The best books on the history of migration and refugees

Peter Gatrell Author Of The Unsettling of Europe: How Migration Reshaped a Continent
By Peter Gatrell

Who am I?

I am interested in the history of people on the move, and in particular how migrants and refugees negotiated the upheavals of war and revolution in the 20th century. Originally, I turned to these topics as a specialist in Russian history, but I have since broadened my perspective to consider the causes and consequences of mass population displacement in other parts of the world. I have just retired from the History faculty at the University of Manchester, where I taught since 1976. In 2019 I was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences.

I wrote...

The Unsettling of Europe: How Migration Reshaped a Continent

By Peter Gatrell,

Book cover of The Unsettling of Europe: How Migration Reshaped a Continent

What is my book about?

Migration is perhaps the most pressing issue of our time, and it has completely decentered European politics in recent years. But as we consider the current refugee crisis, acclaimed historian Peter Gatrell reminds us that the history of Europe has always been one of people on the move. The end of World War II left Europe in a state of confusion with many Europeans virtually stateless. Later, as former colonial states gained national independence, colonists and their supporters migrated to often-unwelcoming metropoles. The collapse of communism in 1989 marked another fundamental turning point. 

The books I picked & why

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A Seventh Man

By John Berger,

Book cover of A Seventh Man

Why this book?

Berger published this in 1975 at a time when Turkish, Greek, and Portuguese guest workers were arriving in Western Europe, having been recruited by employers to fill vacancies in factories during the years of sustained economic growth. Berger succeeds in humanising these workers, helped by photos taken by his long-term collaborator, the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr. Berger could not anticipate that these young men would later be joined by their families and put down roots. His book speaks of adventure and opportunity, but also of exploitation and humiliation. Numerous memorable vignettes stick in my mind, including his observation about migrant workers from Portugal, governed by the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar:

Before leaving they had their photographs taken. They tore the photograph in half, giving one half to their ‘guide’ and keeping the other themselves. When they reached France, they sent their half of the photograph back to their family in Portugal to show that they had been safely escorted across the frontier; the ‘guide’ came to the family to prove that it was he who had escorted them, and it was only then that the family paid the $350.

This is a vivid illustration of the tactics adopted by workers who relied upon smugglers to help them to evade Salazar’s police and border guards.

Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain

By Jordanna Bailkin,

Book cover of Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain

Why this book?

I would next like to recommend a recent book that reminds us that, when we think about the proliferation of refugee camps in countries in the Middle East, South-east Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, it is easy to forget that Europe was and is itself home to refugee camps. Indeed, as Jordanna Bailkin (University of Washington) shows in Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain, successive British governments established and maintained refugee camps from World War One onwards. These camps facilitated contacts between newcomers – Belgian refugees in 1914, Basques in the 1930s, Poles in the 1940s, Ugandan Asians in the 1970s – and local residents in the UK; to that extent, multicultural Britain took shape in the orbit of the refugee camp. Bailkin’s book is a reminder that official and voluntary efforts were made to provide refugees with sanctuary. The welcome was often conditional and grudging. Certainly, camps usually offered basic facilities and little more. But the camp also offered a route for many refugees into mainstream British society. By contrast, the paralysis in today’s international refugee regime ensures that the modern state incarcerates asylum seekers who reach Europe and deters others from attempting to enter. From this point of view, Unsettled offers a portrait of a vanished age.

Voices from the 'Jungle': Stories from the Calais Refugee Camp

By Calais Writers,

Book cover of Voices from the 'Jungle': Stories from the Calais Refugee Camp

Why this book?

Thinking about camps and incarceration brings me to Voices from the ‘Jungle’: Stories from the Calais Refugee Camp. I choose this book because it offers insights into the lives and aspirations of refugees who congregated in the refugee camp in the coastal town of Calais in northern France. As such, it is an antidote to much contemporary reportage of refugees as a faceless and anonymous mass. Their vivid first-person accounts testify to the violence and persecution from which they escaped, whether in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, or Syria, and their subsequent adventures and odysseys, including endless waiting for official decisions or for the opportunity to make their way to the UK to join family or friends. The camp and its residents have been much photographed, but most of these images give little idea of the extent to which the “jungle” became a vibrant community; juxtaposing images and words, as in Voices from the ‘Jungle’, makes for a much richer and more rounded portrait of daily life. French authorities demolished the camp in October 2016, and the inhabitants were dispersed. Syrian-born refugee Muhammad ends his testimony: “All my family and friends: maybe I was absent from you for a while, for an aim, but I never forgot you”.

Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine

By Catherine Besteman,

Book cover of Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine

Why this book?

My next recommendation is an unusual book by American anthropologist Catherine Besteman, who teaches at Colby College. In 2016 she published Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston Maine. Besteman explains that she carried out fieldwork in southern Somalia in the late 1980s, on the eve of a long and bitter civil war that consumed the country from 1991 until 1995, although violence has continued to bedevil Somalia since then. Large number of Somali Bantu refugees fled to Kenya. Astonishingly, more than twenty years later, she realised that some of her original informants had made their way to her hometown in the USA, whilst maintaining contact with family and friends ‘back home’. Her book is enlivened by stories of travelling vast distances in search of safety and of resettling in a strange country. Besteman draws the reader into these stories and makes important points about the capacity of refugees to contribute to the revival of post-industrial landscapes: Lewiston began to revive its fortunes with the participation of a dynamic Somali community. Her book does not advance a straightforward story of integration and “belonging”, but it illuminates the voices and perspectives of refugees as well as of host societies in a humanistic and very compelling fashion.

Placeless People: Writings, Rights, and Refugees

By Lyndsey Stonebridge,

Book cover of Placeless People: Writings, Rights, and Refugees

Why this book?

My final choice is a scintillating work of scholarship by Lyndsey Stonebridge, Professor of Humanities and Human Rights at the University of Birmingham. Entitled Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees, it draws upon a range of reportage, political theory, poetry, and other texts to ask challenging questions about the stance that modern states and citizens in Western societies adopt towards refugees who are sometimes described as distant strangers. By engaging with authors who are relatively well known, such as George Orwell, W.H. Auden, Simone Weil, Samuel Beckett, and the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, and with those who may be less familiar, such as the American journalist Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961) and the contemporary Palestinian Lebanese-born poet Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, Stonebridge insists that it is essential to portray refugees as deserving and demanding something other than charity or humanitarian concern no matter how well-intentioned. Instead, the appropriate response is to demand that refugees should be accorded human rights, although the powers vested in the territorialised sovereign nation state make these rights difficult to enforce. This bald summary makes Placeless People sound like a dry text, but on the contrary it is lively and passionate, and full of fundamental insights about the legal and existential “placelessness” that refugees inhabit, the separation they regularly endure, and the responsibilities that non-refugees have towards people who are simultaneously “visible and invisible”.

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