Refugees are awkward. Their arrivals are typically unpredictable and hard to anticipate, they raise immediate logistical difficulties, and frequently give rise to unwelcome diplomatic and political issues. Often coming with nothing, without enough language or an understanding of the receiving country’s culture to function at more than a basic level, they are reliant on support from strangers, voluntary organisations and the state until they are able to establish themselves. Sometimes able to fill gaps in the economy and therefore to quickly find employment, at other times they are perceived as a significant strain on already overburdened resources.
Crises force those to move who are not the world’s typical migrants: the elderly, the sick and disabled, infants and children, pregnant women. Many of those fleeing their home also have to surmount bureaucratic hurdles at every step, hurdles which are often reinforced by physical barriers: borders, barbed wire, fences, tunnels, water or armed guards. As foreign arrivals to Britain, some of the issues they face are common with that of other migrants from overseas, but their levels of immediate need, unpreparedness of their departure, and sometimes traumatic experiences they carry with them, typically set them apart from the wider body of migrants.
Each refugee journey is unique, and even if occurring in a group it is ultimately experienced by that individual alone. Yet taken together, the journey, arrival and adjustment to a new country of a whole cohort of refugees becomes more than a sum of its parts. New national or ethnic communities are created in towns and cities, often maintaining strong links to a wider global diaspora, and so shifting the character of the places to which they move. And while small numbers of refugees entering a country create few ripples, when thousands appear in a few weeks or months, then government, voluntary agencies and the wider public are forced to take note. And to act. The arrival of particular cohort of refugees can tell historians a great deal about the society receiving them.
A Wellcome Research Fellowship funded my project ‘Public Health and Outsiders: British responses to refugees in the twentieth century’. This supported my growing interest in refugee histories and how their reception in Britain sheds light onto broader historical trends. I am currently writing a book, The Britain they Entered: Refugees to Britain in the Twentieth Century, which aims to explore the experiences of the main cohorts of refugees and what their treatment and reception can tell us about British society.
All photos credits: UNHCR