Migrants, students, and detainees at Maribyrnong

Maribyrnong immigration detention centre is a discreet sort of place. It’s in a nondescript part of Maribyrnong, a suburb about five miles northwest of central Melbourne. The road it’s on is long and straight: it carries a lot of traffic, but mostly through traffic. As you walk out from the nearest tram stop you pass some warehouse-type retail units and a softplay on the left (‘Funtopia’), and a disused student village on the right. There’s no sign to mark the IDC on the road, a wedge-shaped white concrete wall bearing the number 53 on both side between a couple of small car-parks, and a driveway that’s shared with one of them. As I got there, a small delivery was pulling confusedly out of one car-park and straight into the next.

1 Number 53

The driveway itself, though not very long, kinks to the left behind the corner of a building. You can’t see round that, but you notice a surveillance camera on a high post, and if you walk up the driveway under the camera and round the bend you’re immediately exposed to the unsmiling face of the Australian immigration enforcement bureaucracy. A high metal security gate blocks the drive, while the footpath leads up to a dull institutional building, a securitized version of the reception building at a caravan site or a 1970s roadside hotel. Signs on the wall give instructions to visitors, and warn you, as if you didn’t already know, that the area is under 24-hour video surveillance. I didn’t hang around, and I didn’t take a photograph: the detention system doesn’t like you looking at it, and you really feel it. 6 MapAt the end of the driveway as I walked back out, the delivery van pulled up by the kerb near me in the car-park next door. The driver wound down the window and asked if I knew where the detention centre was. ‘It’s just up there’, I said, pointing. He was a first-generation African immigrant.

Like Villawood in Sydney, the detention centre at Maribyrnong (the stress in on the short first syllable, maribbernong) was build on the site of a postwar migrant hostel that was itself built on the site of a munitions factory. Maribyrnong was centre for weapons manufacture for most of the twentieth century, ‘the arsenal of Australia’, as the nearby street names Cordite Avenue and Ordnance Reserve still attest. In 1942 the main explosives factory was expanded with a New Pyrotechnic Section ‘to produce fuses, flares, tracers and smoke grenades’—this was the area that was taken over for the hostel. (It was also the headquarters of Commonwealth Hostels Ltd, the private company set up by the government to accommodate migrants, which operated 64 hostels around the country.)

The Maribyrnong hostel wasMaribyrnong, Victoria, 1965 originally made up of Nissen huts, like the ones in this picture. Few of these corrugated iron military huts were used in Australia during the war: instead, thousands were bought from the British government in the late 1940s, though hardly any survive. They provided basic accommodation for the postwar migrants—at first, mostly displaced persons from European camps. As in other hostels, the quality of accommodation was improved later, partly in response to protests from residents.

An architectural historian I spoke to in Melbourne, Renée Miller-Yeaman, makes an important point [PDF] about the standard of accommodation in these hostels. There was a shortage of housing in Australia after the second world war, and the government faced pressure from its people to provide better homes—pressure that was partly coming from returned servicemen, and hard to resist. But at the same time, Australian policymakers were committed to increasing the country’s population (and therefore its pool of future conscripts) through state-supported mass immigration. That support included providing accommodation to immigrants on arrival. But the wider Australian population—extremely homogeneous in those years—was more ambivalent about immigration, especially in the early postwar years when the newcomers were largely ‘reffos’ from DP camps, many of them Jewish. To keep a lid on anti-immigrant sentiment, the government had to ensure that migrant housing was visibly inferior to the houses of the existing population.

Nissen huts fitted the bill, though the people living in them weren’t necessarily happy with this arrangement, especially as the sources of migration shifted from the DP camps to the countries of central and southern Europe. It was only later that metal huts at Maribyrnong were replaced with two-storey apartment blocks for families (the Midway Centre), and a ring of smaller buildings for single men (the Phillip Centre). As Renée argues, at sites like Villawood and Maribyrnong the history of immigration to Australia intersects with the history of home in Australia and what it means.

By the early 1980s Australia’s ‘assisted passage’ scheme was being phased out. ‘From that time’, a state heritage service report [PDF] on Maribyrnong says, ‘migrant centres focused on providing arrival accommodation and settlement services to refugees and humanitarian program entrants’. This is true, but the report doesn’t mention that by 1983 a section of the site was already being used as a detention centre. By the late 1980s only this part was active, and the rest of the former hostel was redeveloped as student accommodation for several local universities. As far as I can tell, the same buildings were reused. A plaque on a stubby obelisk at the angle of Williamson St and Hampstead Rd commemorates the opening of The Student Village on 2 Mar 1990.  This is the disused student village I mentioned earlier: after hosting undergraduates for quarter of a century, it was closed in 2016 and is currently awaiting redevelopment. Victoria University, which now owns the site, is trying to lease out five of its non-residential buildings, though it’s hard to see who’d want them when they’re surrounded by empty student flats.

The village is an eerie sort of place, though it’s only a year and a half since the last students left. That’s long enough for the windows to be dusty on the inside, and their curtains, tied in a knot, to look grubby: the whole site, understandably, has an air of neglect. But most of the site feels abandoned rather than derelict. A few blocks that were evidently emptied earlier are fenced off (‘Warning Buildings Contain Asbestos’), and their gaping windows reveal interiors richly redecorated with graffiti. But otherwise the windows are dusty but unbroken: the lawns are tufty but not overgrown. At the volleyball court the floodlights have been left on, bulbs glaring irrelevantly in the daytime. The lights are still on around the verandah of the academic centre, too, but that’s probably deliberate: it’s one of the buildings the university wants to lease, and the lights may be intended to persuade the frightening local children not to smash the windows. As you walk around a site that’s empty but for magpies and the odd rabbit, you half expect the zombies to lurch into view.

There are still a Nissen hut and a Romney hut on the site (I saw them both but I don’t know how to tell the difference), and these are now heritage listed. I heard from Renée that the ones at Villawood have been relocated to a specific part of the site, supposedly to be turned into a heritage attraction, while the detention centre there is expanded and upgraded as the only onshore detention centre in Australia. At that point the Maribyrnong centre will apparently be closed. But for the moment it’s still open, its high security fences backing onto the student village that was once a migrant hostel. A contact in Melbourne who used to visit detainees there told me about a Vietnamese man awaiting deportation who’d cheerfully pointed out the buildings where he and his uncle had lived when they arrived in Australia as refugees.

The fences at the back and side of the detention centre are just as heavily surveilled as the gate at the front, and signs say ‘Commonwealth land – keep out’. Here, I did take a couple of photos. There weren’t many people around. In the corner of the compound a Teeth On Wheels van was parked up, the sign on its side promising ‘a positive dental experience’ to the detainees. There can’t be much else that’s positive about being held in a detention centre whose authorities won’t even let you out to visit the dentist.

7 Teeth on Wheels

Thanks to Juliet Flesch for talking to me about Maribyrnong,
and Renée Miller-Yeaman for telling me about her work on Villawood

Historical information about the site is sourced from
the linked report by Heritage Council Victoria 

All images taken by me (CC BY 4.0), except the Google Map
and the archive photo of a family arriving at Maribyrnong:
National Archives of Australia, series A12111,
‘control symbol’ 1/1965/22/25


A camp in France

IMG_20160717_142637167, large

Everyone talks about the wind. The Rivesaltes internment camp stands on a flat stretch of land north of Perpignan, in the southwest of France. It’s not far inland and not even a hundred metres above sea level, but it feels high and exposed, with views extending to the Pyrenees. There’s no shade in the summer and no shelter in the winter. Scrubby, drought-resistant plants grow between broken lines of cheap concrete huts and latrines, and at the edge of the site a rank of sleek modern wind turbines catch the wind that’s always blowing from the mountains or the sea.

Senn, exterior 1Rivesaltes has been written about by people who lived or worked there in its multiple incarnations as an internment camp between the late 1930s and the 1960, or as an immigration detention centre from the 1980s to 2007. It has been written about by people who’ve visited it, to research its history or find out more about the stories of their family members, and by publicists for the new museum there. They all talk about the wind. In pictures taken by the Swiss photographer Paul Senn, who spent six months in the camp in 1942 reporting on the work of Swiss charities, inmates wear heavy woollen coats and headscarves and wrap themselves in blankets whether they’re inside the draughty, poorly insulated huts or outside in the brilliant sunshine and bitter cold of winter.

I visited the camp one afternoon last July, on a day when it was the sun, not the wind, that felt merciless. Some American friends were staying nearby with their teenaged sons and they met me in the village of Rivesaltes itself, at the tiny railway station. It was almost deserted on a Sunday afternoon, everyone on their way to beaches nearby. We drove out through vineyards and low-slung industrial estates, a little uncertainly at first—the satnav confidently giving wrong instructions—but then finding and following new signs for the Musée mémorial du camp de Rivesaltes.Senn, interior 2

My current research project is on the history of refugee camps: that’s why I was visiting Rivesaltes, and will visit it again. It started life as a military transit camp, built in 1938 with the intention of keeping colonial troops well away from French people in the event of a European conflict: the alternative name, camp Joffre (from the first world war marshal), still shows up on Google maps. Before it came into service as a military camp, though, it was used to house Spanish refugees fleeing the defeat of the Republic in 1939. These were the lucky ones: some, especially men of military age, were penned in barbed-wire enclosures on the nearby beaches of Argelès-sur-Mer and Barcarès. During the second world war the camp was used, in rapid succession, as a detention centre for ‘undesirable aliens’, a holding camp for Jews under Vichy, a camp for Axis prisoners-of-war at the Liberation, and a prison camp for collaborators. Later it was an accommodation centre for migrant workers, a transit camp for repatriated pied noir settlers from Algeria and then more lastingly a dwelling-place for Algerian Muslims who had fought on the French side in the war of independence between 1954 and 1962. It was also, at last, a military camp for colonial troops.

In the 1980s a detention centre was built on the site for undocumented Spanish migrant workers, but it opened just as Spain entered the European Economic Community and its citizens gained a full right to work in France. Undocumented migrants from other countries were detained there instead. By the 1990s, memorials had been placed around the camp by groups commemorating Jewish deportees, Algerian Muslims, and Spanish Republicans. The site was registered as a historic monument in 2000, and by 2005 was open to visitors, but the detention centre only closed in 2007, around the time that the decision was taken to create the museum.

He lost the socialist party primary the weekend I drafted this

Continuing to lock up immigrants on a site dedicated to commemorating the past victims of the French state’s illiberal immigration practices would have looked bad. But that continuity exists, and creates a tension that runs through the museum. Plain letters on a bare concrete wall note that it was opened in October 2015 by Manuel Valls, then prime minister. Valls—himself a naturalised French citizen born to immigrant parents—was not notably liberal on immigration either as premier or, earlier, as interior minister.

The concrete manufacturer was understandably pleased with the result

The building is impressive, but not obtrusive. Designed by the starchitect Rudy Ricciotti, it’s far more restrained than his other and much larger recent museum design, the exuberant but overblown MuCEM on the waterfront at Marseille. Where that shows off, with its patterned concrete screens and seemingly unsupported pedestrian walkway from the fort St-Jean, the Rivesaltes museum deliberately conceals itself. To avoid overwhelming a site mostly made up of low and semi-ruined concrete huts, the structure—a long sloping slab of ochre concrete—is half-buried in a depression dug out of what was once camp Joffre’s parade ground. You barely notice it until the walkway leads you down into the building. It’s only from the air that you can get a sense of its size, as these images from the architect’s website show:



This means the building manages to be unobtrusive relative to the site it commemorates, while also creating a doubly memorable architectural effect: the sheer gee-whizz factor when you realize what’s happening (“They hid a whole museum!”), and, quite different, the sense as you walk down towards the entrance of being drawn out of the open air and bright sunshine into an enclosed and hidden space. It’s not the same as being interned yourself, but it creates an emotional resonance that the museum’s long corridors and sombre exhibition spaces sustain.

I’m interested in the camp at Rivesaltes because it’s not unusual. It’s not unusual for refugee camps to house different groups of displaced people successively, or for that matter at the same time. And it’s not unusual for a camp that houses refugees to serve as different kinds of camp at other times: Rivesaltes was a military camp, an internment camp, and a prisoner-or-war camp as well as a refugee camp, while other refugee camps have been made out of forestry camps or holiday camps. These are two important things for me to understand and explore as I continue my research.

Rivesaltes is also not unusual, or at least not exceptional, in the amount of academic research, reportage, and literary or other artwork that it’s generated: for some examples, try searching on Google Scholar for “Dadaab refugee camp“, or reading Kate Evans’s powerful new comic book about the Calais ‘Jungle’, Threads.


What does make Rivesaltes unusual is that memory organizations commemorating different groups came together to preserve the site, and successfully got government support to create the memorial museum. This has allowed historians working on different periods, and other researchers too, to come together to try and develop a shared understanding of the history of this uneasy, windswept place. (You can go there to watch the sunrise, which would surely be atmospheric.) The museum takes an impressively long and hard look at France’s containment, detention, and deportation of displaced populations across the middle of the twentieth century. But you also leave with the sense that, perhaps inevitably for a state-run institution, it is looking away from the present. It’s one thing to allow historians and the public to examine such practices in the past, but acknowledging their continuity in our own time would be uncomfortable indeed for Manuel Valls and his successors.

Update (29 June): see comments below for some thoughts, and relevant links, from colleagues in France.

Update (1 July): the director of the museum’s Comité scientifique also commented: again, see below.

Click images for source.
If that doesn’t take you off this blog,
I took the photo.




Recent work

As usual, quiet times on this blog reflect hectic times elsewhere. Here are a couple of things I’ve been up to, though.

First, as promised, I produced a short version of my article ‘Refugees and the definition of Syria, 1920-1939’ (whose long gestation was the subject of my most recent post) for RefugeeHistory.org, with some reflections on the present. This went up a while back, on the sixth anniversary of the start of the uprising. You can read it here.

Tulips in University Gardens

Second, more recently, I’ve been engaging with a new book that’s been getting a lot of air-time—Refuge: transforming the broken refugee system, by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier. Betts and Collier, Refuge, coverI spotted the book just before it came out on a visit to the Refugee Studies Centre in March (Betts is the centre’s director), and since then the authors have been all over the media, from the Guardian to the Spectator as well as on TV and various online outlets. The book has also been widely—though not always approvingly—reviewed, in Standpoint, The Economist, the Times Literary Supplement, and Nature, among others. It was the glowing but deeply misinformed review in Standpoint that drew me into the debate about the book.

As soon as the marking season is out of the way I’ll be writing a review of the book from a historian’s perspective for RefugeeHistory.org. In the meantime, though, I’ve been engaging with it on Twitter, and storifying the resulting threads. You can find them here:

Live-tweeting the book as I read it has been interesting—and has brought me into contact with some very interesting people—but it’s taking forever. For future chapters I may have to skip the rest of the tweets and get on with writing the review of the whole thing. (Spoiler: I think it’s a very bad book.) Meanwhile, here in the northern hemisphere, the spring is going on all around us.

Azaleas in Pollok Park, at the end of April

Refugees and the definition of Syria, 1920-1939

The wheels of academic writing turn slowly.

It’s seven years since I first gave a talk at a workshop in Princeton outlining some ideas about how the arrival and settlement of refugees in Syria helped to define the modern state’s territory, institutions, and national identity. It’s six years since I developed them more fully in a seminar at the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, which I entitled ‘Refugees and the definition of Syria, 1920-1939’. (The name stuck.) Over the next year or two I did some further archival research to test the ideas out, and was pleased to find that rather than contradicting my argument, this extra work allowed me to nuance and extend it. Meanwhile, just as I was learning more about Syria’s history as a destination for refugees in earlier generations, the civil war there broke out, and turned the country into the world’s largest producer of refugees.

Three years ago, while I was on research leave for a semester after changing jobs, I worked these presentations up into a full article. That turned into a bit of a monster (especially when the footnotes were included: Lordy!) but I was quite happy with it, and a couple of academic friends read it and gave me some positive feedback—as well as some advice on points that needed improving, of course. So I made some minor revisions, then sent the draft to a contact who was preparing a special issue of a historical journal, on refugees and statelessness.

And then nothing happened. For nearly a year. The person I’d been in touch with had gone on parental leave, her co-editor didn’t reply to my emails, and when I eventually contacted the journal, they couldn’t help—they’d never heard of the special issue. So I withdrew the article. By that point, two years ago, I was back to a full teaching load with plenty of other responsibilities. I didn’t know quite what to do next.

Somewhere over this horizon, your article will be published

Eventually, though, I asked another couple of (senior) colleagues to read over the article and tell me if they thought it would be worth submitting it to Past & Present—a very good journal, but one with a famously intimidating review process. Both of them thought that with a bit of reframing to make it suitable for a non-specialist audience (ie, historians who don’t specifically work on refugees and statelessness), the article would make a plausible submission. In November 2015, with a bit of free time, I gritted my teeth and made what turned out to be some fairly minor amendments to reframe the article—and, a bigger job, reformatted the footnotes in line with the requirements of a different journal. And so, in some trepidation, I was able to send it off.

This was quite a big deal for me, because by that point it had been four years since my book came out, and in the meantime I’d published nothing but book reviews. I’d started my first permanent job at an institution where I didn’t feel at home, then moved to my second—which meant two rounds of settling in to a new city, getting to grips with a new institutional culture (and new administrative responsibilities), and preparing a lot of new teaching. Finding time to research and write had been difficult, and I’d also had to change what I was working on: the war in Syria had made it impossible for me to continue a project I’d begun. I knew what I wanted to do instead, and I’d started making connections here in Glasgow (thanks to GRAMNet) that would help me develop it—but I was grimly aware that the gap opening up in my publications record was like an ever-growing question mark over my future as a researcher. Anyone working in British academia will know what I mean.

Last March, I got the reply from Past & Present: to my delight, they wanted to publish it. During the double-blind peer review process, five (!) reviewers had read the article. One of them was lukewarm, the other four were positive or very positive. They all had suggestions for minor revisions, and a kindly-worded email from the editor suggested how I might approach them. I submitted the revised final version in early July, after I’d made some amendments and got a friend who’s an academic copyeditor to check the footnotes. (I told him to charge me the full rate, of course.) Proofs came my way for checking in the autumn, along with a publication date: May 2017, seven years to the month after the workshop where I first presented the argument, with online access a bit earlier. I didn’t imagine, when I started on this work, that it would take so long to see it to completion—or that the country whose history I’d been writing would experience such catastrophe in the meantime.


All of which is by way of announcing that my article ‘Refugees and the Definition of Syria, 1920-1939’ is now available online, and will be out in print soon. For anyone who wants a shorter version without footnotes, a post will be going up on RefugeeHistory.org shortly. The next article I publish should be out rather quicker—though the gestation time has been almost as long.

Many thanks once again to everyone mentioned in this post
who read the article in draft form and helped improve it.

Can a refugee carry a gun?


Can a refugee carry a gun? Or, to put it another way, can someone who is armed still be considered a refugee?

The answer seems to be no. When Kurds fled Turkey in the 1920s and 30s and entered the French-controlled territory of Syria, they were one group of refugees among several: in particular, Armenians and other Anatolian Christians, including survivors of the 1915 genocide as well as people pushed out of the new Turkish Republic in the 1920s, and after 1933, Assyrians coming from Iraq. But the French authorities in Syria only referred to Christian refugees as ‘refugees’. Regardless of the circumstances of their departure from Turkey (usually fleeing military repression) and arrival in Syria (often accompanied by their flocks), Kurds were much more likely to appear in official correspondence as Kurdes réfugiés en Syrie—‘Kurds who have taken refuge in Syria’—than réfugiés kurdes, ‘Kurdish refugees’. In the lengthy reports to the League of Nations that the French foreign ministry produced each year, there is always a section about assistance to refugees: it fit the image of a benevolent mandatory power to help needy refugees. But not Kurds: they sometimes appear in summaries of the political situation, but never in the section about refugees. The League of Nations itself took action on behalf of both Armenian and Assyrian refugees in the 1920s and 30s, but not Kurds.

There are several reasons for this. But one of them is that the Kurds were usually armed.

The Baquba refugee camp, from the front cover of Austin’s book

Here’s another example. For a few years after 1918, the British military occupation forces in Mesopotamia ran a large refugee camp at Baquba, about 33 miles north-northeast of Baghdad. The people who lived in it, nearly fifty thousand of them, were Armenians and Assyrians who had been displaced from eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus during the first world war. From among the refugee population the British had formed a contingent of irregular troops, four battalions of them. But at the very start of 1920, a British attempt to make the arrangement less irregular by formally enrolling the troops created unexpected tensions. For reasons the British didn’t fully understand, troops in two of the battalions refused to sign the enrolment forms (they appeared to suspect that Britain would ship them off to serve the empire in India). One of the battalions was Armenian, and its opposition was particularly strong: when the battalion’s officers agreed, under heavy British pressure, to sign the forms, the rank and file threatened to shoot them.

This is what happened next, in the words of the camp commandant, Brigadier-General H.H. Austin (the emphasis is mine):

I decided thereupon to disarm and disband the Armenian battalion; and issued orders that the battalion should be paraded fully equipped and marched up to my Headquarters, alongside which the 1/4th Battalion Devons were camped.

Two companies of the Devons were told to hold themselves in readiness about their camp; but not to show up, as though trouble was anticipated, unless I blew a whistle to signify that my order to “ground arms” was disobeyed by the Armenians. In due course the battalion arrived, and was formed up with its rear to the river bank—here 40 or 50 feet high and a sheer drop to the water below. After addressing the men for some time through an English-speaking Armenian official of the orphanage, I informed them it was my painful duty, as a result of their distrust of the British Government, no longer to regard them as soldiers, but as refugees pure and simple. They would, accordingly, hand over their arms, accoutrements, and equipment now; and on return to their camp make over their uniform to their respective company commanders. The order to “ground arms” was obeyed without any sign of hesitation: a company of the Devons emerged from their camp to take over rifles, bandoliers, etc; and every Armenian of the battalion was searched over to see that he had no revolver or ammunition concealed about his person. They were then marched back through the Armenian sections of the camp, to their own on the other side of the river, and a few days later transferred and distributed among the Armenian population in “A” area.

H.H. Austin, The Baqubah Refugee Camp
(London and Manchester: The Faith Press, 1920), pp. 47-48

No longer soldiers, but refugees pure and simple: when refugees are disarmed, they become ‘just’ refugees.[1]

The photograph at the top of this post is evidence of this happening. In early 1939, the final territory under the control of the elected Republican government in Spain fell to the fascist military rebellion led by Franco. Over three hundred thousand people—young, old; children, women, men—fled north into France. The rifles in this pile were taken from Republican refugees as they entered the country.

There was precedent for this kind of thing. When the (substantial) remnants of the White Russian army were evacuated from the Crimea in 1921 at the end of the Russian civil war, their commander General Wrangel wanted to maintain them as a military formation to continue the fight. The Allies, hosting 120,000 Russians in the Straits Zone, disarmed and disbanded them instead. Spanish Republicans, too, hoped to continue the fight against Franco—but the French government, terrified of a war with the fascist powers, had no intention of permitting that.

Being defined as a refugee is itself a loss of control. This is one reason why many refugees reject the term: Spanish Republicans called themselves exiliados, ‘exiles’, while Russian refugees preferred to be ‘émigrés’. Here’s a Kosovo Albanian woman discussing the term, closer to our own time:

Well, you cannot describe it. It is awful, very hard to be like that. The name can show you, you know, R.E.F.U.G.E.E. is like the worst thing in the world, so it is something that you cannot describe. You don’t have any power and you don’t have anything but your soul, your body and nothing else. This is very difficult and hard for everybody. Even for the people who accepted refugees it was very hard, every time you feel like you are not you. So, every day you feel empty, you feel… I mean it’s just very hard, without any power, with nothing.

Quoted—from a book by Losi, Passerini, and Salvatici—in Peter Gatrell,
The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford, 2013), p. 265

The sense of powerlessness that the term R.E.F.U.G.E.E. brings is so strong that she is unwilling to speak it, and spells it out instead. But it would be a mistake to think that a person loses control at the moment when they flee their home, or cross the border into a neighbouring country.

The term ‘refugee’ has had a distinct meaning in international law for nearly a century. It has evolved in that time, and expanded from a very narrow range of applicability covering two specific groups of displaced people (Russian and Armenian refugees in the 1920s) to a theoretically universal one (anyone displaced over a border by a legitimate fear of persecution). The point of the legal definition, which is the basis of national refugee law in most places where such legislation exists, is to make protection available to refugees, in the shape of rights—eg, the right to asylum; the right not to be pushed back into the country they are fleeing; the right to work—and humanitarian assistance. In practice, though, to access that protection as ‘refugees’, people are expected to give up any control over their own destinies, and become as passive and needy as the term requires them to be. This is not always voluntary: consider Denmark’s recent decision to strip asylum-seekers of their money and belongings as a precondition of being considered for refugee status.

When refugees are armed, they have altogether too much control over their own destinies to be considered ‘refugees’. The British themselves had formed the Armenian battalion at Baquba, but when the troops showed their autonomy they were swiftly disarmed, in a setting that was designed to expose them: backs to a forty-foot drop, British soldiers waiting nearby to intervene if they failed to ground their weapons on command. They were literally ‘marched back’ into civilian life, no longer soldiers, but refugees pure and simple. For the Spanish Republicans, disarming was only the first step. They were then—as refugees often are—split up, transported long distances, and interned: women, children, and the elderly in rough accommodation rapidly converted from forestry camps or army camps, the men of military age in barbed-wire pens on the beaches of Roussillon. Many of them did not survive this exposure. The author of this loss of control was not Franco but the French state.

So: can a refugee carry a gun? Probably not. But to understand why, we need to understand the quid pro quo that states expect when they give asylum to refugees—when they define people as ‘refugees’. The point isn’t that refugees should be given guns, but what happens when they arrive with guns is a particularly clear illustration that protection, however flimsy, is conditional on loss of control.


Click images for source if not indicated

[1] Austin’s book gives an account of the events that had pushed these Assyrians and Armenians from their respective homes and brought them into contact with British troops advancing into northwestern Persia (Iran) in 1918 (pp. 3-14). Although by then some of them had been displaced over hundreds of miles, he doesn’t use the term ‘refugees’ to describe them until he reaches the point, on p.14, when they were brought under British protection.

17 years again

More or Less, camp image

Last week someone tweeted a link to my post about the average length of stay in a refugee camp to the BBC radio programme More or Less, which investigates numbers that are in the news. The “17 years” statistic is exactly the kind of thing they like to get their teeth into.

I duly got a message from the producer, and went into the BBC Scotland studios here in Glasgow for an interview earlier this week. The programme was broadcast on the World Service last night—you can listen to it here.

The image is borrowed from the More or Less programme page (click for link),
and I’m quite pleased that it’s not an aerial view:
An Afghan woman carries laundry in a refugee camp in Malakasa.
Credit: Milos Bicanski / Getty

Images of refugees, part 3: refugees at sea

This is the third in a series of posts about images of refugees. For the first post, click here. For the second, click here.

Photographs of refugees on land often work to make both the refugees themselves and the landscapes they’re walking on interchangeable—so many huddled figures trudging across so many featureless bits of countryside. My last post explored some of the reasons for this: they’re partly to do with the choices that picture editors make, and partly to do with the standard formats of newspapers or news magazines and the cameras, lenses, and film that were typically used to take the photos that appeared in them. (Only rarely do refugees’ own views or choices come into it.) And in the post before that I wrote, more briefly, about the typical news photograph of a group of refugees in flight, burdened with their possessions. The aesthetic roots of that very standardized image go back much further than mid twentieth-century: I traced them back to 19th-century narrative painting, and earlier standard subjects in the European Christian tradition of painting.

But what about the other standard image of refugees, which has been just as common on news websites recently as the ‘overland trudge’—that is, the image of refugees at sea?

vlora albanians bari 1991 BARI - 1991 agosto 1991 LO SBARCO DELLA MOTONAVE VLORA CARICA DI CLANDESTINI ALBANESI - La nave vlora in porto - foto Arcieri - Quaranta
2015, 1991, 1939?

This picture shows the Albanian ship Vlora, in 1991. A cargo vessel that had recently returned to Albania from Cuba laden with sugar, the Vlora found itself heading to the Italian port of Bari with many thousands of Albanians aboard, hoping to escape the chaos of the end of communist rule. You can read about it on Migrants at sea, or watch this two-minute film on YouTube, and there’s a longer a documentary about the incident, too. The story doesn’t reflect especially well on the Italian authorities.

Vlora refugee ship black and white
‘These aren’t Syrians. They’re Europeans trying to get to North Africa during World War II. So next time you think of closing the borders you might want to check with your grandparents.’

It wasn’t as an image from 1991, though, that the picture recently went double-viral. (I read about it here.) On the one hand, it did the rounds of Twitter racists amid claims that it showed thousands of ‘migrants’ in Libya or Syria preparing to invade Europe today. On the other, in black and white, it was circulated by anti-racists on Twitter—and Tumblr—claiming that the people in it were Europeans fleeing to North Africa during the second world war.

Like the Robert Capa photo I discussed in the last post, which appears on the cover of a history book about refugees in France (and on the internet as a picture of refugees in the Spanish civil war) even though it was taken in Israel just after independence, this photo shows us that refugees are interchangeable. You can pretend that a picture of people fleeing the political uncertainty and economic misery of Albania a quarter of a century ago shows Tripoli or Tartus this summer, and some people will believe you (and retweet). Or you can put the same picture in black and white and claim it shows European refugees in the 1940s, and other people will believe you (and repost). One of those claims is intended to provoke hostility toward refugees, and the other is intended to elicit sympathy—but it’s striking that both of them reduce the refugees themselves to silence in precisely the same way. The refugees become ‘speechless emissaries’, to borrow a term from the anthropologist Liisa Malkki.* In one claim, they bear mute witness to the threat of further swarms overrunning Europe; in another, they silently represent the shared human need, and right, to flee from danger. But they never get to speak for themselves. (It’s probably fair to guess that in neither case are the people behind the claim refugees.)

One of the reasons why a single image can be used in these different ways is because the ‘refugee boat’, just like the ‘overland trudge’, is already so well-established as a visual trope. The Vlora of 1991 can stand in for boats in 2015 or 1939 because we’ve already seen refugee boats in 2015 or 1939, and every decade in between.  Look:

Rohingya refugees at sea
Could be anywhere
Vietnamese refugees Hong Kong
Could be anywhere
Exodus 1947 ship
Could be anywhere
SS Habana, Basque children
Could be anywhere

Let me restate something I wrote about images of refugees on land. The limitations of cameras, lenses, and film, the constraints of publication format, and the aesthetic (and moral) choices of photographers and picture editors all work together to mean that when you see a group of refugees in a photograph, you usually can’t see many identifying features of the landscape they’re walking across. This is even more true for images of refugees at sea: a patch of sea has even fewer identifying features than a patch of desert or hillside–if it is marked by distinctive shapes or colours, they’re changing all the time. The photos above were taken in the Andaman Sea in 2015, Hong Kong harbour in the late 1970s, Haifa in 1947, and (I think) Southampton in 1937. A dockside, if you can see one, doesn’t help much: a quick switch from colour to black and white was all it took to put the Vlora back in the same period as the Exodus 1947, carrying Holocaust survivors to Palestine, or the SS Habana, bringing Basque refugees to Britain in 1937.

When the boat is small and photographed fairly close up, you can make out some distinguishing features of the refugees, but not many: see what a difference the slightly more distant perspective in the first photo makes, compared with the second. Among the Rohingya refugees from Burma (2015) you can make out individuals, and tell adults from children; among the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong (1970s) you can see individual expressions, distinguishing features—but that’s rare indeed in photos that follow this trope. (Perhaps less so for paintings, and we’ll come back to that in a moment.) When the ship is large, and therefore the photographer has to be further away, even basic details are lost: for example, could you tell without looking closely that almost all the figures in the last of those four photos are children? Details of the vessel itself don’t tell you anything about where it is, either, and only very rough information about when the picture was taken. Ships travel a long way, and have long service lives: the Vlora was built in 1960 and only broken up in 1996. So when you see an image of a boatload of refugees at sea or at a dockside, there’s very little to tell you when or where the image was taken.

Massimo Sestini Refugee boat image
This could be anywhere too

All this means that the image of the ‘refugee boat’ is, if anything, even more standardized, even more of a trope, than the image of a group of refugees fleeing on foot over land. Every time you look at a photo of a refugee boat, in a way you’re looking at every other photo of a refugee boat, too—certainly every other one that you’ve seen, and every other one that whoever produced the image has seen. And every time a photojournalist frames an image of one, he or she is in a way taking a picture of all those other pictures too.

Needless to say, it’s impossible for any of these images to tell us much about the enormous variety of different individual stories, individual lives, on a single refugee boat—let alone the range between an Albanian adult on the Vlora in 1991 and a Basque child on the Habana in 1937. The image above was taken in the Mediterranean in 2014. It won the photographer, Massimo Sestini, a World Press Photo award, and in a way it was ahead of its time, seeming to capture the spirit of this summer: that’s why you may have seen it on the Google refugee appeal or, if like me you’re based in Scotland, the new Scotland Welcomes Refugees site. But in another way it could have been taken anywhere, at any time since press photography became a thing. And, like the standardized photographic image of refugees on land, the ‘refugee boat’ picture has roots that go back much deeper than the emergence of photojournalism. Here’s one very influential predecessor:

Géricault, raft of the wreck of Medusa
Where are we?

Jonathan Jones wrote about Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) earlier this summer, explicitly making the connection with the ‘refugee crisis’. The painting was a media sensation in its time, viewed by 40,000 people when it was exhibited at Egyptian Hall in London in 1820. (I learned about it when I read A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes, twenty-odd years ago; it’s parodied in one of the Asterix books too.) A detailed exploration of the genealogy of the ‘refugee boat’ image would need an art historian, not me, but I’d suggest that this and other paintings of shipwrecks and their survivors, and the long tradition of paintings of Noah’s Ark at sea in the Flood, would be the place to start looking. Here, I’ll just point out once again that a painting can combine individual detail and panoramic sweep more easily than a press photo: Géricault’s painting is a monstrous seven metres by five (!), so the dead and dying figures are pretty much life size, if seen at a short distance.

But they are seen from a short distance, not from the raft itself–which leads to my final point. Even more than images of refugees on land (or of refugee camps), the viewpoint that pictures of refugees at sea adopt is, almost by definition, not that of the refugees. The viewer, like the photographer, is looking at the boat and the refugees from a different and usually safer perspective. The Sestini photograph is a paradigmatic case, taken from an Italian navy helicopter: not so much a bird’s-eye as a God’s-eye view.

I think it’s important to find ways to go beyond this visual trope: it objectifies the ‘refugee boat’ and it objectifies refugees (and I say that without intending to denigrate the photographers or the worthwhile ends to which such photos are often put). These images shape the meaning of ‘refugee’ before we even articulate it in words, and if that means that when we talk about refugees we immediately think of an indistinguishable mass of more or less interchangeable people, there’s a problem. Massimo Sestini seems to recognize this: in the other pictures that form part of the same reportage–here on the Time website–there are photographs of individuals, taken much closer up. But they’re all taken on navy rescue vessels. The refugees have entered the photographer’s world: he hasn’t entered theirs.

For the photographer, then, the challenge is to change their perspective, and to look at things from the refugee’s point of view. (Over a year after he took this award-winning set of photos, Sestini has started trying to locate some of the individuals pictured in the boat, so he may be doing that.) It’s a challenge for editors, too: the choice of the representative image, the one that’s at the top of the story or on the front page of the website, is the one that matters most, whether it’s a news website or a charity appeal.

But the really great challenge to this objectification of the refugee boat will come from refugees themselves. Refugees are more likely now than ever before to have the means of making their own record of their journey, and swiftly making it publicly available. We’ve heard quite a bit, in recent years, about ‘citizen journalists’ using smartphones and social media to create their own record of events. Perhaps we’ll learn to see refugee boats and their passengers differently when the photos we’re looking at are taken from aboard the boat itself, by refugees.

Next post in this series: the image of the refugee camp.


*I’d had this article on my laptop for a while but not got round to reading beyond the first page or two—my friend David Farrier emailed it to me after he’d read my last post, reminding me that I need to go back to it.