Decolonising Refugee History?

Does Hong Kong’s refugee history need to be ‘decolonised’?

A special post-war issue of the Journal of Refugee Studies laid down a challenge for historians: ‘when it comes to refugees, then, the project of decolonising history still remains to be completed’. The decolonisation project is particularly pertinent in the case of Hong Kong, a former British Crown colony whose history, population and identity is tied to waves of refugees from China who sought (often temporary) refuge during the upheaval of the Tai Ping Rebellion (1851-1864), the republican revolution of 1911, the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese revolution of the 1940s. Despite the journal’s rallying call, Hong Kong historians have already successfully tackled Euro-centric histories by looking to the plight of Chinese refugees, the emergence of a regional (rather than international) refugee regime and the colonial discourse of the ‘Problem of People’ in the 1940s – 1960s. Such research raises important questions about the nature of colonial rule and can help trace the fault lines of Hong Kong’s political schisms between former refugees and the so-called ‘post-80s’ generation in the SAR today. These historians include Glen Peterson, Agnes Ku and Laura Madokoro, whose pioneering research seeks to question the role of empirical surveys in shaping westernised categories of Chinese refugees.

 

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The Modern Refugee

MACEDONIA-GREECE-EUROPE-MIGRANTSIn light of US President Donald Trump’s entry ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations and the suspension of America’s refugee programme announced on 27 January, it’s more important than ever to understand past refugee movements, displacement and forced migration so as to help inform contemporary policy responses.

Even as far afield as in Hong Kong, Trump’s ruling has left asylum claimants in limbo.

If you’re interested in finding out more about broad-brush refugee history there are a number of excellent websites, films, books and public exhibitions that have helped engage the public on refugee issues, past and present.

A relatively new web resource, Refugee History includes a number of thought-provoking evidence based blogs written by an academic panel. Check out Lyndsey Stonebridge’s timely piece on Hannah Arendt’s refugee status, a woman who is as relevant today as she was in the 1950s: ‘As long as mankind is national and territorially organized in states, a stateless person is not simply expelled from one country, native or adopted, but from all countries … which means he is actually expelled from humanity’. You can also follow the network on Twitter via @RefugeeHistory.

Although the global refugee situation is changing daily, Professor Alexander’s Betts’ Guardian piece, Five history lessons in how to deal with a refugee crisis , written in 2015, is still worth a read today. For a more in-depth analysis, I recommend Tony Kushner’s Remembering Refugees, Then and Now (2006), for an insight into contemporary representation of refugees, and Peter Gatrell’s The Making of the Modern Refugee (2013), praised as a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the recent historical roots of refugees.

The Wiener Library in London is currently hosting an excellent exhibition titled ‘A Bitter Road: Britain and the Refugee Crisis of the 1930s and 1940s’, which explores Britain’s response to Jewish refugees using items from the Library’s collection. The exhibition is due to close on 17 February 2017 so do hurry if you want to catch it.

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Gianfranco Rosi’s ‘beautiful, mysterious and moving film’ Fire at Sea

Finally, for a more contemporary view, the documentary Fire at Sea (2016) is a moving portrait of Lampedusa, the Sicilian Island where thousands of desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year for hopes of a better life. The film was described as ‘masterly film-making’ by the Guardian. Unfortunately Fire at Sea is not available on Netflix but can be downloaded from itunes for a couple of pounds. For those who prefer to read rather than watch, I recommend Emma Jane Kirby’s short yet excellent The Optician of Lampedusa (2016), the true story of Carmine Menna who along with a group of friends stumbled upon a sinking boat carrying hundreds of refugees whilst on a fishing expedition. The Observer gives a nod to Kirby’s dedication to the refugee plight as both journalist and author: ‘Shortly after the drownings, Pope Francis spoke of “a day for tears”. Emma Jane Kirby challenges us to do more than cry.’