The news from Syria has been nothing but bad for several years now, but things have been particularly desperate in the last few days—since Turkish forces, with a green light from the American president, invaded the region of northern Syria that had been under autonomous Kurdish rule, as Rojava. (You can read an overview of the situation and what is at stake in this Guardian article: What is the situation in north-eastern Syria?)
Although I mainly work on refugee history these days, earlier in my career I was a Syria specialist, and I spent a lot of time researching the history of the area that Turkey has just invaded. The demarcation of the Syrian-Turkish border in the 1920s and 30s was crucial to the constitution of state sovereignty on either side of it. Turkey and Syria were newly established states, though they were quite different: Turkey was ruled by a nationalist government that had successfully fought off multiple invasions, while Syria was only nominally independent under French colonial ‘supervision’. What I was really interested in, though, was how these interconnected processes shaped the political identities of the people living in what became the northern Syrian borderlands. A lot of them were Kurdish, and the border made them a minority in a new Syrian nation-state.
As a historian, I don’t have privileged knowledge about current events, and I’m feeling pretty helpless and hopeless about them. But if it’s helpful for anyone reading this to get some background on how this part of the world came to be divided between Syria and Turkey, and what that meant for Kurds living there, with permission from the publishers I’m making some of the things I’ve written on the subject freely available.
First, here is a PDF of a chapter of my book (2011) on ‘The border and the Kurds’. It explains the impact that the demarcation of the border had on Kurds across the new Syrian nation-state. Right through the 1920s and 30s, Syria’s borders didn’t have much meaningful physical presence on the ground. But increasingly, the border as a line between two state jurisdictions made it a meaningful presence in people’s lives (and in people’s minds) nonetheless. The drawing of Syria’s borders tended to make all Kurds in the country—whether they lived in the borderlands or in Damascus—into one ‘minority’ community.
Second, my article ‘Refugees and the definition of Syria, 1920-1939’ (2017) argues that the arrival and settlement of refugees brought the geographical borders of Syria into much sharper definition, and accelerated the spread of effective state authority across its territory—as well as raising questions about whether Syrian national identity should be defined to include or exclude the incomers. Kurdish refugees from the new Turkish Republic were one of the three main groups of refugees entering Syria in this period, and the places that became Syrian included the areas that Kurds have governed autonomously for the last few years. The Turkish army’s invasion has prompted the Kurdish government to invite the Syrian regime back in.
Finally, an older article in French, ‘Frontières et pouvoir d’Etat: La frontière turco-syrienne dans les années 1920 et 1930’ (2009), written with my colleague and friend Seda Altuğ, goes into more detail on the process of how the border was drawn on the ground, and what role it played in the constitution of state authority on both sides. For Turkey, a national frontier was being created, that needed defending against local populations that were viewed as a threat (especially Kurds and Armenians) as well as against French imperialism. On the Syrian side, where the border was both a Syrian national and French imperial frontier, the situation was more complicated.
Thanks to Emma Rees at Edinburgh University Press for giving me permission to make chapter 4 of my book freely available, and providing the PDF, and to Anna Bayman and the editors of Past & Present for agreeing to make ‘Refugees and the definition of Syria’ freely available for a period. (‘Frontières et pouvoir d’État’ was already free to read.) And thanks to Sadiah Qureshi for her very helpful comments on a draft of this post.
Image: Excerpt from index map for Series K421, 1:500,000 maps of the Levant, produced by the UK War Office, 1942-
Source: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin
For various reasons—the usual, too much to do, too little time—I haven’t been very active on this blog recently. But things have been quite lively elsewhere. Earlier in the summer my article on ‘Humans and animals in a refugee camp: Baquba, Iraq, 1918-20’ came out in Journal of Refugee Studies (online advance access: the print edition is still forthcoming). If you’re at an institution that subscribes, you can find it by clicking this link; otherwise, by all means email me for a PDF.
A few weeks later, Forced Migration Review published a mini-dossier that I coordinated, made up of seven short articles on the same subject—humans and animals in refugee camps—but with a more contemporary focus. FMR is aimed at policymakers and practitioners rather than academics, and the mini-dossier was an output of the Wellcome Trust seed award project I’ve been running over the past year. The articles are:
an introduction by me, which also sets out some key themes for future research on the subject
a piece on the role of livestock in refugee–host community relations by Charles Hoots, a vet who ran field operations at a refugee camp in South Sudan for Vets Without Borders in 2013-14
a piece on working equids in refugee camps by Patrick Pollock, an academic veterinary surgeon who works with people in the global south who rely on working horses, donkeys and mules for their livelihoods
‘Sheltering animals in refugee camps’, a look at how the architecture of shelter needs to accommodate animals as well as humans, by Lara Alshawawreh, whose research is on the architecture of emergency
a piece on understanding the different contexts that create risk in human–animal interactions in camps, by Sara Owczarczak-Garstecka, who works with vets, engineers, and statisticians (her own research focuses on dog bites)
‘Animal and human health in the Sahrawi refugee camps’, a look at the ways in which animal and human health intersect, by Giorgia Angeloni (who works with Vets Without Borders) and Jennifer Carr (who is researching the history of medical humanitarianism in refugee camps)
and finally, a piece by Scottish wildlife artist Derek Robertson about the creative work he has done on the connections between bird migrations and human forced migrations across the Mediterranean basin and all the way to Scotland
Forced Migration Review is entirely open access. You can download the entire issue in which the mini-dossier appears here, where there are also links to the individual articles and to a standalone PDF of the mini-dossier, as well as audio versions. The issue is now also available in Spanish and in Arabic, if you prefer, though these don’t have audio versions.
I also wrote a blog post for Refugee History that summarizes my own historical research on the camp at Baquba and connects it to the place of animals in camps today. You can find that here.
There will be some other updates shortly, I hope, about writing on related and unrelated topics. But for now, the start of term is about to hit…
I have a new post up on RefugeeHistory.org, about the past, present, and future of Villawood immigration detention centre in Sydney, Australia. You can read it by clicking this link (or the image).
Before I visited Villawood, I’d already blogged about it on here (link), as one of a series of posts about sites of confinement and containment in modern Australian history—others included Maribyrnong immigration detention centre in Melbourne and the old quarantine stations at Point Nepean, also near Melbourne, and North Head in Sydney.
Among all the past and present sites of detention that I visited on my trip to Australia last month, in some ways there is most to say about the old quarantine station at North Head, Sydney. But in other ways there is least to say, because so many excellent scholars have already written so much, and so well. Compared to Alison Bashford, who has been going there regularly for nearly twenty years, or the historical archaeologists on the Quarantine Project who spent months on the site uncovering and documenting over 1,600 inscriptions on the rocks there and investigating their stories through archival research, my own experience of the site is fleeting indeed.
To get to North Head you catch a fast ferry from Circular Quay in the very heart of Sydney, tucked between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. There’s a slower ferry too, but I took the fast one, a low-slung catamaran that moved across the water faster than any other boat I’ve ever been on, I think. As it draws away from the quay, you begin to get a sense of the size and complexity of this enormous natural harbour: to aft you can see under the bridge, where it continues deep inland, while on either side you pass urban coves and inlets—to starboard, Farm Cove with the botanical gardens surrounding it, then the deeper Woolloomoolloo Bay where an aircraft carrier is among the grey-painted naval vessels at the wharf, and these are only the first two you pass. Soon you can see down the harbour, too. The ferry scuds over the waves across the mouth of North Harbour (the northern branch of the main harbour), and you can see the destination: the steep sides of North Head, overlooking the harbour mouth and beyond it the Pacific.
Like the quarantine station at Point Nepean, the one at North Head—which was founded a couple of decades earlier and remained in operation until a little later—is just inside the mouth of a natural harbour, where a port city had developed further inland. It isn’t as remote: Sydney Cove, where the European settlement began, is only a few miles away across the water (Melbourne is forty miles away from Point Nepean on the other side of Port Phillip), and even with the circuitous route over two bridges and around the northern coves and inlets you could drive there from central Sydney in under forty minutes if the traffic wasn’t too bad. But, just as Point Nepean is as for from Melbourne as you can be while still being close to Melbourne, North Head is as far from Sydney as you can be while still being in the city.
The sites are similar in other ways, past and present. The national park at Point Nepean begins at the edge of the plushy weekend resort of Portsea, and is dotted with old fortifications and facilities for the coastal defences of Port Phillip. The national park at North Head begins at the edge of the plushy suburb of Manly, and is dotted with old fortifications and facilities for the coastal defences of Port Jackson (the official name for Sydney Harbour). The quarantine stations and their grounds, on your right as you enter the national park and facing the harbour, not the sea, were added to the parks more recently in both cases, because maritime quarantine restrictions survived a bit longer than coastal artillery batteries. Long-range bomber aircraft (and, later, intercontinental ballistic missiles) made the latter irrelevant by the middle of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t till a little later that mass civilian air travel did the same for the former. In 1963, the year the North Head fortifications fell permanently out of use, the teenager Johannes Hendrikus Jacob van den Berg emigrated to Australia from Holland by ship with his family and changed his name to Harry Vanda en route.
And although it’s much closer to the city than Point Nepean is to Melbourne, North Head feels remote and isolated. It’s been much more ambitiously developed as a heritage destination (‘Q Station‘) than Point Nepean, and no doubt at certain times of day and year it’s busy with visitors—you can stay there, in the restored accommodation blocks, and the ghost tours on offer include one that lets you stay overnight. But it was quiet when I walked around the large site: on the way in I saw a masked lapwing nervously pacing about the lawn, its yellow face bright in the sunshine, and on the way out I passed an echidna rummaging its snout in the sandy soil by the road, but I didn’t see many people. Like Point Nepean, the scenic walk out to the head and the old fortifications seemed to be attracting far more visitors, though a school group came through as I sat in the visitor centre by the wharf.
The station is spacious, spread out on the slopes that rise from Spring Cove, and in its time it was rigorously segregated. Accommodation areas reproduced the class hierarchies, and racist hierarchies, of the passenger ships that arrived: the first class passengers in their comfortable accommodation were protected from mingling with second class residents by high fences and a stretch of ‘neutral ground’, while third class passengers were elsewhere again and ‘Asiatics’ were housed in crowded dormitories with an external communal kitchen. Obliged to stay at the station in 1930, the golfer J.H. Kirkwood found the segregation insufficient:
I am an Australian, and I always thought that this was a white man’s country, but when I have seen Chinese, Indians, and Fijians with the same bathing and toilet facilities as white men in this quarantine station I have not been able to help feeling disgust. However, we are resigned to our fate.
For residents suspected of carrying disease, or showing symptoms, there was an isolation zone at one end of the site; for those who became ill there was a hospital, and in the final necessity a burial ground.
The visitor centre is down by the wharf, where a steep-sided little valley runs down to a beautiful beach. At the top of the sand a line of trees, their branches bare but for large flame-red flowers, played host to a busily feeding squadron of rainbow lorikeets. There’s a set of buildings nearby that were familiar to me from Point Nepean: a boiler house with a tall brick chimney, and a disinfecting room where luggage was steamed in enormous cast-iron autoclaves. The visitor centre, with a couple of rooms of historical displays and a somewhat gloomy café, was adapted from the old luggage store—the boiler house is now a restaurant, but that’s only open in the evening.
On the road down to the wharf you also pass the most visible remaining inscriptions, carved into the sandstone: one of them is shown at the top of this post. The Quarantine Project has produced a beautiful book about these (I bought a copy in the visitor centre, and read about Kirkwood as I ate my lunch) as well as many academic articles. Some of their most fascinating work, for me, is on the inscriptions that weren’t carved into exposed sandstone by nineteenth-century sailors and emigrants, but were scratched or scrawled onto the internal walls of the building on the site that was used as an immigration detention centre in the 1960s and 70s, as the quarantine station’s operations wound down. Although the building has now been adapted into a wedding venue (!), many of these are still to be seen in backrooms and above head height. I didn’t locate this building, A20, though I suspect that it may have been one that I peered into as a site employee touched up the external paintwork by the door. Inscriptions and graffiti are a kind of source that I should think about in my work on refugee camps: they’re omnipresent, as photos from formal and informal camps show.
A final similarity with Point Nepean isn’t mentioned anywhere on the site, or not that I noticed. In 1999, Point Nepean briefly accommodated several hundred humanitarian evacuees, Kosovo Albanians evacuated from Macedonia during the NATO air war against Serbia: even humanitarian evacuees needed to be confined in some way and ‘distanced’ from the rest of the population. Something similar happened in 1975, when over two thousand five hundred Vietnamese children—some of them the children of US servicemen—were evacuated from Saigon in what was known as ‘Operation Babylift’. About three hundred were brought to Australia, mostly to Sydney, in the midst of bitter recriminations over the country’s participation in the war and responsibility for Vietnamese refugees. Like the main ‘Babylift’ to the US, the available scholarship on this subject is mostly interested in its implications for international adoption, and doesn’t—as far as I know—say much about the experience of the evacuation itself. But the quarantine station at North Head was one of the centres that received evacuees (there’s a helpful Tumblr about it compiled in 2015 by an undergraduate student in history at the University of Sydney, who only gives her name as Stephanie): this picture from the Sydney Morning Herald shows prime minister Gough Whitlam visiting them.
Unlike the Kosovo Albanians nearly twenty-five years later, the Babylift evacuees mostly stayed in Australia, and that was the intention from the start. And surely it was in part simple pragmatism that meant they were accommodated at North Head, where the quarantine station was already being decommissioned and there was medically equipped accommodation for a couple of hundred children and their carers. Once again, though, I found myself struck by the isolation and confinement, at a site then mostly used as an immigration detention centre, of people displaced for humanitarian reasons.
Thanks to Meighen Katz for telling me about ‘Q Station’ and its history
All images taken by me (CC BY 4.0) except the Google Map
and the photo of Gough Whitlam (click for source)
Well, okay, southern hemisphere is a bit of an exaggeration.
I’m in Australia for a month-long fellowship at the University of Melbourne, where I’m being hosted by the EU Centre on Shared Complex Challenges and working with Prof Joy Damousi and her team. (Joy is running a large project on the history of child refugees.) The aim of the visit is to understand Australia’s current immigration detention policy in the context of the global history of the refugee camp.
While I’m on this side of the world, I’m doing a few events, here in Melbourne and also at the end of the month in Sydney:
University of Melbourne history department brown bag seminar, Thu 10 Aug, 1–2pm: ‘Humans and animals in a refugee camp: Baquba, 1918–1921’ in room 553, Arts West Building, North Wing.
Extra date added: I’m now also doing a talk co-hosted by the EU Centre and the Australian Institute of International Affairs, ‘Grudging rescue: the history of humanitarian evacuations’, Tue 22 Aug, 6:00–7:30pm, in room 553, Arts West Building, North Wing.
A public lecture for the EU Centre entitled ‘Refugees in Syria, Syrian refugees: then and now’, Thu 24 Aug, 6:00–7:30pm in room 353—the interactive cinema space, apparently—also in the Arts West Building (more details here).
If you’re in Melbourne or Sydney, do come along to one of these events, or get in touch if you’d like to meet up for a chat. I’ve only been here two days and I’ve already met a number of interesting and inspiring people, including some who are involved in the excellent oral history project Behind the Wire, in which current and former detainees narrate their experiences—check it out.
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.
Rivesaltes 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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. I 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.