The Making of the Modern Refugee by Peter Gatrell

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Reviewed by Terence Jagger

‘Refugees have only been allowed a walk-on part in most histories of the twentieth century, and even then as subjects of external intervention rather than as actors in their own right’, says Peter Gatrell, and that’s why this book is so necessary.  It is, to be fair, a pretty demanding book, as it’s very full of meat, and of detailed analyses of many different refugee issues stretching across the globe and the past 160 years (though overwhelmingly Gatrell covers the 1914-18 war and since), but it’s worth the effort, being both interesting and important; I learned a lot about both why people are refugees in the first place – not at all as simple as I might have been inclined to think – and also how others react to and even make use of them.  It is a fairly depressing picture in a number of ways, though that is a criticism of politics and people, not of this book. First, the refugee issue has never really gone away, and every decade and every continent has its horrors.  Second, many of the issues are the same now as they were in the very earliest years of the nineteenth century, as we seem to have learned very little at the strategic level, though actual care and response has, I think, improved immeasurably (and where we have learned lessons, practical issues have stopped the learning being put to any good use – bad governments are still bad governments, and of course famine and war and persecution still drive people to seek a better life elsewhere).  And third, refugees and refugee status seem to have been used, time and time again, as vehicles for other quite different issues, sometimes but by no means always the issues of the original refugeedom  – nationalistic, religious, philanthropic, political, racist, and so on.

I imagine most of us are really only aware of a few refugee events – the current crises in Europe, of course, perhaps one or two half remembered news stories from Africa about this famine or that war, Amin’s expulsion of Indians from Uganda, perhaps the horrors of the partition of India and Pakistan.  But in fact, this is only the beginning – we have forgotten or we never knew, many others … since 1900, at least 230 million people were displaced or became refugees across the world – in both World Wars and afterwards in Europe, in China, in numerous south-east Asian and African wars and famines, India-Pakistan, Israel, Palestine and the Middle East.  Not only does this create all sorts of extraordinary pressures on them, and on their host and transit countries, which may last for just a few days or maybe for years (4 million Zimbabweans in neighbouring countries) or even generations (9 million refugees have been in camps for over 10 years), but it often creates longer term problems and conflicts.  Returning refugees may not be welcome if they are seen as having fled and got wealthier, or as disloyal or out of touch, while others may elect to stay in their new homes but never feel fully accepted, never mastering the language and often being blamed for problems – like immigrants of all sorts in Europe at the moment, often criticised on the basis of anecdote at most, often in the face of hard evidence to the contrary.

Refugees have certain common characteristics – they are in physical, emotional and economic distress and great need – but they are also often resilient, proud and very keen not to be a burden or to accept charity.  Those that help them can misunderstand this, or seek to impose alien codes on them, or use them for propaganda of a national or supra-national sort, or the superiority of one world view or one religious outlook over another.  Some refugees create myths and histories of their own, of rights and history and cultural identity or superiority, as do those who have expelled or displaced them; but refugees can also grow up feeling loyalties to more than one ‘homeland’; ‘where are you from?’ is not an innocent question, says Gatrell, nor is the answer trivial.  Governments of all persuasions have good reasons for presenting partial or limited views of the refugees, both as individuals, as political or economic communities, and as a new force in their host societies (and often a positive one, at least in the long term).

But the striking thing about this book – an irony which Gatrell freely acknowledges – is that we seldom hear from the refugees themselves.  Maybe there is a brief phrase or two in an interview from a refugee camp, an overheard slogan in a demonstration, but little else; language and access are issues here, but so is the need for governments, NGOs, and others to impose their own views on problems.  We need to hear more from the affected refugees, even if that involves complex and contradictory narratives, or we cannot help them properly, and we deprive them of a right to a voice and an identity which we would passionately defend for ourselves.  Gatrell sums up the issue like this:

Time and time again, the terms of the conversation are set not by rank and file refugees but by those who speak on their behalf and by those whose programmes dominate the institutional record.  No matter how good their intentions, the appropriation of refugee experience is deeply ironic.  Refugees have usually lost enough as it is: must they also forfeit the right to speak for themselves? … How can they be enabled to speak out, even if this risks reviving disputes and confrontations that gave rise to the displacement …?

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Terence Jagger has never been a refugee, but has seen a little of their needs in a range of humanitarian and political disasters around the world; no one can remain unmoved.   

Peter Gatrell, The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford University Press, 2015 – first published in hardback in 2013). 978-0198744474,  296pp, paperback.

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