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).

 

Bombs, babies, bands, barbed wire: Villawood’s many histories

Acdc_Highway_to_Hell

How did my research on the history of the refugee camp lead me to AC/DC? It’s not as long or unlikely a story as you might think.

I’m in Australia at the moment on a month-long fellowship at the University of Melbourne. I’m using my time here to understand Australia’s policy of mandatory detention of asylum-seekers in the context of the history of the refugee camp. There’s a difference between a refugee camp (usually set up for a large number of people arriving over a short period of time) and a detention centre (usually set up to hold smaller numbers of people arriving over longer periods of time), but I had a feeling that it would be useful to think about sites of detention in the same way I’ve been thinking about refugee camps.

My approach to the history of the refugee camp is to explore the ‘biography’ of specific sites—that’s what took me to Rivesaltes last year. Focusing on a particular place reveals continuities and connections that you can miss if you focus either on high-level decision-making (whether by politicians or the chiefs of humanitarian agencies) or on specific groups of refugees: continuities over time, where one site is used to house multiple displaced populations, and connections with other forms of encampment and ‘immobilization’ of different mobile populations, from prisoners-of-war to holidaymakers.

One place that I’ve just learned about is a good example of this: Villawood.

Safdar Ahmed, Villawood, titleToday, Villawood is an immigration detention centre in the western suburbs of Sydney. (You can read Safdar Ahmed‘s comics reportage about it by clicking the image.) But it started life as an explosives factory, set up by the Australian government in 1941 to produce the active ingredients of Allied munitions during the second world war: this picture shows two women operating a detoluator machine—no, I don’t know either—to produce nitric acid there. Detoluator machine at Villawood

After the war, the Australian government encouraged mass migration, to offset the country’s geographic isolation and small population: these had made it feel very vulnerable during the conflict, when Japan’s rapid military expansion harshly exposed the British empire’s strategic weaknesses. Mass migration of Europeans, that is: the ‘white Australia’ policy was in full force in these decades. The government actively promoted immigration from Britain, but when this didn’t produce enough new Australians it looked elsewhere—first to the displaced persons’ camps of postwar Europe, and then to other European countries. A million people had arrived by 1955, and the policy continued for a decade or more beyond that.

On arrival, immigrants were provided with free accommodation in migrant hostels on condition that they look for work. The explosives factory at Villawood was scaled back and sold to a private company in 1946 (it continued to produce explosives and other chemicals until 2000; decontamination was only completed in 2015), and part of the site was converted into a migrant hostel using existing Nissen huts. I presume these had accommodated munitions workers, though I’m not sure. But this wasn’t uncommon—in the picture below, new immigrants are entering a Nissen hut at another former munitions factory site, at Maribyrnong in Melbourne. This picture was taken in 1965, and that migrant hostel, too, is the site of a detention centre today.Maribyrnong, Victoria, 1965

Conditions in these hostels weren’t great: at Villawood there were repeated protests in the early 1950s about crowded accommodation, poor food, and overbearing staff. (You can read about the hostel in this rather good 2008 essay [PDF] by Bethan Donnelly, then an undergrad at the University of New South Wales, which won a public history prize.) Later on it was upgraded, and photos from the 1970s show a fairly pleasant set of buildings, albeit located right next to a factory that was now producing weedkiller and insecticides.

Villawood 1970And this is where AC/DC come in. In 1963, William and Margaret Young emigrated from Glasgow with most of their eight children (one of the older boys stayed in Scotland). They lived in the hostel, where their son George met another recent arrival, a Dutch teenager who had just given up his foreign-sounding name Johannes Hendrikus Jacob van den Berg to become Harry Vanda. George and Harry played together in a successful late-60s band, The Easybeats, but as Vanda and Young they had a more lasting career as songwriters and producers for other acts. They produced the first several albums by the band that George’s younger brothers Angus and Malcolm formed in 1973: AC/DC. Angus Young, the youngest child in the family, was seven or eight when they arrived in Villawood: too old to sleep in a bassinet like this one, which was used on the site in the 1950s. But it was interesting to find out that he spent part of his childhood in a migrant hostel that was once an explosives factory, and is now a detention centre.

BassinetI’ll be learning more about Villawood this week, when I meet up with a PhD researcher in architecture here at Melbourne who’s writing her thesis about it. I may also go and see it when I’m in Sydney later this month, if I can do so without simply going to gawp at the barbed wire. But doing a bit of reading around about the site has already given me lots of new ideas—and helped me flesh out some thoughts I’d already had—about sites of detention and confinement.

Thanks to Meighen Katz, Mary Tomsic, and Savitri Taylor
for giving me pointers about the places
mentioned in this post.

Click images for sources.
There’s no permalink on the National Archives of Australia
catalogue (annoying!): the photos from Maribyrnong and Villawood
are both in series A12111, respectively items (‘control symbol’)
1/1965/22/25 and 1/1970/22/25.

 

 

Southern hemisphere tour 2017

Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 17.06.32

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).
  • A talk on the same subject at the department of history, politics, and international relations at Macquarie University, Sydney, Tue 29 Aug, 12 noon. I’ll add venue details for this when I have them.

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.

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.

plaque
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.

mucem
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:

ricciotti-rivesaltes-2

ricciotti-rivesaltes-1

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.

IMG_20160717_164010362

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.

 

 

 

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.

img_20160904_073053698
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?

un-depo%cc%82t-darmes-au-perthus

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.

2-plan-close-up-test
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.

Twilight of the saints

Vale of Nablus 1890s

This is a book review I wrote for the American Historical Review, which I’m republishing here with permission (and some pictures). A full citation for the published review follows at the end. As ever, I’m struck by how the formal tone of an academic review jars in the context of a blog, but there it is.

JAMES GREHAN. Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. x, 341. $74.00.

In 1747, when a plague of locusts threatened the harvest, the Ottoman governor of Damascus dispatched a delegation of Sufis to an enchanted spring in Persia. The water they drew there, carried carefully back to Syria, would lure a magical black bird – the samarmar – to consume the locusts. Their return was greeted with parades and popular celebration.

Well of the Samaritan 1890s
The Samaritan’s Well, Nablus, 1890s

The bird never appeared. But the fact that everyone thought it would, including Ottoman state officials and urban religious elites, is the starting point for James Grehan’s richly detailed historical ethnography of everyday religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. Grehan argues that histories of religion, especially in the Middle East, have focused excessively on textual traditions. They have overemphasized the salience of religious difference in everyday life, and the ability of religious institutions (the main generators and guardians of textual sources) to determine everyday religious practice. Attempts to go beyond this by studying “popular religion” have only helped up to a point: the dichotomy between “popular” and official religion still grants normative status to text-based orthodoxies, and cannot account for the prevalence of “popular” practices among educated urban elites.

Grehan sets out to offer a more nuanced account of what he terms “agrarian religion”: everyday religious practice in a predominantly rural and illiterate society, where “even the towns” – and their literate elites – “were sunk in an essentially agrarian milieu” (15). His local and western sources include topographies, travel narratives, memoirs, and (for the later part of the period) Ottoman statistical surveys. The scholar and Sufi Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641–1731), whose writings figure often, is a particularly genial guide.

Nablus, new mosque 1940
The new mosque at Nablus, 1940

Common to all religious traditions in Ottoman Syria and Palestine was a weak infrastructure of sacred buildings and educated personnel outside the towns. Ottoman state surveys from the late nineteenth century show that mosques, churches, and synagogues, ulama, priests, and rabbis were all concentrated in towns; where villages had them, they were large ones like Jenin or were close to larger towns. Having established the weakness of institutional religion, Grehan explores the everyday religious life of the population through five thematic chapters looking at saints, tombs, sacred landscapes, the spirits that haunted the land, and the magic of blood and prayer. The chapters focus on the countryside, but return often to the towns and cities whose own religious culture was profoundly connected to that of the rural hinterland. Sunni Islam provides the richest body of evidence for Grehan’s account, but there are frequent references to other Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. These furnish ample material to support his argument that the lines of sectarian difference, however sharply defined in normative religious texts, were blurred to the point of indistinctness in daily life.

Saints, living and dead, were venerated by everyone. It was not uncommon for a holy man to be revered beyond his own faith community: Christians as well as Muslims would stop to kiss the hand of Ali al-Umari, a renowned Sufi in nineteenth-century Tripoli (63). In a landscape where religious buildings were rare outside towns, the tombs of saints provided a focus for religious practice, both as social institutions – places of sanctuary or mediation – and sites for worship. Different religious traditions often shared the same sites, though they sometimes disagreed over the attribution of the tomb, and even educated townsmen like al-Nabulsi saw no contradiction in reporting uncertainty over the identity of a tomb’s resident saint while praying at the site. Tombs were important in towns, too, like the shrine of Ibn al-Arabi in Damascus: there was no doubt about the identity of the person venerated there, though the actual site shifted over time (113).

Joseph's tomb 1930s
Joseph’s Tomb, Nablus, in the 1930s

Tombs belonged to a sacred landscape where stones, caves, springs, and trees were also imbued with religious meaning. Caves often became the nucleus of a church or mosque; saints’ shrines often featured holy trees, but whether the tomb or the tree was the original focus of veneration remains moot. Sacred sites generated scriptural justifications to domesticate them within one tradition or another, but nature itself was “more compelling than scripture” (116). The spirits that haunted these landscapes were familiar to all: talismans, charms, or icons could mediate human interactions with them, and dreams and visions grant more direct access to a spirit realm. Blood sacrifice and prayer offered ways of gaining saintly intercession, and not just for peasants at the limits of the state’s reach: when the Beirut–Damascus railroad was opened in 1895, “religious officials presided . . . with the usual sacrifices” (174).

Agrarian religion “pervaded everyday piety, paid only lip service to orthodoxy, and casually embraced customs and beliefs that had no warrant in scripture or law” (165). Grehan’s argument for dispensing with notions of “popular” religion is persuasive; his argument against the salience of sectarian divisions deserves to be taken seriously, too, particularly in public rather than historiographical debate, though in regard to the latter, more explicit engagement with recent scholarship on sectarianism (189 n. 126) would have been welcome. There are other points of criticism: Grehan argues that agrarian religion’s “immense stability” also permitted “discreet adaptation and invention” (16), but – because he explicitly decides not to reconstruct these patterns of change – the picture presented here is one of timelessness, though it covers two and a half centuries. Gender is not considered in any depth, nor is the survival into the present (as I have witnessed myself) of many of the beliefs and practices Grehan describes. On the editorial side, a list of images would have made the fine illustrations more accessible.

Nonetheless, this is an evocative, thought-provoking, and richly textured work. Grounded in the comparative history of religion as well as the history of the Middle East, it deserves a place on a wide range of postgraduate and advanced undergraduate reading lists.

Joseph's tomb pre-1914
Joseph’s Tomb, this time in the 1890s

Click images for links to originals,
which are all from the Library of Congress

JAMES GREHAN. Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. 
Benjamin Thomas White
The American Historical Review 2015 120 (5): 1996-1997
doi: 10.1093/ahr/120.5.1996a
http://ahr.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/120.5.1996a?ijkey=lB62zajCmBMpqUJ&keytype=ref