The Role of Public History in the History of Refugees and Migrants

A home for Belgian refugee children in England. © IWM (Q 108266)

Over the summer the media was full of images and news stories on what was being called the ‘worst refugee crisis’ in Europe since the Second World War. Such a label inevitably brings historical comparisons and many reports attempted to underline the scale of the migration into Europe from the Middle East and Africa with statistics and historic case studies.

Other reports aimed to establish a historic tradition of accepting refugees as a way of criticising the current political attitudes towards refugees from Syria and other migrants, either in Europe or in Westminster. The Kindertransport in 1938 and Hungarian crisis of 1956 were popular comparisons, and my own Facebook feed started to fill with references to the Irish diaspora of the 1840s, (the result of numerous Irish and Irish-American relatives). This photo gallery is a perfect example of how images from ‘Britain’s history of welcoming refugees’ is purposely contrasted with David Cameron’s use of the word ‘swarm’ to describe the movement of people across the Mediterranean aiming to make a new life in Britain.

However, these often flippant comparisons can be problematic. Is emphasising the history of acceptance and assimilation of refugees ignoring the history of refusing migrants and refugees or the history of racial conflicts within countries and cities in Europe? Furthermore, context is always important and many of the media reports do not go into much detail about how their historic scenarios shed light on solutions for today. Jessica Reinsch has recently addressed some of these issues in a blog co-published with History and Policy for the ‘Europe In Crisis’ series. Reinsch looks at the two examples of Kindertransport and the Hungarian refugee crisis and demonstrates how the different political, diplomatic and economic conditions created the individual responses to these situations. making them distinct from today’s situation.

So if direct comparisons cannot be drawn, what role does history play in discussions of the refugee crisis? Does history or should history offer any lessons? Is there a responsibility of historians within these discussions? If so what it is? And what role does history play in the formation of policy for humanitarian or migration organisations and charities?

As part of a new strand of the IHR Public History seminar, asking ‘What is Public History?’, we hope to interrogate some of these issues, amongst others, with a roundtable of historians and professionals who work with the history of migration. Following short presentations from the speakers, we will open discussion to the floor and to Twitter to encourage a wide-ranging and constructive discussion.

Our speakers will be:

Prof David Feldman
Director of Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck, University of London

Prof Peter Gatrell
Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester

Susie Symes
Chair of Trustees for 19 Princelet Street, Museum of Immigration and Diversity

Juliano Fiori
Head of Humanitarian Affairs, Save the Children.

So please join us on Wednesday 21 October at 5:30pm for a roundtable on ‘What is Public History in the light of the recent refugee crisis?
Venue: Wolfson Room NB02, Basement, IHR, North block, Senate House
Twitter: If you can’t make the event, please join us on Twitter using #IHRPubHist

Author: Kathleen McIlvenna, PhD student with IHR and British Postal Museum and archive and convener of the Public History Seminar. She blogs at ‘The History Student’

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2 thoughts on “The Role of Public History in the History of Refugees and Migrants

  1. Pingback: Event: IHR Public History Seminar – The Role of Public History in the History of Refugees and Migrants | Living Refugee Archive

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