History can unsettle assumptions and help us question our habits of viewing, imagining and representing refugees, asylum-seekers, forced displacement and mobility as an experience.This idea is at the heart of Elena Isayev’s work on ancient and modern migration, discussed in this podcast.
At the heart of our Visualising Forced Migration project is a new work of art by Diana Forster entitled ‘Somewhere to Stay‘. It traces the long journey that Forster’s mother took when she was forcibly displaced from her childhood home in eastern Poland (now Ukraine) and transported to a Soviet labour camp in Arkhangelsk during the Second World War. This story has much to contribute to our understanding of forced migration both because it took place 80 years ago and because it has unsettling resonances with forced displacements happening in the same region today.
As academic Josef Butler discusses in this podcast episode, Visualising Forced Migration through History, the events of 80 years ago offer valuable insights not just into the diverse causes and impacts of forced displacement but also into the behaviours and attitudes adopted by host countries to refugees, then and now. The displacement of thousands of Poles during WWII led to unprecedented mass migrations, and it is instructive to study how different governments and community groups responded, individually and en masse. This episode in history (together with events like the Kindertransport a few years earlier, and Britain’s post-war recruitment of migrant workers from the Caribbean and elsewhere, beginning with HMT Windrush) enables us to witness significant evolutions in policy, alongside marked shifts in political rhetoric, public opinion and national identity.
Crucially, events from the past enable us to contextualise how policies, responses and attitudes at the time have since played out. We can analyse successes and failures in the long term, and trace the many ripple effects of decisions about who to welcome, who to exclude, what rights different groups were given (or denied), and how integration (or ghettoisation) was handled. In taking the long view, we also can grasp the recurring gap between expectations and reality; when the Kindertransport was first planned, for instance, it was assumed that the children rescued from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia would be safe to return home in the near future. It is likely that many of the assumptions on which current immigration policies are based are equally flawed.
Testimony from refugee families and studies in social history remind us that migrant journeys play out over multiple generations, and that local (‘native’) systems and practices evolve with them over time. Nothing stands still; but we should celebrate this. Countless histories of forced migration underline a recurring truth which contemporary political rhetoric often seeks to deny: that refugees, forced migrants and their descendants make countless positive contributions to the societies where they build their new homes. None of our lives would be the same without them. (For a sample, consider the contributions of several Poles who ended up in Fife after WWII or these Windrush pioneers.) A long view of migration teaches us that short-term anxiety over how a host community will cope can be countered with optimism about what the future holds.
Looking even further back, we can use the deep past to unsettle entrenched attitudes and to reconnect with values and traditions that have long been a rich part of human history. As Elena Isayev explains in this podcast on migration, mobility and place in antiquity, ‘a high level of human mobility was not exceptional amongst ancient Mediterranean communities. Indeed, it was built into the way that society functioned…’. Human history is itself a history of migration; but, unsurprisingly, migration was conceived differently in a time before formal borders. Similarly, belonging and inhabiting were conceptualised and experienced differently, which in turn shaped how ‘inside(rs)’ and ‘outside(rs)’ were perceived. By analysing the language used in different periods to define (and sometimes celebrate, sometimes demonise) people on the move, we can compare past attitudes and experiences with our own, and experiment with new conceptual frameworks for visualising migration today in order to influence policy-making and practice in the 21st century. We can also wrestle with age-old cultural traditions, such as the ancient Greek concept of xenia (hospitality), to reflect on contemporary ideas of interdependence, reciprocity and moral responsibility. For all the stark differences between ‘then’ and ‘now’, history is a valuable tool for scrutinising the present and visualising alternative futures.
We hope that you enjoy listening to the podcasts below, and browsing some Polish archives and ancient history elsewhere on our website. We are keen to expand our study of historic forced migrations, as windows onto what refugee experiences today, so please do share ideas and resources from history with us. You can find our contact details here.
For some cautionary reflections on exculpatory (rather than exploratory) uses of refugee history, we recommend reading Klaus Neumann’s 2021 article ‘Uses and Abuses of Refugee Histories‘ in Refugee Journeys: Histories of Resettlement, Representation and Resistance (eds. J. Silverstein & R. Stevens). The Right to Research: Historical Narratives by Refugee and Global South Researchers (eds.Kate Reed & Marcia Schenck, in McGill-Queen’s Refugee and Forced Migration Studies Series) discusses the importance of hearing from diverse voices and refugees as historical narrators.