Many of the features of today's global refugee crisis, including its quantitative dimensions and some of the factors precipitating it, are not new. The media's and policy-makers' focus on the presumed novelty of forced mobility in the 21st century may make us overlook the fact that the response to such mobility has changed over time. In the global north, that response has also been far from uniform, as a brief survey of the New Zealand, Australian and German cases demonstrates. The problem of global mobility is not caused by new migrations but rather by the response to these migrations, which needs to be understood historically.
I am currently half-way through a fellowship at the National Library of Australia to work on the published recollections of people from non-English speaking backgrounds who came to Australia as immigrants. The National Library alone holds about a thousand relevant books; a comparatively large proportion of them contain the life histories of people who could be classified as refugees.
While reading dozens of memoirs over the past few weeks, I have been struck by three features, in particular, that I believe could be relevant to our discussions of the refugee crisis. The first is that their authors have so little in common. The predicament of the Vietnamese refugee who arrived in Australia in 1979 is different from that of the Chilean who immigrated five years earlier. Even two Estonians who both came to Australia in the late 1940s courtesy of Australia's agreement with the International Refugee Organisation have very different stories to tell. This is not to remind that refugees are individuals with their very specific biographies; it is to draw attention to the diversity of factors that contribute to displacement. It is to suggest that global statistics--and analyses that draw on such statistics--gloss over crucial differences between the forced displacement of, say, Syrians, Eritreans and Rohingya.
I was further struck by the fact that few of the migrants, and hardly any of the refugees whose life histories I have read, wanted to come to Australia. If they had had the choice, they would have rather remained in their native country or returned there. And those who chose Australia over other possible destinations often did so because it seemed the least undesirable option (at least it was reputed to be not as cold as Canada).
Finally, what has struck me is the fact that so many of the experiences featured in these books do not seem anachronistic. In the mid-20th century, as much as in the early 21st century, people felt compelled to move for a range of factors to do with their lack of human security and their lack of opportunity, and they often moved for more than just one reason. Their trajectories were usually not straight-forward, and Australia was not always their end point. Forced displacement did not automatically result in a severing of ties to the old homeland, and resettlement did not automatically lead to absorption into the social fabric of the new homeland. Creating a new home meant maintaining and establishing relationships--in Australia, in countries of birth and transit, and with others who were part of an international diaspora--and that happened well before the advent of email, Facebook and Skype.
In our preoccupation with the 'new' we could easily overlook that the 20-year-old Hungarian who in...