwhile, they remained for months or even years in camps in South East Asia, pending decisions as to their eligibility.Footnote 47 Official legal and administrative distinctions also had the potential to inflect vernacular representations and descriptions. In her path-breaking study of the experiences of refugees from China in the wake of the formation of the Chinese People’s Republic in 1949, Laura Madokoro examines the multiple ascriptions that circulated at the time, including the pejorative term ‘rice refugees’ that officials in the British colony of Hong Kong deployed so as to avoid inflaming relations with the PRC, and which gained broader currency amongst the resident population and some humanitarian aid organizations.Footnote 48
Refugees meanwhile contested official designations and prescriptions. Emma Meyer addresses the evacuation in 1942 of tens of thousands of people of Indian descent from Japanese-occupied Burma to the South Indian district of Visakhapatnam – people who were not able to return at the war’s end. She examines the administrative apparatus alongside the multiple demands made by the evacuees on the colonial authorities to insist on their dignity and rights.Footnote 49 A Global South perspective also illuminates issues of categorization in the wake of decolonization. For example, states in Asia and Africa confronted the challenge of how to categorize refugees: the government of Nigeria insisted that children whom UNHCR helped to relocate in Gabon during the Nigerian Civil War should be regarded as ‘Biafran evacuees’, whereas the government of Biafra insisted that they were ‘Biafran refugees’, an echo of rival versions of child displacement during the Greek Civil War a generation earlier.Footnote 50 The politics of categorization operated across time and space, and their interrogation requires a global perspective.
Political imperatives involving refugees emerged in spheres other than categorization. A distinctive approach incorporating refugees’ experiences shaping state-building projects emerges in the work of Laura Robson and Benjamin Thomas White. Each has examined the relationship between population displacement and the constitution of state authority in the interwar Arab Middle East, following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the League of Nations. Robson draws attention to how British and French colonial authorities, with the approval of the League, settled Assyrian refugees in remote – and sometimes described as ‘empty’ – border regions in northern Iraq as part of the attempt to establish state authority. The British came to regard Assyrian refugees as a useful resource in seeking to neutralize Iraqi resistance. White shows that French officials settled Armenians in a ‘buffer zone’ in Syria for similar reasons, to consolidate colonial rule. While French action prompted Syrian leaders to mobilize in defence of the Syrian nation, the French mandatory regarded Armenian refugees as a threat but also an inspiring example of Syrian hospitality, ‘a way of asserting the nation’s moral character while also defining its boundaries’.Footnote 51 Refugees’ experiences and their own interaction with buffer and border zones in sites of displacement thus played a significant mobilizing role in state formation.Footnote 52
Several scholars have analysed how the governments of the new states of India and Pakistan devised measures to ‘rehabilitate’ refugees, to create new administrative bodies to address property issues and ultimately to mould refugees into new citizens.Footnote 53 Refugeedom highlights the assertive role of refugees in these processes. Vazira Zamindar broke new ground by examining the dimension of the border as the embodiment of state authority and how it might be negotiated by citizens on either side. Her work pays attention to the creation of permits and passports to determine the right of abode.Footnote 54 These documents can at the same time be regarded as the material manifestation of the subtle way in which refugees contributed to shaping modern states’ immigration controls, entry and settlement conditions, not only in South Asia but across the globe, a process that can be traced back to the provision of Nansen passports a generation earlier.
Official documents can be decisive, but they do not tell the whole story. Our ongoing research finds many instances in which refugees criticized the actions of the League of Nations, the IRO and UNHCR for neglecting human rights. But refugees were also willing to let their imagination rip, inviting states and intergovernmental organizations to contemplate a world in which refugees could exercise autonomy, as when a Hungarian refugee seaman wrote to UNHCR in 1953 to say, ‘I have many practical ideas for solving this question of the Refugees’, including one for a dedicated state or ‘reservation’ to be established by refugees themselves.Footnote 55 As Aihwa Ong writes in relation to Cambodian refugees who sought admission to the USA: ‘in official and public domains refugees become subjects of norms, rules and systems, but they also modify practices and agendas while nimbly deflecting control and interjecting critique’.Footnote 56 The following section considers aspects of such agency as exemplified in the historiography.
Refugeedom and refugee history: Beyond the state
This section addresses several ways to move histories of refugees outside the formal purview of the state. While we cannot explore all avenues in detail, the section begins with a discussion of the social history of living in the refugee camp. Refugeedom is then used to explore refugee history in relation to diasporas, refugees’ interactions with non-state actors and their negotiation of environments and landscapes.
As a globally widespread institution, the refugee camp historically has served various purposes: a place of safety and protection (usually described by officialdom as ‘temporary’), management and surveillance and a site of administrative convenience.Footnote 57 In this regard, several historians have attended to the pioneering work of sociologist Erving Goffman, who transformed the field with his study of the rules of the ‘total institution’ and what they implied for the behaviour of those confined within.Footnote 58 At the same time as being a site of confinement and scrutiny, the refugee camp was a site of multiple experiences and practices, including cultural production and political mobilization, even if refugee voices are often difficult to hear because the documentary record reflects external imperatives. Key historical contributions have nevertheless drawn upon but also transcended institutional record-keeping in ways that illuminate refugee perspectives.Footnote 59
An emerging body of work on camps in the recent past supports our contention that refugee history must be enlarged by considering how refugees not just inhabited but helped to shape the social world of the refugee camp. To take one example amongst many, the Philippines Refugee Processing Center on Bataan constituted ‘a veritable international village’ comprising social workers, psychologists and others, including refugees who were employed as interpreters. It was also, crucially, a hierarchical social world, in which class and gender distinctions and political divisions undermined any straightforward assumptions of a singular ‘refugee experience’.Footnote 60 Non-human interactions structured experiences for refugees as well, as Benjamin Thomas White shows in his study on animals in Baquba camp, Iraq after the First World War. This, too, is a rewarding line of enquiry.Footnote 61
An externalist, top-down perspective overlooks the evidence of a variety of cultural, social, economic and political activity on the part of refugees. One compelling illustration of the refugee camp as a liminal space is the way in which, through an ironic turn of events, European DPs repurposed the famous Italian film studio, Cinecittà, as a refugee camp. Conditions were cramped and disease was rife. There were stories of crime and of children running amok – an indication of the anxieties that officials here and elsewhere felt about their prospects and the implications for ‘rehabilitation’ more broadly. However, DPs filled this ‘vacuum’ with life, contrary to narratives disseminated by contemporary aid workers about widespread ‘apathy’.Footnote 62 National historiographies, when interested in the lives of refugees, often showcased cultural activities from dance groups through schooling to religious rites as an expression of vivid national life in exile.Footnote 63
To be sure, not all refugees were placed in refugee camps. In this connection, we should acknowledge the significance of refugee diasporas that were scattered in self-settled communities. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution more than a million Russian exiles constituted a significant albeit politically and socially heterogeneous diaspora.Footnote 64 The post-war Armenian diaspora also maintained an active presence in Syria, France, the United States of America and elsewhere. Like the later counterparts – the global Palestinian, Jewish, Kurdish, Tamil, Polish and other diasporas – their affiliations and networks played a crucial role in questions of ‘identity’, including how refugees understood and characterized the history of their own displacement. Refugee diasporas exchanged knowledge about the opportunities to access aid and support from local, national or international agencies, and about how best to navigate the refugee regime. Their networks allowed refugees to circulate political ideas and texts and to share knowledge of opportunities and social and cultural practices across multiple sites.Footnote 65 Refugee diasporas helped shift the sites of political action. For example, Mezna Qato pinpoints the oppositional political voice of Palestinian refugees in Jordan as they responded to the imposed school curriculum.Footnote 66
Going further and linked to how refugees experience space, social networks and institutions, we can ask what not only the diaspora meant but what returning meant to refugees who embarked on repatriation journeys. These experiences, too, belong to global histories of displacement. In addition to providing descriptive examples of global and transnational travels, practices and networks, ‘homecoming’ and ideas of home/homeland are integral aspects of the historical dimensions and constitution of refugeedom.Footnote 67 David Newbury, in his study of the complexities of coming home for Rwandan refugees, and Florian Bieber in his work on Yugoslav refugees in Egypt, supports the view that the role of states constructing homelands for repatriated or returning refugees has been critical to understanding ‘return’.Footnote 68 More critically, the historical dimensions of refugees’ imagined returns as told in their own words offer powerful insight into homecomings and the romanticization of home, along with issues of identity, memory and social roles.Footnote 69
Whether as return, settlement or onward migration, the movement of refugees has had important environmental and economic consequences. Studying environmental history alongside refugee history and the concept of refugeedom exposes a broader spectrum of refugee experiences and their representation, but also indicates how environments shaped displacement, emergency relief and longer-term development.Footnote 70 The presence of refugees historically had a transformative impact on the landscape and the built environment, the economy and the labour market.Footnote 71
Metaphors of environmental catastrophe – the characterization of refugees as a ‘flood’ or ‘wave’, an ‘avalanche’ and a ‘plague of locusts’ – helped governments to prepare ground for mass displacement by characterizing and demonizing an entire group as an ‘infestation’ in need of removal. This is exemplified by the actions of the Young Turk leadership to forcibly exile the Armenian minority during the First World War. Yet, displaced Armenians who survived the Turkish onslaught in 1915 eventually settled the frontier environment in ways their persecutors did not anticipate.Footnote 72
Environmental history can be brought to bear on refugee history in more direct ways. For example, governments and intergovernmental organizations regarded refugees as an environmental resource, as with projects to settle them in ‘empty’ or ‘underdeveloped’ parts of the world.Footnote 73 Refugees took advantage of such plans, often exercising their own initiatives without direct state involvement. But there are also instances in which refugees resisted the arrangements made on their behalf. The planned resettlement of Hindu refugees in new colonies following the Partition of India is a clear example that points to refugeedom as a field of contestation rather than the unbridled exercise of state power.Footnote 74
The place of refugees in the built and natural environment intersects with the discussion of the materiality of refugee camps and other sites of settlement. There is plenty of evidence of refugees’ improvisation in distressing circumstances, as when Hungarian refugees after the First World War peace settlement were obliged to make use of railway carriages as ‘temporary’ accommodation.Footnote 75 Refugees elsewhere were no less resourceful and inventive. For example, Nasser Abourahme’s ethnography of cement in the Dheishe refugee camp in Bethlehem tracks the life cycle of what might appear to be a mundane material, but which proved an essential resource for refugees.Footnote 76
Refugees are and have been economic actors and agents in different local, regional and global contexts.Footnote 77 The economic components of refugee history are varied, and they include not only state imperatives but also the broad dynamics of the international business cycle. Katy Long points out that in the 1920s and early 1930s Western governments were disposed to accept refugees based on economic criteria, in effect treating them as migrants when they were needed to replenish the labour force. No clear international distinction was made between political refugees and impoverished migrants, but the Great Depression reversed that policy, and the distinction remained entrenched in ways that fall beyond the scope of this article.Footnote 78
Less well covered in refugee history is the circulation of working capital, and namely the global networks that allowed this type of circulation. Amongst other key findings, Circassian refugees in the new city of Amman facilitated the expansion of Ottoman networks of capital.Footnote 79 Thousands of Palestinian refugees in the Gulf integrated into the labour market in oil-rich states such as Kuwait and sent remittances home to family members in the camps or in Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza.Footnote 80 More work is needed on the historic role of refugees in the global circulation of remittances within diaspora and refugee camp communities, taking the discussion beyond issues around black market transactions.Footnote 81 Meanwhile, there is an emerging economic history of population displacement that connects with key themes around refugees as a business opportunity for non-refugees. A new study of the Australian context provides a compelling illustration of the multiple manifestations of business, namely the faded business of mineral resource extraction on the Pacific island of Nauru and the intense new business involved in extracting value from confining and containing refugees on Nauru as part of the Australian government’s ‘refugee processing’ procedures.Footnote 82
Refugeedom provides a platform to study these multiple interactions between refugees and other actors and spaces. Methodologically, it reformulates refugees’ actions within but also beyond the bounds of the state, and draws attention to the local, national and global forces and constraints that shaped refugee experiences.
Archives, voice and authorship
In our reconceptualization of refugee history, questions inevitably arise about the source, voice and narrative agency. These issues are directly linked to our argument about refugeedom. To begin, we reflect here on practices of collection and preservation of source material in the archive, museum and other repositories, and on the dispersal, disappearance, plunder or destruction of archives. We also take account of issues around access and confidentiality. These issues have been debated extensively, but not in relation to refugee history.Footnote 83
The material traces of refugees themselves survive in a haphazard fashion, if at all. Inevitably, this supports a top-down perspective in which refugees are the object rather than the subject of their own history. The Arolsen Archives, originally the holdings of the International Tracing Service, are a model of good practice, in terms of access and digitization, but the commitment of time and personnel is considerable. Other institutions, including major agencies such as UNHCR, not to mention prominent NGOs, such as Christian Aid, Save the Children and CARE, as well as the American Friends Service Committee and the World Council of Churches, have limited resources and other priorities.Footnote 84 But such records as are available are immensely informative, not least about the global scope of aid work and the peripatetic activities of staffers who moved from one site to another.Footnote 85
The oral history of refugees is extensive and rich and provides a way of telling refugee history in ways that might complicate or de-familiarize established narratives.Footnote 86 Oral history archives, preserving often both the original video and audio recordings as well as transcriptions, can buck the trend of top-down collection of refugee stories. However, as archivist Paul Dudman writes regarding the University of East London’s Refugee Council Archive, the challenges include deciding whose voices are represented, and issues of trust in the process of collecting testimonies.Footnote 87 A separate issue relates to silence in archived oral testimony: individual refugees might repress memories of displacement.
Refugees spoke to different audiences, and it is necessary to search for their voices through local and regional archives as well as major institutional repositories where global initiatives to ‘manage’ refugees or provide ‘durable solutions’ may be found in abundance. Bearing in mind that sources relating to refugee relief work sometimes turn up in unexpected places, the process of archiving refugeedom and accessing relevant source material requires a global approach that invites historians to link archives in India to those in Geneva, or in Jerusalem to those in London, and in Warsaw to those in New York.Footnote 88
Once through the doors of the archive, historians of refugeedom can examine the records concerning the relationship between refugees and those who wielded authority over them. This can be something as fundamental as the language in which the records were written. UNHCR, for example, handled thousands of petitions in the 1950s and 1960s, and often had to get them translated from Russian, Hungarian, Albanian, Arabic and even Esperanto into the languages of international diplomacy, namely English and French. Translations designed to make refugee testimony intelligible for relief workers or for eligibility officers pose questions of mediation and disclose prevailing power relations that put refugees at an immediate disadvantage.Footnote 89
Many landmark publications in refugee history have succeeded in recovering the voices of refugees in different sites of displacement who recounted their experiences, sought protection and demanded their rights. However, there is much more to be done to understand how refugees interpreted their situation and confronted those who exercised power over them.Footnote 90 Studies of refugee petitions point one way forward. Anne Irfan has examined the purpose, form, content and tone of Palestinian refugee petitions, and highlighted the performative character of the petition.Footnote 91 Beyond petitioning, there is scope also to consider other texts that refugees have created, whether memoirs or works of fiction, songs or poems, guidebooks, photographs and other cultural products.Footnote 92
Tracing and exploring the changing policies and practices on behalf of and by refugees in relation to gender while at the same time accounting for women’s experiences has been fragmentary at best.Footnote 93 While the images of refugee women and children feature in scholarship and fundraising materials alike, it has been the male refugee whose voice has usually been taken as the default in representing refugees’ ‘experience’. Notable exceptions exist, including work by Rosemary Sayigh on female refugees in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps.Footnote 94 In many instances, however, male refugees assumed positions of relative power in their communities; media and academic publications foregrounded these male voices and narratives, that is, if they considered refugee voices at all. In short, refugee women were often ‘put in their place’ not only by the authorities but also by their male counterparts, and this is reflected in the archive.Footnote 95
The intersection of class, gender, race, sexual orientation and other identity markers influenced the experience of refugees and shaped the politics of voice. Few if any refugees would have disclosed being gay to the authorities, lest those determining their eligibility or provide for their protection would refuse to engage with them on grounds of their sexuality.Footnote 96 Queering refugee history to explore the experiences and voices of LGBT refugees is a real challenge but to avoid confronting it is to fall into the trap, as Antonio Zappulla puts it, of forgetting them twice over.Footnote 97
This brings us to our final set of reflections, about refugees’ capacity to write their own history, the conditions under which they do so and the purpose these writings serve. An extensive social science scholarship is concerned with refugees’ narratives of displacement, encampment, journeys, resettlement and repatriation, as well as a multiplicity of commemorative installations and practices.Footnote 98 Historians who were themselves refugees have contributed to these resources. Mario J. Azevedo’s study of Mozambicans who fled Portuguese colonial rule opens with his intention as a former refugee to ‘save for future generations a recent history that might soon be forgotten forever’.Footnote 99
There is a critical political component here, associated especially with diasporic initiatives. It was apparent in the efforts of émigré organizations in the 1920s to get Russian children to write accounts of exile, as part of a project to preserve ‘our national property, our youth as a whole’.Footnote 100 Other projects were even more systematic. A pertinent example of a politicized history is the Hutu ‘refugee historians’ who fled Burundi and were cocooned in Tanzania’s refugee camps created a ‘mythico-history’ that was widely disseminated and purported to validate their claims to the land while depicting Tutsis as imposters.Footnote 101 Similarly, Sahrawi elites created and circulated a narrative of a cohesive group identity that effaced any history of prior ‘tribal’ affiliations.Footnote 102 Tibetan refugees perceived themselves as guardians of a distinctive civilization that needed to be safeguarded in the face of the Chinese occupation of their homeland.Footnote 103 In the aftermath of Partition, the Bengali newspaper Jugantar published a series of essays on ‘The abandoned village’ (Chhere asha gram). Reissued as a complete collection in 1975, the essays spoke of the inexplicable events of 1947 and the loss of ancestral ‘home’ and Bengali ‘motherland’, portrayed as something ‘sacred and beautiful’. The authors composed a history that is informed by nostalgia for a place that is now ‘empty’ and devoid of a Bengali presence.Footnote 104
Memory or ‘memorial’ books have played an important part in refugees’ narration of their own displacement. Memorial books encapsulate a sense of loss but also have the potential to assert a sense of self.Footnote 105 They reconstruct a history of the abandoned settlement, enumerate its former inhabitants and their dwellings, and establish a connection between the displaced and their original homes. Ancestral connections were also significant for Han Chinese refugees who recreated elaborate clan genealogies in Thailand after they fled there from Yunnan in 1949.Footnote 106 Websites that draw attention to Armenian sites in the Ottoman Empire as well as Jewish memorial books testifying to life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust are a didactic means to educate future generations. The best known examples are Palestinian village books and online compilations of ‘destroyed villages’ has an overtly political purpose, being informed by the realization that previous generations’ careful investment in the land and their arduous toil had been dissipated.Footnote 107 Michel Agier describes an encounter with Hutu refugees in north-west Zambia who compiled a small book that detailed their ordeal and odyssey in the 1990s, framed as a kind of biblical epic of Hutu displacement.Footnote 108 These and similar efforts produce not mere gazetteers, but texts that associate the place with sensory perceptions – the smell of sea breeze, the taste of lemons or the sight of a familiar shop – and with aspirations of restitution. These texts, like the keys to abandoned properties, establish a claim to land that has been forfeited but might yet be restored. They are part of the archive of refugeedom, part of the project to reclaim ‘erased lives’ in diaspora.Footnote 109
This is a very productive strand of enquiry. Still, we must look for history in other places too – the material objects that refugees carried with them and the significance invested in personal objects, such as religious artefacts, embroidered items, jewellery, photos and the objects that acquired significance during the journey, such as the walking stick and the map. There is much still to be done to illuminate the materiality of refugeedom.
Refugees might write their history as a chronicle of personal suffering and loss, or as the expression of their capacity to overcome adversity and to ‘make a contribution’, for example, to the host society or to the diaspora. Equally, they might choose to keep quiet or to make a calculated decision to forget.Footnote 110 In this connection, it is important to take account of the gendered dimensions: the extent to which discourses and practices were reserved for men, including when they spoke of female ‘victims’. UNHCR’s confidential case files covering the third quarter of the twentieth century demonstrate how the process of demonstrating eligibility and recognition offered a kind of invitation to compose a condensed life history, sometimes connecting personal circumstances to broader national narratives. However, the male voice predominates.Footnote 111
We are conscious of the risks involved in turning refugee history into a kind of scholarly standalone silo. In a provocative article on African social history, the late Terence Ranger wrote of the need to ‘reinsert refugees and returnees into the general stream of the study of history and society rather than remove them into some special problematic category’. He argued there is ‘nothing more important than research on refugees and repatriation except to ensure that such research did not compound the plight of refugees and repatriates by cutting them off from … social history …in general’.Footnote 112 In this article, we have considered what issues are raised by their configuration historically as a ‘problematic category’. However, thinking about ‘the general stream’ requires a degree of caution on the part of historians, lest they adopt too readily a state-centred perspective.
This is where the concept of refugeedom together with a global history approach can yield dividends. As we have seen, the history of refugees is usually embedded within the history of the nation state. Adopting a global historical perspective provides the opportunity to enlarge the field of vision, by taking account of multiple actors without losing sight of specific historical contexts.Footnote 113 Such a perspective draws attention to global ambitions, such as those of intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. Refugeedom provides a foundation for taking account of refugees’ experiences, interactions and narratives without privileging certain definitions as to who counts as a refugee.
Refugee history and global history can be integrated into mutually productive and constitutive ways. Part of this engagement, as we have seen, rests upon the scale and scope of mass population displacement in the modern world, and by attempts to fashion and implement globally ambitious schemes to manage the ‘refugee problem’. This emerges most overtly during the aftermath of two world wars, the global manifestations of the Cold War and the era of decolonization, all of them associated with mass displacement and with debates around assistance and ‘solutions’.
There are other synergies between global history and refugee history. Studying the formation of refugee diasporas and the resultant diasporic politics together illuminate global and transnational movements of knowledge, ideologies, educational and economic initiatives, as well as practices and actions adopted by refugees themselves – as in the refugee camp – to counter their marginalization. The global circulation of knowledge by and about refugees, within and beyond dedicated sites of displacement, is an invitation to historians to confront but not be bewitched by dominant narratives associated with the modern state, the international refugee regime or legal categorizations that privileged top-down narratives. Historians must find room to consider refugee voices and recollections of refugee agencies that reached beyond the nation state. Refugeedom provides just that kind of opportunity.
Lauren Banko is a historian of the modern Middle East. She is currently a Research Associate at the University of Manchester. She earned her PhD in Near and Middle Eastern History from SOAS, London. Her first book was titled The Invention of Palestinian Citizenship, 1918–1947 (2016). Lauren has held positions at SOAS, Royal Holloway, University of Manchester and Yale University. She has published recently on borders and frontiers in Palestine and the Arab Middle East, the illicit crossings of them and deportations in the interwar period.
Katarzyna Nowak is a historian specializing in cultural and social history of Eastern Europe, with a particular interest in refugee and migrant history. During her doctoral and postdoctoral research at the University of Manchester, she focused on Displaced Persons in the early Cold War period from a global perspective. She is currently completing her first monograph, entitled Kingdom of Barracks. Polish Displaced Persons in Allied-occupied Germany and Austria, 1945–1952. She has published on the history of gender, refugees and diaspora.
Peter Gatrell recently retired from the University of Manchester. His publications include A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia during World War 1 (1999); Free World? The Campaign to Save the World’s Refugees, 1956–1963 (2011); and The Making of the Modern Refugee (2013). His latest book, The Unsettling of Europe: the Great Migration, 1945 to the Present, published by Penguin Books and Basic Books in 2019, was awarded the Nanovic Institute’s Laura Shannon Prize and Italy’s ‘Premio Cherasco’. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and led the AHRC-funded research project, ‘Reckoning with refugeedom: refugee voices in modern history, 1919–1975’.