History and current state of historical research in Refugee Studies

This paper was presented at the Workshops “History and Memory in Refugee Research” of the DFG-Netzwerk Grundlagen der Flüchtlingsforschung. The paper is also accessible translated into German.


The contemporary field of refugee studies comprises many disciplines.  International law and social anthropology are often thought of as the most important fields in refugee studies.  But this was not always the case.  During both the inter-war and post-World War II periods, historians played an important and central role in refugee policy research, particularly in documenting and interpreting refugee policy in Europe and examining the role of international organizations created in Europe during these periods.

Refugee studies as a separate field of study originated in the 1980s and was largely policy-driven. Protracted refugee situations in Southeast and South Asia, the Horn of Africa, Southern Africa and Mexico and Central America as well as a growing increase in the numbers of asylum seekers in Europe and North America made refugee and asylum pressing and salient policy issues.  In the US, the Vietnamese boat people, the Mariel Cuban and Haitian boat people crises, the work of the US Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy and the subsequent passage of the 1980 Refugee Act raised the public profile of the refugee issue for American policymakers.  Beginning in the early 1980s and continuing through the 1990s, US foundations, particularly the Ford Foundation, played a major role in supporting and funding early research and publications on refugee policy issues.  Ford also funded the establishment of refugee policy research and advocacy groups such as the Refugee Policy Group and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and many others.

In Canada, Ford and other foundations funded the establishment of the Refugee Studies Center at York University in Toronto.   In the UK, Barbara Harrell-Bond established the Refugee Studies Program with the financial support of policy-focused foundations.  In Europe, there was important work done in early refugee studies in history at Lund University, in particular on the role of international organizations and the role of the international refugee regime during and in the aftermath of the Second World War.

As refugee studies emerged as a separate academic field, specialized journals, the Journal of Refugee Studies and the Journal of International Refugee Law, were established.  In 1990, the ground was laid for the establishment of an international professional organization for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) which now has an ever-growing membership spanning all regions of the world.

During the past two and a half decades, refugee studies evolved beyond its original close ties to advocacy and policymaking and has developed a more distinct identity as an independent field of scholarly research.  Today the field encompasses both rigorous academic research which contributes to a range of social science, philosophical and legal theory as well as research which focuses on informing policy and practice.

As the field of refugee studies has matured, history and the research of historians in refugee studies have become both more prominent and more diversified.  Previously neglected research subjects and issues such as the history of displacement during the partition of India in 1948 (Yasmin Khan); the history of forced displacement in the Soviet Russia era (Peter Gatrell); and the history of refugee repatriation (Katy Long, Marjoleine Zieck) have appeared among many other subjects by scores of historians.

In recent years, historians have made significant new contributions to refugee studies.  Of particular significance are recent efforts to contribute to refugee research across several disciplines.

For example, Peter Gatrell’s 2011 book Free World? The Campaign to Save the World’s Refugees, 1956-1963 goes beyond history’s traditional focus on international organizations and states to explore the important role of transnational networks and non-state actors including voluntary agencies, churches and private foundations in advocating and promoting change and exerting influence on government attitudes towards refugees during the World Refugee Year campaign in 1959-61.  As a consequence, Gatrell’s study is not only a contribution to early Cold War refugee history but also builds on earlier findings on advocacy networks and the role of NGOs by international relations scholars to demonstrate that non-state actors exert significant influence on refugee politics and policy.

Gatrell’s most recent book, The Making of the Modern Refugee not only analyzes the practices and policies of states and international organizations towards refugees but also significantly incorporates the lived experiences of individual refugees and other displaced populations as a central feature of his study of refugee policy in the twentieth century.  In this way, the book not only takes a step towards remedying the often systematic exclusion of refugees in much previous historical enquiry but also displays an appreciation of a need to draw upon a vast number of disciplines and fields beyond traditional historical sources and methods, such as social anthropology, novels, poetry, films, songs, personal diaries and other frequently overlooked sources in an effort to bring to life the uniqueness of the refugee experience, the pain of exile and the history and consequences of displacement.

These and other recent research initiatives by historians towards greater engagement with the theories, research methods and findings from other academic disciplines in the field of refugee studies is perhaps the most promising sign of an increasing greater future involvement by historians in this field of research.

The possible future research agenda for historians is vast.   To give but one example, the September 2012 issue of the Journal of Refugee Studies The Refugee Issue in the Postwar World, 1945-1960 highlighted the Euro-centric bias of most previous historical research on refugee policy and particularly of the international regime formed after the Second World War.  While the war displaced millions in Europe, the wars and their aftermath in Asia and elsewhere displaced similar if not greater numbers of refugees and displaced.  This has received insufficient attention from historians.  Consequently, there is a pressing need for more historical research on the refugee crises outside of Europe during both World War Two and during the early post-war period.  Similarly, historians have focused almost exclusively on the role and growth of UNHCR and have ignored the history and importance of multiple parallel international refugee organizations during the Second World War and the early post-war era.   These significant gaps in the research of the history of this important period provides historians the opportunity to redress this bias with a host of new research endeavors.

Finally, historical research is valuable not only for theory but also for practice.  Refugee studies continues to have a significant advocacy role for better informed and more effective refugee policies and practices.  This is particularly important during times of global refugee crises.  History and reflecting on the past have an important role to play in these circumstances.  Many of the contemporary issues and dilemmas facing the international refugee regime are timeless and have been confronted before.  Yet, as Alexander Betts and others remind us, there is a tendency among both states and international organizations to assume that the latest refugee crisis is unprecedented and to ignore the lessons from the past.  UNHCR and the international community often lack a historical perspective on past operations, policy and practice and are frequently ‘reinventing the wheel’.  Historians have an opportunity to remind us of past responses to refugee crises and to provide us with opportunities to examine past precedents.  If the international refugee regime can understand the reasons for past successes and failures, it is more likely to forge better and more effective policies today and in the future.



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