- The Making of the Modern Refugee by Peter Gatrell
Peter Gatrell’s magisterial survey and analysis of the making of refugees in the twentieth century focuses on the impact of empires and their dissolution as well as of nations and their construction in Europe—the major refugee-generating region of the world in roughly the first half of the twentieth century. With World War II and decolonization the analysis becomes global. Gatrell centers on human beings forced to flee because of international war, new borders, essentialist nationalisms, revolutionary change, and totalitarian states. Looking at the origins of population displacement before—what for some was—the “Great” War, he asks, “how the modern refugee came to be construed as a ‘problem’ amenable to a ‘solution’” (p. 5). Rather than accepting this categorizing, with its undertone of helpless victims and backward mentalities, he argues that a global history of displacement and relief programs requires a human approach, “how refugees understood the myriad ramifications of flight and how they engaged with those who were left behind and with whom they might hope at some stage to reconnect.” What meanings did they attach to places of departure, to [End Page 651] the journeys, to destinations? (p. 2) What does it mean when refugees have to tell their story again and again and, in the process, shape it so that their interlocutors will be able to understand it? Who is helping whom? Who is boxing displaced human beings into administrative categories? (p. 11) Both the present “refugee regime” and their individual agency induces refugees to transcend or embrace displacement: “there were many ways to be a refugee” (p. 13), as there were many ways to “manufacture” refugees.
After setting the frame, Gatrell develops both data and argument by interweaving chronologies and themes in macroregions. Beginning with the transition from empire to nation-states in Europe, he outlines the “crucibles of population displacement” before and after World War I (chap. 1) and the “birth of a ‘refugee problem’” in the new inter-war nation-states (chap. 2). At the core is the redefinition of people who develop in societies to populations to be managed by stateside bureaucracies. States reformat heterogeneous inhabitants into homogeneous nationals. Turning to the “mid-century maelstrom,” Gatrell discusses those uprooted in Europe and administrators’ alleged “durable solutions” (chap. 3) and the flight of Jews and resulting uprooting of Palestinians—“the torment of displacement” (chap. 4). Durable solutions in this case? No, a lasting ordeal of 2.5 million Palestinians. In the case of the partition of India and Pakistan (chap. 5), leaders in both states “assumed that refugees would conform to government expectations to be grateful for relief and to become accustomed to rehabilitation” (p. 149). This section ends with displacement in East Asia, 1937–1950 (chap. 6)—it still needs to be repeated that World War II began in 1937, not, as the Europe-centered view has it, in 1939. Subsequent “nation-building” in Southeast Asia forced hundreds of thousands of diasporic Chinese to flee—if they survived the new nation’s excluding strategies. The concluding section on the “global Cold War and its aftermath” analyzes change and refugees in Southeast Asia (chap. 7), “decolonization and ‘development’” and refugee generation in Africa (chap. 8), and “refugees, homecoming, and voices” in the contemporary world (chap. 9). Throughout the chapters, Gatrell does not follow the “enemy” rhetoric but includes displacement strategies of state armies against their own populations or the human consequences of military decisions like breaching the dikes of the Yellow River (1938) to block enemy advance. Gatrell also notes the statutory limitations imposed on IRO and UNHRC—both inactive in Asia.
With extraordinary skill, Gatrell weaves together the data, political decisions, NGO programs, refugee regimes, public opinion toward the strangers, and voices of individual displaced human beings. This [End Page 652] study is a model in showing how the political and the personal are entwined, the regimes and the (re-)actions of individual men and women interwoven. “Being a refugee” is a personal reaction to circumstances beyond control and...