No place like home


Lyndsey Stonebridge in Eurozine:

The end of the Second World War was as bad as the beginning. In Europe displaced persons filled old camps and necessitated new ones, as new political frontiers were drawn across the continent. More people waited on more boats and at more borders. As India and Pakistan took shape out of the ashes of British colonial rule in 1947, millions more found themselves forced on to the road. In 1948 the creation of Israel pushed out a new generation of refugees, the Palestinians, soon to become the first permanently stateless people of modern times. More followed from China, Tibet, Burma, Bangladesh and North Korea; the misfortunes multiplied, from land to land, continent to continent.

The reason why these refugees' misfortunes also belonged to the world was not simply because what they were experiencing was so awful. There was no grand collective revulsion at the fate of the millions who had been stripped of everything. Failure to recognize the sheer awfulness of refugee experience is a constant feature of refugee history. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm once observed that the twentieth century produced phenomena so atrociously unfamiliar that it had to invent new words to describe them. Nearly everyone in the world now knows the name and dreadful import of one of Hobsbawm's examples, “genocide”; his other example, “statelessness”, has yet to take root in our cultural memory of modern trauma, and yet to be recognized for the calamity it was and still is.

The misfortunes of modern refugees belonged not just to them but to everyone else too because their existence opened up a political, moral and existential faultline that has never closed. Their history doesn't provide us with a solution to our current troubles, but it can tell us something important about the origins of the current crisis. As a generation of writers and intellectuals clearly grasped at the time, the movement of so many people meant something important began to shift in the way it was possible to think about security, citizenship, belonging and human rights.

“Whoever is uprooted himself uproots others”, the French philosopher Simone Weil warned de Gaulle, shortly before her death in exile in Kent in 1943. Weil was not alone in recognising that the catastrophe of deracination cut deeply into the lives of all, including those who assumed that their national citizenship guaranteed them the right to a place on the planet. Just as the history of genocide has been woven into the moral and cultural fabric of world memory, so too do we need to understand how the modern history of refugees has shaped not only the lives of others but the lives, rights and securities of those who think of themselves as happily at home, too.

More here.