The Middle East today seems indelibly associated with refugees, from the people displaced by current and recent conflicts in Syria, Yemen, or Iraq to the Palestinians who have lived as refugees since 1948. This conversation explores an earlier period, between the first and second world wars, to ask what role refugees played in Middle Eastern history in the years when its modern states emerged—and what role the Middle East has played in modern refugee history.
It highlights three large themes. First, as the region’s post-Ottoman nation-states took shape under colonial domination, the arrival and settlement of large numbers of refugees played a crucial part in their formation, as the example of Syria during the French mandate shows. Second, the Middle East was one of the first places where the refugee camp appeared as a technology for the spatial management of displaced people. The camp at Baquba in occupied Mesopotamia helps us understand the history of the refugee camp, with its roots in military logistics, as well as the history of colonial domination and national sovereignty in the nascent state of Iraq. (The animals of the camp were, perhaps unexpectedly, important in both.) And third, the mass displacement of the first world war years also made long-range resettlement of entire populations thinkable, just as military logistics made it practicable. The evacuation of tens of thousands of Armenians from Cilicia in the last two weeks of 1921 is an instructive example of how ostensibly humanitarian actions depend on a complex interaction of self-interested actors, and can serve the perpetrators of violence as well as assisting its victims.
Across all these examples, there is an important methodological challenge for historians. The archives that are most readily accessible to us typically exclude refugees’ voices, and obscure the fact that refugees themselves often drove these histories. How should historians respond to this challenge?
Benjamin Thomas White, ‘Refugees and the definition of Syria, 1920–1939’, Past and Present, 235, 1 (2017), pp. 141-178 (doi: 10.1093/pastj/gtw048)
—‘Humans and animals in a refugee camp: Baquba, Iraq, 1918-20’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 32, 2 (2019), pp. 216-236 (doi: 10.1093/jrs/fey024)
—‘A grudging rescue: France, the Armenians of Cilicia, and the history of humanitarian evacuations’, Humanity, 10, 1 (2019), pp. 1-27 (doi: 10.1353/hum.2019.0000)
Benjamin Thomas White is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Glasgow. A Middle East historian by background, he now teaches and researches refugee history in the world at large. His research focuses on the history of the refugee camp, with recent side projects on the history of humanitarian evacuations and the relationship between humans and animals in displacement.
Laura Robson is a scholar of modern Middle Eastern and international history. Her work focuses on the politics of ethnicity and religion in the twentieth century Arab world; local, regional, and global reverberations of international governance and international law; and modern histories of mass violence. She is currently working on a new book that identifies Franklin Roosevelt’s “M-Project” – a scheme to identify “empty” spaces around the globe where racially undesirable refugee populations might be settled en masse – as a foundational moment for contemporary American and European Union refugee and migration policies, particularly vis-à-vis the Middle East. She holds the William L. and Donna F. Oliver-McCourtney Professorship in History at Penn State University.