Refugees: scrutiny and intrusion in the archive

This article accompanies Peter Gatrell’s article ‘Raw material: UNHCR’s Individual Case Files as a Historical Source, 1951–75’ in History Workshop Journal issue 92, where it is currently free access.

As it came to a close, the English critic John Berger (1926-2017) spoke of the twentieth century as one of “departure”: “the century of people helplessly seeing others, who were close to them, disappear over the horizon”. Readers will know what he meant in drawing attention to the mass displacement of people as a result of war, revolution, famine, and other upheavals. In “Raw material”, my article in issue 93 of History Workshop Journal, I explore aspects of the appearance of refugees not in the media spotlight or the rantings of far-right politicians but in archival records, where they show up in their encounter with officials who judged the validity or otherwise of their claims for protection and assistance.

James M. Read, Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees listens to the explanations of a Hungarian priest during a visit to the Reception Camp of Traiskirchen where 3000 refugees were awaiting transportation to other countries or other camps further inland on 6 November. These three girls are sisters who fled without their parents and are anxious to have news about them. (November 1956) UN Photo.

As it happens, the publication of my article coincides with an opinion piece by a former civil servant charged with responsibility for deciding the validity of individual claims for asylum in the UK. Writing in the Guardian in October 2021, the anonymous author described the prevailing culture in the Home Office:

At the decision stage, we had the task of picking through mountains of complex and arcane case law and guidance. Home Office decision-makers require no formal legal education beyond training received on the job. In the first few weeks, our trainers told us matter-of-factly, we would be expected to produce more refusals than grants.

Thorough and serious engagement with individual applicants went by the board in the insistent drive to meet targets. Letters were issued with mistakes, and “complex” cases were shelved, leaving the claimant high and dry. As the author says, “the current government … is more interested in pandering to anti-refugee hostility than providing people with the service they need”.

This unusually explicit statement from an insider does not amplify but certainly confirms what we know from in-depth studies of the asylum process in the UK and elsewhere by immigration lawyers and scholars including Anthony Good, Laura Affolter, Deborah Anker, Colin Yeo and Olga Jubany.

Still, refugees remain very much in the background. One of my aims in writing this article is to understand their experiences and perspectives as they emerged in the context of the increasingly elaborate and extensive international refugee regime that took shape following the Second World War, when the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) and subsequently the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were assigned responsibility for determining the eligibility of individual applicants who claimed refugee status on the grounds of persecution. I have drawn upon a sample of thousands of individual case files that UNHCR lawyers and other staff compiled for office use in the third quarter of the twentieth century. Many files concern refugees of European origin, including elderly Russians who fled revolution and civil war in 1917-1921 and who made their way to China. By the late 1960s, refugees from sub-Saharan Africa figure increasingly in these files. However, large numbers of refugees never make an appearance because they did not come within the mandate of UNHCR and the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

In my article I consider questions of access and intrusion. By this I mean not only refugees’ access to UNHCR but also my privileged access to confidential case files relating to individual refugees. I also have in mind the intrusion of UNHCR eligibility officers who pried into the lives of refugees in order to establish the validity of their claims, and also my own sense of being an intruder.

Implicit in this context, as in the foregoing example of the UK Home Office, are the ethos and practice of officials bent on interrogation and then classifying people into “deserving” refugees and others. This was neatly captured by Anna Seghers (1900-1983) whose novel Transit (1944) drew upon her experiences of being on the run from Nazi persecution in Germany and France:

Everyone, especially the foreigners, guarded their passports and identification papers as if they were their very salvation. I was amazed to see the authorities, in the midst of this chaos, inventing ever more intricate drawn-out procedures for sorting, classifying, registering and stamping these people over whose emotions they had lost all power.

She added, “It was like trying to register every Vandal, Goth, Hun and Langobard during the “Barbarian Invasions””. I cannot get out of my head the image of “stamping” people as well as documents. Her entire novel also makes me think about “transit” and what is transitory. I hope my article will contribute to the expanding field of refugee history and reinforce the view that refugees are not a ghostly or mute presence in the historical record but flesh and blood people who can be and deserve to be heard, whether they speak as distraught supplicants or as individuals determined to assert their rights.


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