The three great monotheistic faiths are built, in part, on refugee stories. In the Book of Exodus, for instance, the Jewish people flee to the desert to escape enslavement in Egypt. Islam’s founding event comes when the Prophet Mohammed is forced into a hijra (migration) from Mecca to Medina after learning Mecca’s Quraysh clan are about to kill him. Then there’s Mary and Joseph, who run away with baby Jesus after King Herod orders the slaughter of all male infants; Herod fears a prophecy that a boy child will grow up and seize his throne.
As millions of Syrians stream from their civil war — it’s the worst refugee crisis since World War II — religious narratives may seem remote. But think again: Herod’s actions “can be seen as a form of persecution, and since it involved flight across a border, anachronistically we could say that Jesus met the contemporary International Convention’s definition of a refugee.” That’s from a many-light-bulb-moments essay called “Religion and Forced Migration” by David Hollenbach, SJ. It’s one of 53 showcased in “The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies” (Oxford University, 2014), edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, and Nando Sigona.
Such a wealth here: You can read about the politics and geography of the refugee experience, the settlements and resettlements, and numerous groups from the Horn of Africa to the sui generis case of the Palestinians. And yes, the book is new enough to include Syria. Antonio Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, calls the Syrian conflict “the most dramatic humanitarian crisis that we [UNHCR] have ever faced.” How little we’ve progressed, it seems, as we witness the plight of the Syrians, and the Afghans and Tunisians before them, and the Bosnian Muslims before them, on through Europeans and Asians unmoored by two world wars, plus prior centuries of global displacement.
Despite this ancient lineage, though, the field of refugee studies only came into its own in the 1980s. I learned that concerted efforts in the modern era trace to 1921, when the League of Nations established a high commissioner of refugees after World War I, mostly to cope with those fleeing the Russian Revolution. As such, when refugees later crowded Europe after World War II, the Soviets opposed the United Nation’s role. The Cold War politicized everything, including how refugees were identified and assisted.
That story gets more play in Ben Shephard’s highly moving “The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War” (Anchor, 2012). The big picture? Mass starvation and disease were averted for 15 million refugees, and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration deserves clear-eyed praise. The UNRRA reunited countless families and cared for concentration-camp survivors — but it also coped with the strange brew of former enemies, including Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia and Nazi-collaborating Ukrainians who fled west when the Russians advanced on them.
More painfulness: Many Western governments preferred to fill their domestic labor shortages with “sound stock” (i.e., non-Jews) with even Britain’s left-wing Fabian Society adding that the “eugenics of immigration cannot be overstressed.” On the other hand, the UK imposed bread rationing at home so that refugees wouldn’t starve. And the Allies, knowing how badly things went after World War I, began planning how to manage the post-World War II displacement way back in 1941. The UNRRA also averted a typhus epidemic — by liberally spraying refugees with DDT. Different, desperate, times.
In “The Making of The Modern Refugee” (Oxford, 2013) Peter Gatrell believes we must get past thinking refugee crises are temporary and instead accept that they are a recurring phenomenon. His story unfolds chronologically during the 20th century, with much attention paid to the biggest waves, noting that refugee movements invariably coincide with war (see: Vietnam) and the formation of new states, such as India and Pakistan in 1947.
Gatrell also sifts the shifting etymology here. For instance, refugees were called displaced persons after World War II, purposely pointing blame at the villainous Axis powers that displaced them. He also laments how refugee historiography has been dominated by “the helpers” (governments, humanitarian agencies) not the refugees themselves. As such, he highlights the ingenuity and resilience of individual refugees, particularly in the camps after World War II, where the intermingling of nationalities foreshadowed the European Union to come.
In 2012, the Nobel Peace Prize was given to the European Union, whose stabilizing role “has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace,” as the Nobel committee declared. Another anthropologist, Notre Dame’s Maurizio Albahari, traces the cracks in that hard won transformation. His “Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the Word’s Deadliest Border” (University of Pennsylvania, 2015) focuses on Italy, which the EU widely blames for inadequately deterring and detecting undocumented migration.
From 2000 through August 2014, at least 25,000 people died trying to reach Europe, especially after 2011 and the dislocations of the Arab Spring; Albahari shines his lamp on Lampedusa, the southernmost part of Italy, only 70 miles from Tunisia. And so I read about Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), the human rights search-and-rescue group that helps refugee-laden ships in distress, and Frontex and Eurosur, the European Union’s surveillance systems that map migration.
“Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees” (Picador, 2005) is by a biographer, refreshingly, not by an academic (Caroline Moorehead’s previous book was on journalist Martha Gellhorn) and it’s richly personal in tone. Indeed, mini-bios abound, as Moorehead covers refugee predicaments in Cairo, Guinea, Sicily, England, Australia, Finland, the US/Mexico border, and Lebanon. Post-9/11, she explains, more nations have squeezed the UNHCR to ferret out inconsistencies as a pretext for denying asylum. Thus the future-crushing stamp on many visa applications: LOC, lack of credibility.
How refugees struggle with their despair, their limbo (“Little Better Than Cockroaches” is one chapter title) is played out in manifold destinies. I learned that Australia, the white ethnic anomaly in Asia, once had an abject whites-only immigration policy. And that dreams of returning home are so powerful among Palestinian refugees, like 67-year-old Zainab, “[i]t has made possible an entire life lived in a corridor of the mind.”
Zainab lives in Shatila, the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon also featured in “Landscape of Hope and Despair: Palestinian Refugee Camps” (University of Pennsylvania, 2005). Anthropologist Julie Peteet has done fieldwork there since the 1970s, and she is (sometimes uncomfortably) an advocate as well as observer. You can argue her subtitle is a misnomer: Those in the camps want to be known as “returnees” not “refugees.” But after the PLO left Lebanon in 1982, refugee status was invoked as the only tool left for solidifying the Palestinians’s position and winning their international rights. Because the various conventions and protocols don’t apply to them, though, they “have been an exception in the international refugee aid machinery and scholarship,” writes Peteet. In other words, most refugees don’t want to be sent home — but the Palestinians do, and can’t, thus relegating them to a “perpetual state of emergency.”
Of course, refugees aren’t always elsewhere, which is why I’ll herald the concise, thoughtful book, “Safe Haven? A History of Refugees in America” (Kumarian, 2010). Author David W. Haines is yet another anthropologist — who helped Vietnamese and Laotian refugees by working with the US refugee resettlement program — and here he resettled my perspective as well. When it comes to the test of helping refugees, America has passed (the Pilgrims) and failed (the Acadians). And don’t forget that we have produced refugees too (the Cherokees, along the Trail of Tears).
A nation of immigrants, our attitude toward refugees has toggled between sympathy and wariness. But our welcome is broad; unlike some countries, we don’t require labor “preadaptibility.” After World War II, many governments requested specific refugees, with Belgium wanting miners, for example, and Canada farmers. And we have only two goals for the refugees that come here: learning English and achieving economic self-sufficiency. Whatever forced their exodus, we believe a better life awaits. In fact, we take this on faith.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at email@example.com.