UW News

October 16, 2018

Once there were camps: New book by UW historian Jordanna Bailkin remembers Britain’s ‘forgotten’ 20th-century refugee camps

UW News

"Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain," by UW history professor Jordanna Bailkin. Published by Oxford University Press.

“Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain,” by UW history professor Jordanna Bailkin. Published by Oxford University Press.

Today, Britain is not known as a land of camps, but through much of the 20th century — from after World War I to the 1980s —  the country was home to dozens of refugee camps housing thousands of Belgians, Jews, Basques, Poles, Hungarians, Anglo-Egyptians, Ugandan Asians and Vietnamese.

As University of Washington history professor Jordanna Bailkin writes in her latest book, these camps “were never only for refugees.” They shared such spaces with “Britons who had been displaced by war and poverty, as well as thousands of civil servants and a fractious mix of volunteers.”

Bailkin’s book, “Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain” was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press. Bailkin talked with UW News about the book, and how it relates to current events, including the mass detention of immigrant children in the United States.

How did the book come about?

J.B.: I was reading a file in the National Archives about New Towns, which were built in Britain after the Second World War to deal with urban overcrowding and housing shortages, and saw that one official asked about moving Ugandan Asians from “the camps” into these new settlements. I didn’t know what “camps” he was talking about. I was very surprised to find that there were 16 resettlement camps in Britain just for Ugandan Asians after Idi Amin expelled them from Uganda in 1972.

Originally, I thought I would focus my book exclusively on the Ugandan Asian story and those 16 camps, because they are fascinating in their own right. But I quickly realized that some of those spaces had been used before, for other groups of refugees, and so the book expanded to deal with other populations over the 20th century.


“Who is a child when it comes to refugee status?”
Jordanna Bailkin explores the issue in an article for the website Refugee History.

The boundaries between refugees and citizens became “blurred” during these decades, you write: “To put it another way, Britons were trying to get into the camps, while refugees were trying to get out.” What created this dynamic?

J.B.: Because of the extensive damage caused by the Second World War (and particularly the Blitz), there were tremendous housing shortages in Britain in the postwar years. In the absence of immediate government solutions, many Britons sought refuge in camps that had been intended for “foreign” refugees.

Camps for Poles, for example, were often invaded by British squatters — either demobilized soldiers or angry civilians. Also, welfare officers occasionally set up shelters for homeless Britons within refugee camps, so that refugees and displaced or poor Britons were living side by side.

You describe how some interviewed for the book rejected the word “refugee.” Why was that?

J.B.: Many of the people who the British state described as “refugees” (such as the Ugandan Asians and the Anglo-Egyptians) were actually British subjects. They did not feel that the term “refugee” was appropriate to describe the complexities of their historical and ongoing connections with Britain, which were partly a function of Britain’s long imperial histories.

The Anglo-Egyptians, for example, who were British subjects expelled during the Suez Crisis, preferred to be known as “evacuees.” In effect, these groups were arguing that you could not be counted as a refugee if you were actually in the country where you held the right of entry.

You write that Britain tends to have “selective amnesia” about refugee camps, leading to their “erasure from public memory.” How has this happened, and why?

J.B.: In part, this erasure has taken place because the physical sites of the camps have been demolished or rebuilt to be unrecognizable. Aside from a few plaques, there are very few material reminders that the camps ever existed. Also, many former residents of these camps have glossed over their memories of encampment, focusing instead on narratives of successful integration.

But most of all, I think this amnesia is due to the fact that encampment is often seen as being at odds with the ideals of a liberal democracy — even though liberal democracies have long histories of encamping unmanageable populations.

The camps, you write, played “a crucial, if unacknowledged” role in the creation of modern multicultural Britain, and that the book offers “a new genealogy and geography of multiculturalism, as well as questions about where, when, and to whom multiculturalism happens.” Could you tell a bit more?

J.B.: When politicians and scholars talk about multicultural Britain, they tend to focus on particular urban spaces where they expect different populations to meet. But interactions across cultures and races were occurring in unexpected sites — for example in remote army bases and rural country estates where refugees were housed.

The intimacies and frictions between refugees and camp leaders and volunteers and locals that took place in these sites forged relationships that outlasted the lives of the camps themselves. Working in refugee camps, many Britons encountered new foods, new music, and new ways of thinking about politics and conflict in the world. For some Britons, the camp was the first place that they met someone from another culture.

“How refugees in Britain went from living in old bunkers and stately homes to being detained in cells”
Bailkin’s article for The Conversation, July 12, 2018

What brought the era of refugee camps in Britain to an end?

J.B.: Starting in the 1980s, the laws of refuge began to change, and it became much more difficult to enter Britain as a refugee. For example, the Immigration (Carriers’ Liability) Act of 1987 made it an offense for carriers to bring passengers without valid visas or asylum status to the UK.

Britain has also strengthened its powers of executive discretion to remove unsuccessful asylum seekers. Although these developments halted the history of refugee camps in Britain, they actually spurred the growth of camps elsewhere — as in the recently dismantled “jungle” of Calais, where most residents were trying to get to Britain.

The New York Times reports that though hundreds of children separated from their families at the U.S. border with Mexico have been released under court order, the number of migrant children detained, overall, has reached record levels. What light does your book shed on the detention of immigrant children?

J.B.: The issue of who counts as a “child” for the purposes of refuge or detention has often been a matter of life and death. As I discuss in the book (and elsewhere), British officials in the 1930s argued over the age limit for Basque refugees, who were fleeing General Francisco Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War. The stakes for defining these Basque refugees as “children” were incredibly high. It was their status as children that allowed the Basques to enter Britain, even as the government clung to its position of neutrality and nonintervention.

But the definition of a “child” shifted constantly throughout the conflict. Some argued for barring all children under the age of 9; others lobbied for a more inclusive definition that would include people ages 5 to 15. Many of the same activists who pressured the British government to admit “innocent” children quickly became disenchanted and fearful about the politically active “teenagers” who arrived. Even when the government’s aim was to offer refuge, public ambivalence about child refugees was profound. Rather than being a unifying cause around which we might expect humanitarian energies to coalesce, child refugees were just as contentious — if not more so — as any other population movement.

Finally, the book offers “warnings from a liberal democracy’s recent past,” you write, even as global refugee crises are once again “bringing to Europe the challenges of mass encampment.” What are those warnings — and how might we heed them?

J.B.: One of the striking elements of British camps is the way that they often jumbled together citizens and refugees. The camps were not always isolated from their surrounding communities — sometimes, they were deeply embedded within them. The fact that many citizens sought aid (food, housing, etc.) from refugee camps prevented the possibility that those who lived there would be thought of entirely as “others,” who were cut off from mainstream society.

That’s one valuable lesson that these deeply flawed sites have to offer. But more concerning is the fact that the refugee camp was a prelude to the detention center, where most asylum seekers in Britain are now housed. Refugee camps in Britain always had some element of detention or confinement, which has now found full form in Britain’s rapidly expanding detention network for “illegals” (who are also often asylum seekers).

The future of refuge in Britain is not in a camp, but in a cell.


For more information, contact Bailkin at 206-543-7342 or bailkin@uw.edu.