September 22, 2017
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‘Refugee History’ Platform Offers Lessons for the Current Crisis

Historians frustrated by simplistic comparisons between refugee crises past and present have set up a platform to delve deeper into historical parallels and differences. Its founders talk to Judith Vonberg about the importance of history for understanding the present.

By Judith Vonberg, Newsdeeply.com


LONDON – Rarely does a week go by in the U.K. without a reference to the Kindertransport in a national newspaper. Through this organized rescue effort in 1938, 10,000 Jewish children were brought from continental Europe to safety in Britain. Now in their 80s or 90s, several of them have recently made public statements comparing their own experiences with those of Syrian and other refugee children today and condemning the U.K.government’s inaction.

“It was an issue of life and death for us, and it is the same for the children today,” Gregory Gerhard Baum, one of the surviving refugees, told the Guardian earlier this year.

The comparison is a compelling and emotive one. It is easy to see why it has gained so much traction in the media coverage of the current refugee situation.

Yet historians warn against the dangers of simple comparisons. “Drawing a straight line between two superficially similar events is at best misleading, at worst disingenuous and plain wrong,” says Becky Taylor, a social historian at the University of East Anglia.

“This does not mean that historical examples are of no use, but it does mean that lessons from the past have to be extracted more carefully,” Taylor says. “We should ask: What is distinctive about each refugee crisis, and what is not? What patterns and details have we seen in the past that still seem to apply today? What sorts of attempted solutions have never worked? Which ones have had some success and might be used again?”

Eve Willman holds a copy of her 1939 German passport at her home in London. Willman was brought to England by Kindertransport from Austria to escape Nazi persecution. (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Eve Willman holds a copy of her 1939 German passport at her home in London. Willman was brought to England by Kindertransport from Austria to escape Nazi persecution. (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

A group of academics at the University of East Anglia launched an online platform this month hoping to contextualize some of these questions. Refugee History aims to amplify academic expertise on the history of refugees and migration. The platform’s founders hope to promote an evidence-based alternative to simplistic comparisons, and explain the challenges and opportunities brought about by mass migration.

The site also aims to bring together academics, journalists, third sector organizations and anyone else with an interest in refugees to contribute to, share and engage with materials on refugee history. The founders hope this will enable them to learn more about refugee history and experience, share new research and ultimately influence debates in media and policy circles.

The idea for Refugee History was born over a year ago, when media coverage of the refugee crisis in Europe reached a peak. Taylor and her colleague Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge noticed “how history was used, again and again, to explain contemporary events, [but was often] distorted or abused in the process,” Taylor says.

The historians were troubled by the raft of decontextualized images of past refugee movements and careless reporting that claimed past initiatives, such as the Nansen passport or European burden-sharing agreements from the 1990s, could “solve” today’s problem. They saw an urgent need for historians who could recontextualize past events.

“Historians are by definition alert to the pitfalls of de-historicization,” writes Professor Peter Gatrell of the University of Manchester, one of the leading contributors to Refugee History. Gatrell, Stonebridge and Taylor have accumulated a vast portfolio of work showing how history can best be utilized to understand and explain mass migrations.

Gatrell, who authored the first comprehensive history of global population displacement in the 20th century, began his study of refugees with a book on the little-known refugee crisis that took place in the Russian Empire during World War I and affected over 7 million people. Taylor’s work on the British response to both the Hungarian exodus of 1956 and the Vietnamese crisis in 1979 also shed much needed light on present resettlement needs.

These studies found remarkable parallels with today’s refugee situation – from the fear-mongering rhetoric of “floods” and “avalanches” of refugees, to acts of everyday humanitarianism that foreshadow the “Refugees Welcome” movement.

A banner set up in the main square of Chamonix, French Alps, reads: "Welcome to Refugees." Two days later, the migrants camp known as "the jungle" in Calais, France, would be dismantled, Oct. 22, 2016 (AP/Bertrand Combaldieu)

A banner set up in the main square of Chamonix, French Alps, reads: “Welcome to Refugees.” Two days later, the migrants camp known as “the jungle” in Calais, France, would be dismantled, Oct. 22, 2016 (AP/Bertrand Combaldieu)

What often sets these historians apart from journalists is that they go beyond the historic parallels and delve into the geopolitical, economic and cultural factors that differentiate one refugee situation from another. By doing so, they bring deeper threads of continuity between different situations to light.

“There are valuable lessons from history,” says Stonebridge. “Lessons about how mass displacement has shaped our cultures over hundreds of years, for example. History also allows us to see how the current refugee situation is not simply a crisis for other people and a problem for us, but the newest manifestation of a profoundly connected geopolitical history over the past 70 years.”

Greek and Armenian refugee children play in the sea in Marathon, Greece, in 1915. (Wikimedia Commons, George Grantham Bain Collection).

Greek and Armenian refugee children play in the sea in Marathon, Greece, in 1915. (Wikimedia Commons, George Grantham Bain Collection)

Refugee History aims to go further than providing history lessons on the specific and complex factors behind past instances of mass displacement. It will also explore the ways in which refugees were conceptualized, and how they conceptualized themselves, at the time and later.

“Refugee history is about how refugees were made, and made themselves,” Gatrell says.

This team of historians hopes to highlight the fundamentally contingent nature of global, regional and local responses to the current refugee situations.

“We need a change of historical perspective which acknowledges connectedness, complicity and responsibility,” says Stonebridge.