The Making of the Modern Refugee

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Current Research: Professor Peter Gatrell

Ever since doing research on the refugee crisis in the Russian Empire during the First World War (the subject of a book I published in 1999) I have been working on histories of displaced people, mostly in Russia and Eastern Europe but also further afield. I have nearly finished writing a book called The Making of the Modern Refugee which looks at the connections between war, revolution, state formation and population displacement in Europe, the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent, sub-Saharan Africa and the Far East during the twentieth century. It’s partly about the origins of displacement but also an attempt to look at the `management’ of these often enduring refugee crises and how they were represented by governments, non-governmental organisations and refugees themselves. One of my arguments is that there can be no `refugee history’ without addressing the practices of agencies and individuals that have construed their purpose as a broadly `humanitarian’. In trying to map this new field I tackle the tendency of non-refugees to appropriate the experiences of refugees and to speak on their behalf. I have learned a lot from engaging with this subject at Level 3, supervising undergraduate and postgraduate dissertations and from discussions with colleagues. I get a lot of pleasure from doing archival research (most recently in the UNHCR archives in Geneva but also in the USA, Germany and Britain) and from steering students towards fresh archival source material, some of which is on the doorstep in Manchester.

One offshoot of this work is a related project on `World Refugee Year’. In 1959 the United Nations agreed to a British initiative for an international campaign to increase public awareness of what would now be called `durable refugee situations’ in Europe (DPs – displaced persons – in Germany, Austria, Greece and Italy), the Middle East, Hong Kong and China. I have written a book (working title: Free World? The Campaign to Save the World’s Refugees, 1956-1963) which locates this campaign against the background of the Cold War and decolonisation, and which draws attention to the techniques that were designed to generate public interest and raise money. So my book is also about public relations and imagery (postage stamps, photos, graphic art) celebrity endorsement and product placement, and the responsibilities of citizens in affluent countries towards refugees. Since the campaign brought together under UN auspices thousands of activists (many of them students), in around 40 countries my book is a contribution to transnational history. I conclude the book by suggesting that World Refugee Year helped inspire other campaigns such as Amnesty International and Freedom from Hunger. You can listen to a brief interview on BBC Radio 4’s `Today’ programme with John Humphrys.

Editors Note: This is an archived blog post from 25/10/2009

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