The Present Crisis and Its Histories
In November 2018, President Donald Trump, in response to a caravan of several thousand Central Americans seeking entry into the United States, and in contravention to existing US immigration laws, issued a proclamation denying the right to asylum to persons entering “unlawfully through the southern border.” The policy, which was blocked later by a federal judge, highlights both the administration’s hostility toward immigrants and refugees, and its unwillingness to address the growing number of displaced persons throughout the world.
According to the latest data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are an estimated 10 million stateless persons and 68.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide: 40 million internally displaced, 25.4 million refugees, and 3.1 million seeking asylum. Last year, less than 1 percent of refugees were permanently resettled in other countries. On Thursday night at the 2019 AHA annual meeting plenary, “Displaced Persons: The Present Crisis and Its Histories,” a group of historians gathered to discuss current crises that have emerged in areas such as along the US-Mexico border, Myanmar, Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan, and to provide historical contexts and comparisons. As David N. Myers (Univ. of California, Los Angeles) recognized, “population displacement is not an invention of the 20th or 21st centuries,” but its exponential growth is rooted in these periods. Climate change, globalization, and war have all contributed to this rise within the last century, and surely will continue to do so in the near future.
World governments do, however, have some resources and mechanisms to address the current crisis. Following the crisis resulting from the Second World War, the newly formed United Nations sought to create a treaty to protect refugees that all signatories would follow. The resulting 1951 Refugee Convention defined a refugee as someone with a “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” The Convention provided certain protections and a legal means for determining who qualified as a refugee. For example, Article 33 of the Convention stated that no signatory could “expel or return . . . a refugee in any manner whatsoever” to a country where their “life or freedom” would be threatened.
As Linda K. Kerber (Univ. of Iowa) noted at the plenary, this definition has continued to expand since its initial adoption. The original Convention only covered persons who had become refugees as a result of events occurring before 1951. The 1967 UN Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees expanded the scope of the Convention by removing this requirement. In 1996, the United States started granting asylum to victims of severe domestic violence and vaginal cutting, further expanding the definition of who qualified as a refugee. Yet, legal definitions, as the panelists pointed out, do not capture the full complexity of what it means to be a displaced person.
Who qualifies as a displaced person? According to Geraldo Lujan Cadava (Northwestern Univ.), it can be anyone from native peoples who were removed from their lands centuries ago and forced to live on reservations to Mexican American children forced to move to Mexico after their parents’ deportation to Latinx communities being forced out of their historic neighborhoods due to gentrification. Groups can also become displaced, Cadava noted, “not . . . in the sense that they moved, but that their status in the place they live has changed.” Cadava argued that in order to be displaced, there must be an implied “former relationship to a place.” This allows group to view themselves as displaced and to form an identity based on that interpretation. In the early 20th century, for example, Catholic Mexicans fled to the United States following the Mexican Revolution, which had stemmed the influence of the Catholic Church and established a more socialist, secular government. These Catholic Mexicans considered themselves “displaced” and formed strong Catholic communities in the United States that they believed could not have survived under the new Mexican government.
Occasionally, the displacement of one group results in the displacement of another. Highlighting the case of Israel and Palestine, Myers noted that the Zionist “solution” to the lack of minority protections for Jews in Europe during the Second World War was to create a “Jewish state and a Jewish majority in that state.” There was a powerful “perceived need for a Jewish majority and its link for Jewish survival,” he noted. The “moral imperative” to the Sh’erit ha-Pletah (“surviving remnant,” or Holocaust survivors) drove displaced Jews into Palestine, resulting in the displacement of Palestinians. This caused the further displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jews from across the Arab world, whose leaders retaliated against what they believed to be Israeli injustices. Over 70 years later, refugees still exist as a result of this cycle of displacement. As Myers noted, there endures a “minority problem” when dealing with displaced persons, in that no group wishes to be a minority under a perceived hostile majority.
Despite these challenges, panelists cautioned against a sense of overwhelming dread. While international law may not be widely enforced, it has been used as a guideline for domestic policy, such as the US Refugee Act of 1980. Quoting legal scholar and signatory of the 1951 Convention Louis Henkin, Kerber stated, “Almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time.” Ultimately, as Cadava pointed out, the crisis of displaced persons is not so much about the number of people but “whether certain people match our interest” and should be allowed resettlement. In light of the present crises, the 1951 Convention “still breathes,” said Kerber. “It is up to us to give it oxygen.”
Rachel Van Bokkem is an independent historian based in Baltimore, Maryland. She holds degrees from Indiana University-Bloomington and American University.
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