Photograph: Armenian refugees, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print
I- Migration in the historiography of the Middle East
Forced migration in or out of historiography
“Among those often treated as losers and repeatedly forgotten are forced migrants –people whose absence from most historical writing is so marked that it constitutes a systematic exclusion” (Marfleet, 2007). For Refugee Studies, this absence presents a major difficulty – how are we to develop an understanding of the past when we receive so little help from history? Moreover, research on Refugee Studies and forced migration rarely includes historical analyses.
More precisely, historians have been attracted to the eventful dimension of forced migrations – the departure. A reliance on ex-post narratives and on institutional sources and on conflicts per se has made the refugees next to invisible. For one thing, historians have often tried to present articulated chronologies, events and causal factors as over-arching narratives, while leaving the study of individual experiences and memories to anthropologists and oral historians. Hence a tendency to focus on the circumstances leading to mass departures and on the moment of departure.
This kind of articulated historical narrative is what Jihane Sfeir, writing on the 1948 war in Palestine and the expulsion of the Palestinians, has analysed as the construction of a learned, academic and politically accepted discourse on the Nakba (the Catastrophe, capital c), as opposed to individuals hijra-s, individual exiles (Sfeir, 2008).
Additionally, historians tend to feel at home with institutional categories, even when they only take them into account in order to undermine them. Once they are reterritorialised, reinserted into institutional categories, given a welfare card, an ID and a travel document, refugees fade from the perspective of historians. They have, if not a nationality, at least a residency – a category which, as underlined by Paul-André Rosental (1999), produces the illusion of fixity, of geographical determination.
Historians have usually been more interested in the dynamics of conflict than in the flows of population they entail. Again, the Palestinians and their expulsion are a case in point: Benny Morris (1987), Ilan Pappé (1992), Nur Masaslha (1992) and others focus on the causes and intent ahead of forced migration, as ways of making sense of the war during which it happened.
Historicizing forced migrations in the age of Refugee studies
The prevalence of narrative in the writing of history and the atomicity of the trajectories of refugees have created a long vacuum: refugees seemed a reality too nebulous for historical writing. Two factors may have helped change this since the 1990s, though.
The first one is the upsurge of the notion of diaspora, in the late 1980s. Following communities and networks dovetailed with the habits of historians. The notion of community could be seen as a way of reterritorialising groups. Situating actors in a network is an old trick of historians to overcome the dialectics between individual choice and social facts. The attraction of the notion of diaspora had probably less to do with the actual political and theoretical value of the term, than with a methodological habitus.
The second factor is the multiplication of refugees in the post-Cold War order, and more generally the international appeal of refugee issues. The latter elicited interest not just because funds were made available for their study, but because refugeehood seemed progressively to become a lasting condition.
Refugee Studies is a new field which has, since its emergence, drawn on insights from a remarkably wide range of disciplines, but History has long been conspicuous by its absence among them. Over the last ten years, historical works have underlined that, beyond the enforcement of social and political engineering policies by nation-states through forced migration, the prohibition of return is a long-term politicy (Altuğ & White, 2009; Boeckh & Rutar, 2016).
Repeated refugee crises such as those in Iraq speak of the past. They are the outcome of complex colonial legacies, global developments, external interventions, local tensions and conflicts. None can be understood without history, yet they are mostly approached on an ahistorical basis.
II- Migrations at the fall of the Ottoman Empire
Forced migrations in the late Ottoman order (late 19th century)
Moving populations by force was a common practice within the Ottoman Empire. One aspect of these policies is well known: the migrations of Muslims from Anatolia to the Balkans to Islamize the newly conquered territory. Groups of population were ordered or made to move if needed, as a punishment or a duty to the Empire. These mobility policies were systematized from the late 17th century onwards (Kasaba, 2009). This was a way to deal with mobile populations and make them settle down. It also induced controlling their new neighbors.
From the second half of the 19th century onwards, in the Ottoman Empire, social conflicts led to significant migrations, deportations or population redistributions. In the Middle East, those migrants actively contributed to the economic, cultural and political life of the regions where they settled. During this period, many tribes and families settled in the new cities and economical centers (Beirut, Izmir, Salt, etc.), or in more suitable places for agriculture or livestock activities (Rogan, 1999). These migrants of a different kind established new solidarity networks—tribal, familial, religious or ethnic—which made possible the extension of migratory patterns possible during regional conflicts (Chatty, 2010; Karpat, 1985). That period was also characterized by an intensification and a massification of mobility in the Middle East.
New borders and new national dynamics: mobility and networks
The establishment of post-Ottoman states had very contrasted effects, neither confining populations within state borders nor producing more than the illusion of territorialization. On the one hand, territorial disputes arose, highlighting issues of ethnic / national settlement, with several further forced migrations. On the other hand, the new borders were not always actively, enforced. There was a degree of abstraction in the new borders management, when compared to effective space control. Progressively attempts were made to administer mobility within a national space or inside the framework of controlled patterns of international circulation. The common Ottoman citizenship was replaced by a spate of citizenships, which excluded few stateless persons, especially among forced migrants of the 1911-1925 period.
What was to be done with refugees? The question nagged the new states from the beginning, and come back over and over again. The answers to the question were multidimensional, beyond the work of relief institutions at their behest. « Normalizing » refugees was part and parcel of State-building and of the making of the international organizations: this involved health and social issues linked with the impoverishment of the refugees. These communal issues were not only of cultural, but also of political import, directly linked with economic issues which, together with the condition of losing the home country, affected the relationships between the refugees and their new neighbors. Countries that could afford it, relocated refugees in the stead of other expelled populations.
Yet host states and international organizations did not only stabilize refugees. Forced migrations also induced a stronger control on the borders, sometimes even a complete closure. Economic and geopolitical asymmetries have played an essential part in the history of border control regimes. This did not necessarily indicate a confinement of populations within national borders but rather induces the existence of transnational networks. The latter can be more or less loose in character, depending on the characteristics of the border between two states, as well as the reshuffling of earlier practices of mobility in the face of border pass system. This, of course, came at a cost for travelers. Not all networks were equally solid and resilient. This depended on family-, village-, tribe- and religion-based connections.
New migration, old paths: pilgrimage roads, visits to local saints.
Since the 16th century, the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina was an important time for mobility in the region. It gathered thousands of pilgrims every year (Faroqhi, 2014). Between 1908 and 1914, the newly opened Hejaz railway allowed an intensification of the pilgrim flow. This new path was also used in Ottoman forced migration policies. Many pilgrims never returned home, settling instead in one of the cities on their way. In addition, many studies have shown the importance of local holy places—those located in Jerusalem but also smaller places of worship (mausoleums, cenotaphs, Sufi lodges)—in the distribution of regional flows and the organization of trans-regional solidarity networks (Aubin-Boltanski, 2007; Andézian, 2010). These networks have been used by migrants during subsequent conflicts, structuring regional circulation paths. Through these different aspects of mobility, one can establish a genealogy of migrations in the Middle East.
III – Nation-building and migration
Controlling mobility: a colonial issue (mandate period)
Several types of interactions between nation-building and migration can be distinguished. Yet first it should be first remembered that post-Ottoman states did not emerge out of the blue. They were carved out of an imperial structure that was not egalitarian, but left hierarchized communities an autonomous space that was defined by religious lines, yet was not necessarily confined within a determined physical space. Moreover, the new states were under European influence, as in the case of Turkey, or direct colonization elsewhere. This meant that models of sovereignty had to be appropriated. Sovereignty, in colonial states, was not a simple illusion but a construed and negotiated fact. Citizenship and refugees were such negotiated issues: e.g. Who should become Lebanese, among the many refugees (Armenians, Syrian Christians from southern Anatolia, Assyrians, Kurds) who came to settle in Lebanon? Nor were borders a fiction; they had to be negotiated with neighboring states / colonial powers, and other local actors, rather than enforced. Bedouins, for instance attribute little importance to the borders of the mandates, but the enforcement of those borders was negotiated with them; and this process of cooptation was part of making the border effective.
Cyrus Schayegh has argued that the making of the new borders was channeling, organizing and thus intensifying mobility and circulations, not only for formal but also informal traffic (Schayegh, 2014). The regional was becoming transnationalized. Yet transnationalization did not require mobility, nor formal conditions of border crossing: refugees could see their mobility impaired, e.g. if they were refused national status, and yet bank on the geographical dissemination of communal contacts to survive and strive.
In any case, for colonial states, refugees were just one mobility issue among others. Among these were pilgrims, with their political views and their health; Bedouins, straddled across the borders; as well as informal trafficks, not just by the underworld but also by local tradespeople in the new border areas, unconcerned by the custom apparatus in the making. These were occasions for a bit of state-building, or could be instrumentalized to maintain a colonial order. The predicament of Armenians in French Syria is a good illustration of those processes. In this context, the agency of the refugees was taken for granted by the colonial power in what Keith Watenpaugh has called « the survivors’ bargain »: resettlement against de facto communal autonomy (Watenpaugh, 2004).
Migration and nation-building: the parallel making of the state of Israel and of Palestinian refugeehood
The most outstanding link between state-building and forced migration was the foundation of the state of Israel upon the ruins of the Arab Palestinian population. The link was doubled by the Israeli policy of attracting 700 000 Jews from the Arab world, in the following three years (1948-1951). Various features of the new State were dictated by the necessities of formalizing the conditions of a post-forced-migration.
Yet the connection between Palestinian refugees and State-building was proliferating, as neighboring states appropriated in different ways the Palestinian refugee presence, from exclusion, to strategic inclusion in Jordan, to recruitment as tools of state-building. Arafat was supposed to have said, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait: « Kuwait? But I built Kuwait! »
Yet the relations between state institutions and refugees were not without ambiguities, especially once the latter turned to armed struggle: this entailed a civil war in Jordan in 1970-1971, and was a significant element leading to the one Lebanon knew after April 1975. Refugees took part in national construction, but could become suspected of building their own state-within-the-state, and of inviting conflict in the host country. This was what happened in Lebanon, due to the military operations between the PLO and Israel.
IV – Managing refugees
The refugee count issue
It is a daunting task to manage refugees following bureaucratic criteria – a task not dissimilar to the difficulties met by historians in writing refugee history. How to count refugees? The possibility depends on a definition of their exodus, often enough based on international criteria or nationality. Refugees no more have a monolithic past that would define them as refugees, than a common scripted future.
Attempts by Justin McCarthy – with an ax to grind – to count Muslim refugees in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century have underlined the weaknesses of the census as a starting base (Karpat, 1985; McCarthy, 1983). The same goes for Armenians, who were deported and killed, but did not change status: depending on how many Armenians one assumes to have lived in the pre-1915 Ottoman Empire, the number of killed may oscillate between 600 000 and 1,5 million; and the number of refugees varies in proportion.
Also, not all expelled people share the same nationality: does that make them the less of a refugee group than others? UNRWA, the UN Relief and Welfare Agency for Refugees of Palestine and the Near East, came into being in late 1949, several months after the end of the fighting caused by the 1948 war. One of its first tasks was to identify and count Palestinian refugees; among them were many citizens of neighboring countries who used to live Palestine before the war. The dispersion of refugees between several states was another major counting issue. « Serious » evaluations, in the case of the Palestinians, vary between 600 000 and a million.
The same problems occurred, with a vengeance, with Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Over the years, the states have grown accustomed to counting refugees, and become aware of the advantage of being able to present high estimates. In Jordan, this approach was learned when dealing with Iraqis, put into policy with the Syrian civil war. The state of Jordan has instrumentalized the number of Syrian refugees, i.e. deliberately attempted to inflate it, so as to justify an increase in international aid, and attract investments, political leverage, etc.
Short of a clear definition of a group of refugees at the time when forced migration occurs, what exists is, ex-post, the recognition of the status of refugee by UNRWA or UNHCR. However, not all refugees aspire to that status.
Nationality, work and network insertion
This instrumentalization notwithstanding, a bigger concern is what happens when refugees remain refugees. How to work, how to go to school, how to make a living? International organizations (IO) are there to coordinate relief, resettlement, or repatriation operations, not to provide jobs and services in the host states’ stead. IO-state cooperation can be a factor of development, through the investments of the UN system and other institutions. But for all that refugees may well end up out of work, especially if the main job providers close their borders or hire foreign workers according to quotas: in the 1960s, Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun illustrated the efforts made by Palestinian to get to the Gulf states. Yet most of them stayed stuck in densely populated countries without oil resources, and could be ejected from work, as was often the case in Lebanon.
The question of refugee status is one that affects their economic perspectives, their mobility and their social prospects (e.g. through marriage). And so it is a contentious one: how to transmit a nationality, to acquire a useful one? This is made all the more problematic as nationalist states, in the 1950s-1970s, have used nationality laws to include and to exclude. Post-forced migration nationality laws, inspired by the Lausanne treaty, were used to exclude the national Others. Hence the importance of the network, as a tool to re-migrate, and get a job.
Work migration and mobility
The Middle East is indeed a competitive job market, in part due to the competition between high numbers of migrants and refugees for the same jobs. Some nationalities are cornered into a next-to-automatic status of foreign worker: as has been noted in several Gulf states, the individual’s nationality carries an implicit bias regarding their job position and social environment.
Following that logic, whole populations get directed towards domestic work and poorly paid, less qualified jobs. This has been the lot of the Egyptians in the Levant since the 1920s. At the time, the government of Palestine and the British army in Palestine, needing workers for the major projects of the mandate, started hiring them from nearby colonially-occupied Egypt. Later, they were hired as subalterns in the service sector, for instance as restaurant waiters. Today, Filipino immigrant workers occupy roughly the same kind of jobs.
It is a significant lacuna, for historical writing in the Middle East as well as Refugee studies that it took so long for a critical mass of historians to get interested in the post-migration life and social environment of refugees. Disciplinary habits go a long way to explain the fact: but recent works by historians, catching up with the growth of Refugee studies and its impact on other social sciences, could shift the focus from wars, a frequent event in the Middle East in the 20th and 21st century, to the history of humanitarianism, to the economics of refugeehood, or to the similarities of position and competition between refugees and migrants. Studying the historical development of categories of migrants and the genealogy of international practices regarding refugees invites us to question the frequent dilution of terminology in the media (should one say the 2015 migrant crisis or refugee crisis?) without trying to replace media catchphrase with similarly misleading, well-delimited notions.
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