Just under 1% of the world’s population is either an asylum seeker, internally displaced, or a refugee. In 2016 the UN’s refugee agency, United Nations Human Rights Council, reported that the number of displaced people is the highest ever recorded, surpassing even post-World War II numbers.
There is more to this story than headline statistics.
A UEA-led project explores how the humanities can contribute to our shared understanding of refugee history and refugeedom today.
Refugee History moves away from the emotional and political approaches that dominate today’s discussion of migration and refugees. It moves beyond simplified statistics. Instead, it brings the complex and varied intellectual perspectives of the humanities to take our understanding of the complex human experience beyond the numbers.
In recent years public and political attention has been gripped by the so-called refugee crisis. Increased irregular migration across the Mediterranean has led to thousands losing their lives during the perilous crossings. Violence in Syria has produced the biggest internally displaced population in the world; many millions more are refugees in neighbouring states, placing host communities under huge strain. Closer to home, questions regarding social integration and cohesion have resurfaced as hostility towards 'new comers' rise.
Yet too often debate and understanding of these issues is dominated by emotion and politics rather than evidence and experience.
To understand more, we need to know more. Who, for example, is aware of Syria’s historical identity as a sanctuary for refugees rather than a producer? The arrival and settlement of these refugees helped to define modern Syria – its territory, its responsibilities as a state and its national identity. To what extent does the popular conceptualisation of Britain’s willingness to take in Jewish refugees during the 1930s and 1940s stand up to scrutiny?
Refugee History brings together a network of academic and other experts to reflect upon events just like those in Syria from their own expert perspectives to drive a conversation with evidence, expertise, and experience – rather than emotion or opinion. The UEA initiative, with Dr Becky Taylor, aims to foster an understanding that the refugee story is complicated, multifaceted and intellectually challenging.
This multi-disciplinary network looks to history, literature, visual culture, anthropology and economics and politics to create a complex evidence-based conversation that poses questions rather than posits answers, draws on expertise, research and experience.
Refugee History’s work challenges the myths of the historical ‘suffering refugee’ by restoring a much-needed historical perspective to current moral and political challenges.
Becky Taylor’s work demonstrates the importance of seeing refugees as an intrinsic part of British life and history, arguing that the ways in which refugees are received and treated is deeply revealing of broader processes affecting all of British society. She argues, for example, that if we are seeking to locate a ‘tradition of welcome’ in Britain towards refugees, we should not look to government policy, but rather to the country’s rich civil society, and in particular the work of voluntary and activist groups.
In a period of cultural and political hostility to both experts and refugees, this platform provides an evidence-based alternative for understanding and explaining the challenges and opportunities of mass displacement. The network’s members are drawn from many sectors, disciplines and parts of the world and include some of the foremost thinkers and practitioners dealing with refugee issues today.
Independent, drawing on its members' diverse political agendas, researchers are connected by the desire to bring evidence, expertise and experience to current conversations around refugee and migration issues.
Refugee History members blog on many different facets of refugee and migration history. This can be an exploration of cultural representations of refugees, or discussion of moments in history that may (or may not) contain lessons that are pertinent to today's challenges. Offering informed accounts drawn from refugee history, the site also provides technical and research advice for users through its engagement with archives, methodological questions, source analysis, and reviews of the latest publications, conferences, and exhibitions.
Project co-lead, Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge, developed the project with Taylor before moving to her current post at the University of Birmingham. Her widely cited blog on the writings of German-born Jewish American political theorist Hannah Arendt, tries make sense of current migrant politics. In 1944 Arendt wrote that: "Everywhere the word 'exile' which once had an undertone of almost sacred awe, now provokes the idea of something simultaneously suspicious and unfortunate.' Stonebridge examines how today, we live under the shadow of that change."
“For millions of the unfortunate that means misery and uncertainty; it means untimely and undignified deaths, chronic sickness, separated families, violence and poverty; it means tirelessly struggling to persuade yourself and the world that you, your family and your community still exist in the world. It means being detained in airports and being taken off planes. And while all this endless work is going on, others watch with baffled and outraged dismay as the barely articulate forces of nationalist hate crash into the legal and political structures that were built to protect ourselves, and others, from the same barbarism that pushed Arendt’s generation onto the refugee rat runs and into the detention and death camps.”
Elsewhere, Stonebridge has argued that humanitarianism has unhelpfully oveshadowed the extent to which mass displacement threatens ideas of national sovereignty. In her new book, Placeless: Rights, Writing and Refugees, she shows how the refugee crises of the last century made a profound impact on modern culture and literature that has yet to be acknowledged or assimilated into modern history.
Together, both strands of research demonstrate the extent to which modern European and British history can also be read as a history of the refugee. Far from coming from nowhere, today’s refugee crisis is a recent chapter in a history of mutual implication between peoples, nations, and modern cultural traditions.
The collective aim with both the research and the website is to transform historical research and thick descriptions of how refugees have shaped and been shaped by modern international politics, including the development of human rights law, national welfare policies and discourses of identity, into a compelling and engaging popular history of the modern refugee.
Outreach and Engagement
The Refugee History project continues to expand its engagement with policy-makers, refugees, NGOS, host communities, national and international volunteers, the public and the media to try and encourage an evidence-based approach to the contemporary challenges of refugee populations and migration.
Refugee History’s first policy paper ‘Refugee History: the 1930s crisis and today’ was released in December 2017 in collaboration with the London-based human rights NGO Protection Approaches. The paper was presented to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Archives and History on 7th December, and is now available as a downloadable resource. The paper includes four case studies that draw comparisons between the refugee situation in the 1930s and today. It urges the government to use an evidence-based approach – including historical evidence – to inform future policy regarding reception and resettlement of asylum seekers and refugees, and to take an international lead in promoting a burden-sharing solution to the current global refugee situation.
Refugee History was shortlisted for the Outstanding Social or Cultural Impact award at the UEA Impact and Innovation Awards 2018. Both Stonebridge and Taylor are working on monographs that will be published in 2018. Looking forward, UEA’s Refugee History will continue to champion the expertise of humanities research and advocate for the role it can play in addressing urgent contemporary issues.