Flitting: refugees in landscapes

Photograph shows people and horses marching along a snowy road, probably in Albani, curving through a wintry valley.
‘Everything destroyed and burnt. Men only remained’ – Serbian refugees, probably in Albania, 1915, by Sampson Tchernoff (Library of Congress)

A few years ago I wrote a post about images of refugees on land, and how they reduce refugees to an anonymous mass: a visual trope I called the overland trudge. This trope is shaped partly by photographic technologies (the constraints and possibilities of the cameras and lenses used to take the image, and the media formats in which they’re reproduced) and partly by artistic and journalistic convention. The photographer turns individual people into nameless and indistinguishable ‘refugees’ by stepping back to bring numbers into the frame, but rarely steps back far enough to allow any significant feature of the landscape to come into view. We may get a sense of what it’s like, arid and dusty or frozen hard, but we rarely get a sense of where it is. One of the recent impracticable schemes to solve the problem of mass displacement proposes “a confederal, transnational polity” named Refugia: this harsh and featureless place is what it really looks like.

There’s no sense, in these images, of landscape as anything other than hard stuff to be grimly trudged across—an unmetaphorically hostile environment. And for many refugees and other people on the move, the landscapes they cross are indeed hostile. Rich states take advantage of this. US policy on its southern border in recent decades has been to choke off access into the country from Mexico, pushing undocumented border-crossers away from crossing-points in populated and well-served areas and ever further out into the harshest landscapes: Jason de León’s work explores the material culture of border crossing in what he calls the land of open graves. The European Union more visibly relies on the Mediterranean Sea to keep undocumented travellers out, refugees among them. But the high visibility of the Mediterranean also draws attention away from the barrier of the Sahara, a formidable obstacle for those travelling from further south.

Panel of comic book showing a male corpse lying face up in a barren and featureless landscape. Accompanying text reads "Still, five or six years on the move is better than rotting here. Yes, there's a chance you'll die before you reach your destination, but if you stay here you'll be dead a lot sooner. You never know what the journey has in store for you. But you can be sure about what's waiting for you if you stay - nothing."
Excerpt from Bessora & Barroux, ‘Alpha: Abidjan to Gare du Nord’ (2016)

But landscape is more to people on the move than just a prolonged series of obstacles on the journey, a potential open grave. The landscapes of home are often carried in memory, and may shape the experience of landscape in exile: Thaer Ali, an Iraqi Kurd living as a refugee in the UK, explained to photographer John Perivolaris that the trees on the road to Nottingham city centre reminded him of looking up through the branches of trees while going to visit his grandfather’s village as a child, when he would ‘reach up and try to touch the branches’. Features in a landscape of exile can form a sudden connection with the landscape of home, bringing the past—welcome or unwelcome—into the present.

The poetry of John Clare (1793–1864) is one of the most intimate engagements with landscape in the English language, but it is a poetry of loss. The Northamptonshire landscape Clare knew as a boy at the turn of the nineteenth century was enclosed by act of parliament in 1809, the same year in which he wrote his first poem. The fields, woods, and common lands of his poetry were being radically transformed as he wrote about them, a transformation of property law that would displace the variegated local culture of their people, and set their teeming profusion of plant and animal life on the path to the diminished, hollowed-out nature of the commercialized (and later industrialized) agricultural landscape: ‘simplification for alienation’, as Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing puts it. In different ways, the same displacement has occurred, and is still occurring, around the world.

At nearly 40, Clare was offered the rent of a cottage at Northborough, three miles from his home of Helpston, through the assistance of wellwishers and friends. But the move, which was intended to help stabilize his finances and his family situation, permanently destabilized him—he seems to have experienced it as an intensified version of the lifelong displacement he bears witness to in so much of his poetry.

Here every tree is strange to me
All foreign things where ere I go

—John Clare, ‘The Flitting’ (1833)

At Helpston, every whitethorn bush, stile, or quarry had its intimate associations, in his own memory and in a shared local culture. The woods and fields of Northborough, so close by, were alien to him.

But landscapes of exile can also be a resource for displaced people. At a seminar I hosted in September 2018, geographer Sara Kindon asked us to rethink the place of ‘place’ in refugee integration. ‘Integration’ of refugees is often understood in a narrowly economic sense, perhaps supported by some legal recognition: refugee status and the right to work, most obviously, and in the longer term perhaps citizenship in the host state. But it takes a much thicker set of associations for any of us to feel integrated in a new place. Some of them are social, but others are ecological: a familiarity with the landscape and its more than human inhabitants, for example. I’ve been thinking about this ever since, and have written about it in a chapter that will be coming out later this year on ‘Animals, people, and places in displacement’. But only after that chapter was in press did I read Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s marvellous book The Mushroom at the End of the World, which tells—among so many other things—of how different groups of southeast Asian refugees in the USA draw on their experience of jungle warfare in the 1960s and 70s and longer traditions of forest mobility to participate, in different ways, in the picking and trading of the matsutake mushrooms that grow in symbiosis with the roots of the lodgepole pines that are reclaiming the logged-out Oregon forests. Skills honed in one landscape could be adapted  to another, half a world away. “Mushroom picking layers together Laos and Oregon, war and hunting” (p91). It works not just as a livelihood strategy, allowing new Americans to earn a living in a time when the postwar welfare state has long since been dismantled, but also as a way of asserting an American commitment to a particular understanding of ‘freedom’. There’s much more to say about refugees and landscapes, and I have a lot of thinking still to do.

Click images for source.

Syria’s Kurds and the Turkish border

index_map, excerpt

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







Revise and resubmit

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about an article of mine that had just come out, and its very long road to publication. At the end of it I blithely wrote that “The next article I publish should be out rather quicker—though the gestation time has been almost as long.”

Detail of front cover of Humanity, volume 10, number 1 (2019) 1This was both correct and incorrect. The next article I published did come out much more quickly, but it wasn’t the one I was talking about. ‘Humans and animals in a refugee camp: Baquba, Iraq, 1918-1920’ was submitted to the Journal of Refugee Studies in November 2017, went through peer review and revision that winter, and was published online in May 2018 (and in print this week). But the article I was actually referring to, on the history of humanitarian evacuations, didn’t come out until the end of April 2019. So I was wrong about it being published more quickly, but I was right about the long gestation time: I’d started drafting it, in early April 2013, based on research done over the previous couple of years, and I first gave versions of it as a seminar paper in November 2013 and January 2014.

This isn’t an unusually slow turnaround time for publishing an academic journal article in history. One thing that added to the delay is simply that the journal it came out in has a crowded publication pipeline: by the time I got my final acceptance in early summer 2017, the contents for all of the issues through to the end of 2018 had already been set. But what I want to write about here is peer review, another routine part of the academic publication process.

Peer review often gets a bad press: just google ‘Reviewer 2’ and you’ll see what I mean. (Perhaps you already belong to the public Facebook group ‘Reviewer 2 must be stopped!’, which at time of writing has 19,602 members.) No-one likes a rejection; no-one greets a critical review with glad eye and open heart; and I doubt that many people relish revising an article that they’d hoped was off their desk forever. I certainly didn’t. Between 2013 and 2017 this article was drafted, submitted, rejected, redrafted, submitted to a different journal, reviewed, accepted ‘with revisions’, revised, edited sharply down, and ‘finally’ accepted. That final acceptance made me very happy, not just because it meant the article was going to be published, but also because by then I was—to say the least—ready to see the back of it.

But I’m also absolutely certain that the published version is much better than the version of it that I first submitted. Even in a humanities discipline like history, which tends to presume (/idealize) single-authored work, getting a piece of work to publication is a much more collaborative process than the single name beneath the title implies. Often, we read other people’s work as if they’d simply sat down one morning and dashed off a print-ready piece to a response of “Grt thx will publish!” from the editors of a leading journal—while we bash our heads against multiple drafts, and nervously await reviewer 2’s stiletto. But any piece of work that’s been published in a reputable journal should have gone through a peer review process, and been improved by it. Plenty of good or excellent published work has been rejected at some point along the way. So this post tries to demystify the process, and show how much effort by other people is being alluded to when a footnote thanks “two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful critical comments”. It’s aimed especially at people who are writing their doctoral dissertations and getting feedback on draft work. As supervisors, I’m not sure how well we explain the fact that our own work gets the red-ink treatment from peer reviewers all the time, and it’s not simply a hazing ritual: it makes our work better. There are plenty of blog posts out there discussing what happens when peer review goes wrong, as it often does. This one is about what happens when it goes right.

The first draft

Algae and seaweed trailing from the bottom of a small boat recently lifted out of the water.
Approximate length of main text : length of footnotes ratio (first draft)

In its first draft, my article told a story: how French forces, as they withdrew from Cilicia in what is now Turkey in November-December 1921, grudgingly evacuated many thousands of Armenian refugees. I’d done tons of archival research, and the story spread across the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, so writing the article took a while. I also needed to keep in mind three overlapping but distinct audiences: historians of the Middle East; historians of refugees and displacement; and historians of humanitarian action. This meant that the text grew footnotes the way a ship’s hull grows barnacles and seaweed the longer it spends in the water: in some cases, bibliographical mini-essays summarizing the literature on, say, the history of Cilicia up to the first world war for the benefit of readers with no prior knowledge of the region, or the history of first world war–era population displacements across Eurasia for historians of the Middle East. (The footnotes were also for my benefit, of course, like a pair of stabilizer wheels on an unconfident child’s bike.) Still, I was pretty happy with it, and friends and colleagues working in several different areas read the draft and offered broadly positive feedback and helpful suggestions. So eventually I felt I’d told the story well enough, and in the early spring of 2016 I sent it off. I thought I might as well try for a biggie: the American Historical Review, perhaps the leading journal in the discipline. I mean—it was an interesting story, right?

The rejection (well: revise and resubmit)

As the most prominent English-language journal in the discipline, the AHR has a larger full-time editorial staff than most. This means they have a somewhat different review process than most other journals I’ve encountered (in history, area studies, and refugee studies). Before the editor sends submissions out for peer review, they’re read by a member of the editorial staff, who writes a report recommending whether they should be sent out or not. Given the volume of submissions, this reduces the burden on (unpaid) peer reviewers, who don’t have to spend time reading and commenting on articles that clearly aren’t suitable, or aren’t good enough. The articles that are sent to peer review therefore get through it more quickly, while people whose submissions are not sent for review find out promptly rather than having to wait months for a rejection.

I was in the second group. No more than a couple of weeks after my submission was acknowledged, an email from the AHR editor arrived, with two attachments. One was a letter informing me, quite kindly, that my article would not be sent to peer review. The other was the reader’s report explaining why not. (With the permission of the editor and the anonymous reader, you can download it here [PDF].)

The letter was a ‘revise and resubmit’ rather than an outright rejection: my article wouldn’t be sent out for peer review at this stage, but a revised version would be considered. The editor suggested what the main revisions should be, and said that “the fix required is rather simple… and can probably be done simply by moving a few paragraphs around”. The report, which ran to nearly a thousand words, critically and incisively summarized my article, outlining why it wasn’t ready for peer review at the AHR yet. Publishable in a specialist journal, maybe, but “the AHR’s readership expects the kind of conceptual or analytical innovation that can transfer across fields of historical inquiry”.

Specialist readers might be intrigued in the regional history or the humanitarian history, but the vast majority of the AHR’s distinctive comprehensive readership spanning all fields of historical inquiry would most likely have felt alienated and deterred from reading very far into the piece.

If the letter was the good cop, the report was the bad cop.

A ‘revise and resubmit’ is always discouraging, and on reflection I was more discouraged by this one than I should have been. But I can understand why. When this email arrived, I hadn’t published anything other than book reviews since my own book came out four years earlier: a worrying gap. A few months earlier I’d submitted another hefty article to a different big-name journal, which would eventually publish it—but I didn’t know that yet, as I was still waiting for their reviewers’ response. These were also my first submissions to general history journals rather than more specialist Middle East studies journals. So I was, frankly, doubting my ability to write publishable work in history. (I’m now in a history department, not a Middle East studies department: there were institutional as well as intellectual reasons why I wanted to publish in non-specialist journals.) It was also the back end of a busy spring semester, and I was feeling as fraught and teary as usual at that stage of the teaching year. So I set the whole thing aside until the Easter break, by which time a positive response for the other article had allayed my catastrophizing. But it had also requested some minor revisions, which—since they would definitely lead to a publication—took priority as the spring turned to summer.

The revised draft

It wasn’t until later that summer that I returned to the article about humanitarian evacuations, and read through the AHR reader’s report again. Bad cop? More like correct cop. The gist of it was that this draft told the story of the Cilician evacuation at length, but I’d only really explained why I was telling the story at the end, and hadn’t offered nearly enough to convince a non-specialist audience of historians why this story should matter to them. Rereading the draft, I could see how right they were. I’d stayed too close to the archival material, giving a forensic but descriptive reconstruction of the historical events without analyzing them or making an argument for their larger significance. The report challenged me to do better:

[C]an the author front-load in the submission a decisive argument that bespeaks an original and innovative contribution to the historiography on humanitarianism, beyond simply the addition of the factor of evacuations earlier than expected? […C]an the author draw out more from the subject and the case study?

The first draft had said I wanted to use this story to establish humanitarian evacuations as an object of historical enquiry. Great. But it didn’t say why, or do much more than present an early example. Reframing it for a revised draft meant introducing the policy and practice of humanitarian evacuations, sketching out their history, and reviewing the available scholarly literature—limited, and mostly in the social sciences—to say why historians should study humanitarian evacuations. It meant stating more clearly the significance of humanitarian evacuations. And it meant more rigorously using ‘my’ case study to set out a comparative framework for understanding other evacuations, or failures to evacuate.

Illustration of an iceberg showing how much of it is below the surface.
Approximate main text : footnotes ratio (second draft)

All of this took a while. Friends helped, providing suggestions and references: the footnotes proliferated still further. But the AHR report had given me a clear idea of what needed to be done, and once I’d worked out how to do it I made steady progress. By late 2016 I had a revised draft, and a friend who works for Médecins sans frontières had read it and confirmed that it did a better job than the first of explaining the significance of the topic and providing directions for future research. I sent it off—but not to the AHR. This was partly out of insecurity: I still wasn’t sure I’d done enough to make the article relevant to a discipline-wide audience of historians. But having revised the article, and ’embedded’ it in a wider literature on humanitarian evacuations (and evacuees) in a number of different disciplines, I was pretty sure that I’d made the story relevant to historians and other researchers who are interested in humanitarianism. So I submitted it to Humanity, a newish journal dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of human rights, humanitarianism, and development. Because that other article of mine was by now in press with a mainstream history journal, I no longer minded going for a more specialist journal for this one.

Then the wait began, again.

‘Accepted with revisions’

It wasn’t too long. In January 2017 I got an email from the editor with good news: Humanity would like to publish the article—subject to some revisions. One of the peer reviewers had been on the fence, while the other had been enthusiastic but also pointed out that there was some existing literature that I ought to have cited. The editorial collective had liked it. So the editor suggested particular areas for revision based on what the reviewers had said.

This was all ‘good practice’ in peer review. If reviewers’ reports are contradictory, or suggest varying degrees of revision, the author of an article should be able to get a steer from the editor as to which points they should prioritize in revising the article. In this case, I didn’t need to ask: the editor made it clear in his email how I should approach the revisions. And, while being asked to go and revise the article again was a bit discouraging—we do get sick of things we’ve been working on forever!—this was quite different. I knew the article would be published if I made the revisions. I also basically agreed with all of the reviewers’ suggestions.

What do I mean by that? The editor suggested “reframing the intro… so that it is less around when the origins [of humanitarian evacuation] were and more around what the political logics were”: this was pushing me a bit further in the direction I’d already been travelling. I’d reframed the article for the revised draft, but I’d still spent more time than I needed to discussing when things happened and not enough saying why they happened then. The lukewarm reviewer pointed out that it wasn’t good enough to say that my sources didn’t allow me to reconstruct refugees’ own experiences, and they were right. This was a key methodological problem that I’d tried to grapple with (it’s something historians of refugees run into frequently). I couldn’t fix it—at least, not without extensive further research in several different countries requiring languages that I don’t speak—but the comment pushed me to make a more explicit argument about what the absence of ‘refugee voices’ in the French archives tells us. The more enthusiastic reviewer had several helpful suggestions for readings (more footnotes!), including one book that had, shamingly, been lying unread on my table throughout the research and writing of the article, and picked out several points where I needed to provide more information about certain people and organizations or more support for a point of argument. So this revision was much quicker than the more comprehensive rethink and reframing I’d had to do between the first and second draft. It still took a few months, because I had an exceptionally busy spring and summer in 2017. But in early June I sent off the revised version, along with a document explaining how I’d incorporated the reviewers’ suggestions—or why I’d decided not to.

Image of spiral galaxy M51: a bright centre with great swirling arms
Main text : footnotes ratio, third draft

The editor was happy with the revisions. There was just one problem: the article was now a monster, with the main text coming in at just under 10,000 words but the footnotes taking the total closer to 18,000. (Most journals ask for articles in the range of 7–10,000 words, notes included.) Could I please get it down to a more publishable length—say, 14,000 words?

To my own surprise, I could, and pretty quickly: this savage-sounding edit—over a fifth of the total length—took no more than a morning. The successive rounds of comments and revisions had helped me clarify the argument, so I could now see which details were essential and which were interesting (to me) but unnecessary. The immense scaffolding of footnotes had been keeping hold, at each stage, of yet more information that might come in handy for a revision: this could all go. It had also introduced several sets of readings to different potential audiences, but now I knew which audience the article would be read by and could trim accordingly. And that was the version that got the ‘final acceptance’ email, and is now published. It’s still pretty long, but it’s no longer a monster. So now other people can read it, decide what they find useful about it, and explain in their own work what I got wrong.


This, believe it or not, is a somewhat condensed summary of the peer review process. I haven’t done justice to the contribution of five friends who read drafts of the article and sent extensive comments; I haven’t explained how helpful the ‘reverse outline‘ technique was when I revised the draft. But I hope it shows how two rounds of peer review, one unsuccessful and one successful, helped to make a better article—and gives an idea of just how much work other people put into that. (The comments I got from friends, colleagues, and reviewers probably total about the length of the article’s main text.) I’m very grateful to them.


Quotes from correspondence with the editors and from readers’ reports are given with permission: thanks to the current editors of the AHR and Humanity for helping to arrange this.

Click images for source.

Summer’s end


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…

North Head quarantine station

Forest Monarch

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.

Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 14.21.53
Port Jackson, with the skyscrapers of central Sydney visible bottom centre

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.

Hospital area
A covered walkway in the hospital area

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.

The Argus (Melbourne), 6 March 1930

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.

Spring Cove beach and wharf
Spring Cove beach

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.

Gough Whitlam at North HeadA 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.


Sydney from North Head
Sydney from North Head


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)

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

Quarantine and confinement at Point Nepean

Quarantine station, Point Nepean, lo res

On my first weekend in Melbourne I travelled down to Point Nepean to visit the old quarantine station. It’s not far—a bit over 100km by road—but it took three hours to get there, on a suburban train, a rail replacement bus, and a local bus chugging down the inner shore of the Mornington peninsula.

Port Philip Bay

Melbourne stands on the northern shore of a large and almost completely enclosed bay, Port Philip, whose area is close to two thousand square kilometres. Two peninsulas nearly encircle it, the shorter and stubbier Bellarine to the west and the longer and pointier Mornington to the east. They almost meet: the gap through which the tidal waters of the whole wide bay enter from and empty into the Bass Strait is only about 3km wide, with shoals reducing the channel ships can safely use to barely 1km—I watched a large ship stacked high with containers negotiate the odd s-shaped course between the heads and into the bay. This is the Rip, a dangerous seaway. From Point Nepean, the narrow finger of land at the far end of the Mornington peninsula, you can look out at the calmer waters of the bay on one side and the crashing breakers of the Southern Ocean on the other. The point is, or was, heavily militarized: half-buried—or more than half—in its sandy slopes are the old artillery emplacements, munitions stores, and barracks of Fort Nepean, which defended the bay from the late nineteenth century until after the second world war. The whole area is now a national park. A sign near the entrance acknowledges who the land was taken from, and the parks service’s current master plan [PDF] promises a fuller account of both their history in the place they called Mon Mon and their present connection to it.

Point Nepean
Looking east, with the bay on the left and the ocean on the right

Just inside the bay, a few kilometres from the head, is one of the last bits of the point to be vacated by the military, and most recent additions to the national park: the former quarantine station.  It was founded in 1852, as the population boom brought on by the Victoria gold rush was just beginning. (The older settlement of Sydney had formally established a quarantine station at North Head a couple of decades earlier.) Seventy-five thousand people arrived in Victoria in 1852—Melbourne’s colonial population was 23,000 in 1851—and the boom continued until the 1890s, by which time the city had nearly half a million people. Among the 1852 arrivals were the passengers of the clipper Ticonderoga, which departed my home town of Liverpool in August and arrived in Port Philip in November. But between Liverpool bay and the Rip nearly a hundred of its passengers had died, mainly of typhus, and almost four hundred more were ill with fever, dysentery, and diarrhoea. So it was anchored at Point Nepean, where the passengers could be quarantined to protect the city: another seventy died there.

The quarantine station remained in use for over a century, through federation in 1901 and the Quarantine Acts of the early twentieth century that were a distinctively Australian response to the increasing speed and volume of transoceanic travel. It’s a pleasant, slightly eerie place now, with white buildings and mature trees dotting spacious lawns. There were quite a few other visitors around on a sunny winter’s afternoon, but it felt almost deserted nonetheless. Waves broke onto the beach that faces north onto the bay, while clouds rushed overhead in the Southern Ocean wind. In the old boiler house there’s a disinfection apparatus through which luggage was passed. Nearby are two substantial hospital buildings, and further away an isolation hospital and morgue. By the shore, a memorial to the passengers of the Ticonderoga, erected in 2002, marks the site of the station’s original cemetery: in 1952 the remains were moved to protect them from coastal erosion.

I’m interested in quarantine stations because of their connections to other forms of detention and migration control. Just as a contemporary immigration detention centre like Villawood can trace its history back to a migrant hostel and a munitions factory, Australia’s quarantine stations also had many other uses. Adelaide’s equivalent, on Torrens Island, was also the location for a WWI internment camp (near the station, but not actually using the same site). The North Head quarantine station in Sydney Harbour was adapted for use as an immigration detention centre in the 1960s and 70s, and there’s some really good recent work on it by scholars including Alison Bashford, Anne Clark, Ursula Frederick, Peter Hobbins, and Peta Longhurst, who were involved in a historical archaeology project there run from the University of Sydney. An older article by Alison Bashford and Carolyn Strange connects the quarantine, internment, and asylum detention within Australia’s ‘national histories of detention’. (The transformation of sites like these into destinations for heritage tourism is something I’ll write about once I’ve visited North Head.)

Point Nepean, Quarantine Act, lo resFrom 1952, the Point Nepean quarantine station shared its site with the military, which ran an Officer Cadet School there. The quarantine station was closed in 1978-80, and from 1985 to 1998 the site was used by the School of Army Health. In the early 2000s the site was passed over to a local community trust for heritage management, and then in 2009 incorporated into the national park that occupies the rest of the point and includes the other old military buildings.

In between times, though, the site found another temporary use, which created an unexpected link with some of my other research. I’ve recently written an article about the history of humanitarian evacuations, which will be coming out in Humanity (though not for a while)—I’m also giving a talk on the subject while I’m here in Melbourne. Among the things I read about while researching that were Operation Babylift, the evacuation of children from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, and Operation Safe Haven, the NATO-led evacuation of tens of thousands of Kosova Albanian refugees from Macedonia during the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia. Humanitarian evacuations are fascinating (I’ll be supervising a PhD on topic as of October), but I didn’t think they had much to do with my main subject, the history of the refugee camp, or the work I’m doing here on asylum detention. But there’s a direct connection. Australia participated in both Operation Babylift and Operation Safe Haven. The children it evacuated from Saigon in the 1970s were accommodated at the North Head immigration detention centre; and of the 4000 or so Kosovo Albanians who were brought to Australia in 1999, around 400 were accommodated at the old quarantine station at Point Nepean. The State Library of Victoria commissioned photographer Emmanuel Santos to document their stay, and a selection of his photos is available to view online. (You can read about Santos here, in an article that, bizarrely, is hosted by the Melbourne soap company Aesop.)

Why were humanitarian evacuees accommodated in detention centres and disused former quarantine stations? I’ve only just started reading about Australia’s participation in Operation Babylift, but it was controversial, as the country’s participation in the Vietnam War had been. So was Operation Safe Haven: Australia is not a member of NATO, and by 1999 the hostility to asylum-seekers and refugees that so striking today was fully established in the country’s political discourse. The Australian government had diplomatic reasons for assisting NATO by participating in the evacuation, but it had political ones for ensuring that the evacuees didn’t stay long. They arrived in May and June, but half were gone by September and only a hundred or so remained (mostly for medical reasons) by April 2000. Their accommodation at sites like Point Nepean and other military facilities raises a bigger question about the connections between the different kinds of accommodation and confinement that I’ve discussed here and in my post about Villawood. Are they simply pragmatic—a matter of putting people in available beds, so to speak? Or do they betray, if not an overarching philosophy, at least a general approach to different mobile populations—even humanitarian evacuees—whose basic principles are exclusion, isolation, and detention?

In 1999, the then Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (now the Department of Immigration and Border Protection) reported that “Every effort was made to enable the Kosovars to participate in the local community.” But if Point Nepean is close to Melbourne, it’s about as far away as ‘close to Melbourne’ can be: a narrow spit of land that’s literally at the end of the road. If my new PhD supervisee decides to research Operation Safe Haven, and interviews any evacuees who lived there, he may want to ask them how much opportunity they had to ‘participate in the local community’ before they were shepherded out of the country.

A Kosovo Albanian boy at Point Nepean, by Emmanuel Santos / State Library of Victoria
A Kosovo Albanian boy at Point Nepean, by Emmanuel Santos / State Library of Victoria


Thanks to Mary Tomsic for telling me about Point Nepean
and the Kosovo Albanians who stayed there.

Robert Carr wrote a doctoral thesis (2011)
about the Kosovo Albanians
in Australia
which you can access on the
University of Wollongong
e-repository here.

All images taken by me (CC BY 4.0), except the Google Map
and the photo by Emmanuel Santos (click that for source).