- Free World? The Campaign to Save the World’s Refugees, 1956–1963 by Peter Gatrell
Peter Gatrell, one of the premier scholars of twentieth-century European migration and population flows, turns his attention to World Refugee Year (WRY) in his latest book, Free World? Most histories of post–World War II refugee affairs only passingly touch upon WRY, an effort in 1959–1960 by noncommunist member nations of the United Nations and a variety of NGOs to publicize and to solve the world’s refugee problems. Gatrell seeks to fill this gap. He believes that WRY was a singular moment, one that reveals much about the place of refugees in politics and culture, the state of humanitarianism, and the meanings of citizenship, as well as its antithesis, statelessness, in the late 1950s.
Free World? begins with two introductory chapters. Gatrell first outlines the political, economic, and social forces that produced refugee flows and shaped the politics of refugee affairs in the late 1950s. Not only do the usual suspects—the Cold War, World War II, decolonization, [End Page 493] and demographics—come under discussion, but Gatrell also contends that consumption, tourism and travel, and technology were equally important. In chapter 2, he outlines the pressing refugee problems in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, making the important observation that most experts understood that the refugee flows in the latter two regions were incredibly troubling, even if the public did not.
The book’s heart is in chapters 3 and 4. While WRY originated in Great Britain with two political journalists, the cause found favor at the United Nations. Quickly, an astonishingly large number of non-communist governments (among communist nations, only Yugoslavia pledged to help) and NGOs—both humanitarian and religious-based—joined the effort. Gatrell carefully traces the politics behind each country’s and the major NGOs’ participation. He concludes, quite correctly, that motivations and expectations for WRY were complex and multilayered—and varied by nation and organization. While this chapter too often reads like a lengthy laundry list, the research in primary and secondary sources is immense and Gatrell avoids being trapped in a single nation-state, as most accounts of WRY are. He offers, then, a truly international history.
Chapter 4 uses the same approach to interrogate what Gatrell calls the “presences and absences” of WRY, by which he means the ways in which the campaign was pursued by its organizers, national governments, and NGOs. Gatrell is concerned not only with the rhetoric surrounding WRY, but also with the images, publicity, and popular culture that WRY participants generated to help the cause (p. 141). Gatrell makes the important point that while participants believed their efforts demonstrated the interconnectedness of the modern world, the WRY campaign just as powerfully illustrated the distance between refugee advocates and the refugees themselves, who were blank canvases upon which their supporters projected and reaffirmed their ideals of consumption and citizenship. This fascinating discussion of the links between consumption, images of refugees, and citizenship does nothing less than remove WRY from the musty corners of immigration historiography.
In two concluding chapters, Gatrell judiciously assesses WRY’s short- and long-term effects. WRY was more effective at raising money than it was at resettling refugees, though it did have some considerable success helping the hard-core living in European camps. Equally important, the campaign raised awareness of the refugee problem. Gatrell notes that this awareness did not last long, which leads one to question its depth in the first place, a point the author could have addressed by referencing public opinion polling. In the long term, Gatrell argues that [End Page 494] WRY helped set the stage for other significant campaigns—designed to end hunger, curtail torture, and encourage development—that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Here, the author does not quite prove a strong connection between WRY and these other broadly humanitarian campaigns, but rather notes “similarities” (p. 234) or that WRY “coincided” with other efforts (p. 226).
Gatrell additionally could...