Refugees and the (global) Cold War

Bastiaan Bouwman, Research Unit “Borders”, Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS)”, Freie Universität, Berlin
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
29.10.2021 - 30.10.2021
Julia Reinke, Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague

In 2021, the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees prompted various historiographical explorations of what historian Peter Gatrell has labeled refugeedom in the second half of the 20th century.1 While not explicitly referring to this jubilee, the conference can well be considered in line with this trend, as it critically reflected on the intersection of the two concerned core areas of research: refugee history and Cold War history. Against the backdrop of the ongoing global turn in both these fields, the workshop aimed to “reassess established narratives about the globalization of both refugee politics and Cold War competition” and in integrating both histories, enable a fresh look at the topic.

The participating scholars from across the globe covered an impressive geographical range in their presentations, notably adding a focus on the Global South to the critical reassessment of more traditional Western perspectives. Structured geographically along large regions, the panels and presentations did not fail to address interconnections and entanglements across and within regions, living up to the complexity of the fields under scrutiny.

In his opening remarks, BASTIAAN BOUWMAN (Berlin/Washington D.C.) explained the objectives of the conference: Starting out from the “archetype of the Cold War refugee” as fleeing from the socialist East to the democratic West, he urged to go beyond this most well-known connection between Cold War and refugee history by shifting to a global perspective. The interaction between actors on different levels equally needed to be taken into account, as well as the agency of refugees themselves. How did they navigate the landscape of humanitarianism, and how did the rising politics of humanitarianism deal with the aim of impartiality in a time globally steeped in binary Cold War ideological and political confrontation? Tracing and charting the relationship and joints between the two research areas, the workshop was also designed to call into question traditional periodizations, nuance existing narratives and ground the discussion of post-Cold War (dis)continuities.

The first panel on Europe challenged conventional conceptions. KAREN AKOKA (Paris/Jerusalem) questioned in reference to the above-mentioned Geneva Convention a seemingly moral clarity engraved by this Cold War product, which supposedly created a clear distinction – and thus a hierarchy – between (European) “refugees” as the “legitimate foreigners”, and other migrants such as in more contemporary flows from the South. Deconstructing this “myth of difference” (B. S. Chimni) based on her analysis of European agents and day-to-day practices of specifically the “Office Française de Protection des Réfugiés et des Apatrides” (OFPRA), she demonstrated that the European refugees as emblematic for the Cold War by no means necessarily “more met the [Convention’s] eligibility requirement of individual persecution than those who followed”. In tracing back officials’ biographies to the interwar period, she contributed to the contestation of both the labeling and the conventional periodization.

Following this, MAXIMILIAN GRAF and NIKOLA KARASOVÁ (Prague) presented another take on traditional Cold War narratives by exploring the potential of an East-West comparison: Transcending the presumption of a “Western model” as well as the limitations of national historiography, they engaged in a comparative analysis with their respective case studies on Austria and Czechoslovakia on the regional and local level. Given that each on a different side of the Iron Curtain, both countries reveal astonishing commonalities in their solidarity with, popular mobilization for, and (internationally coordinated) management of refugees in the early 1950s when comparing the functionalities beyond obvious differences due to the respective systems or ideologies. In conceptualizing a contrasting “Eastern refugee regime” and carving out the role of both regimes for the respective nation-building, or, nation-branding, their conclusion called for further overcoming this divide and more comparative approaches.

SARA COSEMANS and ROBBE HIMPE (Leuven) discussed another example of refugee reception across the Iron Curtain in the lesser researched direction, to the East: After Pinochet’s coup in 1973, Romania received about 1,500 refugees from Chile, taking this chance to present itself as “humanitarian”. However, when many of the Chileans wanted to flee a second time, from the communist dictatorship, a dilemma arose for the UNHCR working with resettlement countries on both sides of the Cold War divide of how to respond to the problems refugees faced in Romania. In the end, this led UNHCR to frame their departure as related to “health problems or economic reasons” as opposed to the refugees’ own references to human rights, contributing to them being rather viewed as economic migrants.

The panel was concluded by EVA-MARIA MUSCHIK (Vienna), who revisited the UNHCR’s contested role between a “watchdog” and advocate for refugees and a charity organization providing material assistance. Applying a microhistorical approach in focusing on the UNHCR representative in Italy, John Alexander-Sinclair, she argued for challenging traditional chronology and genealogy of the UN institution beyond the “Cold War lens”. A stronger integration of people working in the field, instead, could provide more insights in their dealing with practicalities and inner-organizational debates, which in the end reveals additional considerations and puts Cold War concerns into perspective.

The second panel shifted the focus to Asia. Again taking a closer look at the most prominent international organization for refugees, JEROME ELIE (Geneva) analyzed UNHCR activities in Vietnam during and in the aftermath of the war as part of the “Orderly Departure Program”. By pointing out the organization’s role as interface between state actors and even mediator, he identified the UNHCR as a back channel for diplomacy on both sides of the Bamboo Curtain. Thus, it informally transcended the supposedly clear-cut Cold War dichotomy.

REBECCA NEDOSTUP (Providence, RI) explored the dealing with internally displaced people in China in the aftermath of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). While these millions of internal DPs did not match the usual designation as refugees, she focused especially on the economic dimension in their treatment. Transcending classical periodizations, she compared the late imperial Chinese practice of rendering aid and eventually aiming at returning the displaced to their homes with modern programs of resettlement, “utilizing” refugees for state purposes by placing them especially in the rural periphery which they were to cultivate. Apart from the question of exploitation in this coercive, top-down policy, this presents an important change in perspective, away from the conventional (victimizing) view of refugees as “objects” of relief, towards recognizing their potential as economic resources.

Using the example of “self-exiled” Chinese intellectuals in Hong Kong after the Communist takeover of China in 1949, KENNETH YUNG (Hong Kong) drew attention to the relationship of these political refugees with their host society. Integrating precisely the experience of individual refugees, he addressed issues of cultural alienation and difficulties, but also attempts by the intellectuals to overcome these and, based on different biographical factors, make not insignificant political and cultural contributions to their place of refuge.

The third panel dedicated to Latin America started off with a case of South-South solidarity: TANYA HARMER (London) examined the refuge for left-wing exiles from Chile and Uruguay in the 1970s and 1980s in communist affiliated Cuba. Continuing the focus on refugee experiences and memories, in drawing on testimonies she demonstrated the diversity in expectations and refugee narratives. The Cold War here as an “inescapable frame of reference” prompted a strong focus on qualifying the refugees for a return to their homes in hopes of continuing the political struggle there. In reality however, refugees could also acquire qualification and integrate in their new everyday life in exile, for which the ideological solidarity provided favorable conditions. Still, while hailing these refugees as “socialist heroes” could entail agency and empowerment, other personal memories also reveal limitations of autonomy and independence in this politicized revolutionary identity.

FIONNTÁN O’HARA (London) discussed refugee camps in Honduras in the 1980s as “spaces of the Cold War”. Looking at the camps from three different angles, as a physical space and structure, as an internal space and as an international/transnational space, he highlighted the complex relationship between the Cold War system and the humanitarian system, bringing together in his analysis various actors from governments to NGOs to the refugees themselves.

MICHAEL ROM (Cape Town) continued with his in parts translocal study on the influences of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s within Jewish communal institutions in Brazil. By using their pre-flight experiences from their lives in Europe, they were able to take on “leading roles” in political and cultural conflicts between Zionists and communists within the Jewish diaspora, thus demonstrating the Cold War’s relevance in Latin America early on.

MOLLY TODD (Bozeman, MT) concluded the panel with a presentation that also addressed methodological questions, as it could draw from a wide variety of sources and experiences from “decades of work” with not only archival material but especially oral history interviews. Committed to a transnational social history based on these testimonies from El Salvadoran refugees from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Todd challenged the “officialist approach” of considering refugees only as victims, and their situation a “crisis to be solved”. Instead, she called for recognizing refugees as actors and questioning assumptions of NGO impartiality or displacement as an exclusively negative rupture.

Panel four on the Middle East first turned attention to refugees between nationalism and Marxism. LAURA ROBSON (State College, PA) discussed the example of the Palestine question pre- and post-1948 (the foundation of the state of Israel) and located Armenian, Assyrian and Jewish migrant communities in the Middle East’s (post-/quasi-)colonial order. Analyzing the triangular relationship between minorities, refugees and governments, she concluded that even left-wing/Marxist refugee communities “often maintained a nationalist component” that contradicted Soviet internationalist thinking.

AGNES BRESSELAU VON BRESSENSDORF (Berlin) continued with a presentation on refugees in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War of 1980. In a triad of “concepts, actors and practices”, she offered an entangled history of global interventionism and humanitarian aid work on the ground and addressed questions of state versus civil society/NGO actors, problems surfacing in the field work, changes in discourse and, in conclusion, backlashes of the situation in the Middle East for the West and North European countries involved in the humanitarian aid.

LEONARD MICHAEL (St. Andrews) drew the line from the Middle East as part of the Global South again to Eastern Europe as part of the still often neglected Second World as a place of refuge. Presenting parts of his doctoral research on the exile of the communist Tudeh Party of Iran in divided Germany (specifically in Leipzig), he explored the scope of action nevertheless possible under the ultimately limiting conditions of Soviet control. Thus acknowledging and portraying the cadre refugees’ agency, he demonstrated how the exiled party members navigated the Cold War in their interest.

The fifth panel dealt with the United States, one of the superpowers of the Cold War. CARL BON TEMPO (Albany, NY) developed further his earlier research on US refugee policies, reconsidering the role of the Cold War as one – of course still important, but not exclusive – factor in explaining these. Questioning traditional chronologies by discussing pre- and post-Cold War continuities, as well as taking into consideration for instance the broader context of US policies towards Central America, he argued for a more complex narrative.

Much in this vein, AMY FEDESKI (Charlottesville, VA) took a close look at the US “Immigration and Nationality Act” of 1965 and its definition of refugee status against the backdrop of national origins discrimination. In a legal history up to the Refugee Act of 1980, she set US law against broader international discourses, and also considered the gap between rhetoric and the reality for refugees. Pointing to both practical as well as ideological issues as important factors for the protagonists in law-making, she suggested a new timeline for US immigration history.

JANA LIPMAN (New Orleans, LA) and MICHAEL BUSTAMANTE (Miami, FL) completed the panel with another comparative study. Placing next to each other the refugee communities in the USA from Cuba and Vietnam, they probed “parallels, connections, and fractures” in US policies towards these two groups, and also added another layer of analysis by contrasting these with the respective refugee experiences. While both groups were presented as allies in a common political cause and as such supposedly privileged, as “legitimately deserving” immigrants, this did not completely prevent discriminatory measures (such as internment at military bases), and both groups sometimes could be at odds with the “scripts of gratitude they were expected to repeat”. The comparative conclusion addressed both aspects of connection and of diversion, both between the two groups and between politics and experience, and pointed to the fuzzy border between immigration and refuge.

The final panel was dedicated to Africa. First off, ANA FILIPA GUARDIÃO (Coimbra) presented her case study on the Angolan National Liberation Front’s (FNLA) dealing with refugees in the Congo in the wake of Angolan decolonization. Being the West-leaning of the two main opposing fractions within the independence movement, the FNLA was able to successfully use the Angolan refugee crisis to affirm itself as the legitimate Angolan government in exile. Channeling US financial support through humanitarian NGOs, especially the Congolese Protestant Relief Agency (CPRA), this cooperation even translated into forming a “proto state” in refugee matters, revealing a however complex relationship between the refugees and their supposed representatives as well as intersections of human rights discourses and humanitarian action on an international and local level.

BENJAMIN N. LAWRENCE (Tucson, AZ) and VUSUMUZI KUMALO (Nelson Mandela Bay) turned to an individual example of refugeedom. In focusing on the story of South African writer Dugmore Boetie, who fled from Johannesburg to Dar es Salaam in Tanganyika in the 1960s, they aimed to highlight the “fuzzy distinction between exile and refuge before international refugee protections extended to Africa”. Specifically, they stressed the importance of networks and the right connections in determining refugees’ trajectories between West and East. In Boetie’s case, who at that time yet was lacking fame and hence resources, this in the end led to an “abortive exile”.

Lastly, MARCIA C. SCHENCK (Potsdam) again took up the intersection of Cold War policies and decolonization struggles, which she discussed through the lens of programs of higher education for refugee students. While she assigned the Cold War a rather small role compared to local and regional decolonization and development efforts, she nevertheless considered the nexus of these three factors the “intellectual force field” that constituted the background and, in the provision of scholarships to African refugee students, could also materialize. Furthermore, this gave leeway to African refugees, who could play on Cold War anxieties and instrumentalize this force field in their favor.

The closing discussion was chaired by Jussi Hanhimäki (Geneva), who summarized the key fields in intersecting refugee and Cold War history in the refugees’ threefold role as tools (for advocacy/propaganda), victims and agents of their own. Bastiaan Bouwman continued with his concluding remarks on the achievements of the workshop, pointing out the rich variety of the contributions that well mirrored the diversity of refugeedom. Instead of flattening out or merely adding up the diverging stories, he argued for carefully balancing generalizations, comparisons and connections. As key take aways and avenues for further research he highlighted especially 1) setting economic rationales against the more common question of persecution, 2) discussing macro-level politics against refugee identity/agency/experience, beyond imposing an over-politicized lens (“political exiles”) while simultaneously avoiding reduction to passive humanitarian subjects (“helpless victims”), 3) further investigating central actors such as the UNHCR, but also voluntary agencies, civil societies, religious institutions and NGOs in general, 4) continuing to look for pre- and post-Cold War connections and question the common periodization by making milestones more permeable and perhaps breaking the global down to regional chronologies, and 5) further critically situating humanitarian claims to impartiality against their understanding as instrumental. Methodologically, he called for intersectional approaches and emphasized the demonstrated great potential of collaborative studies.

In the following discussion, contributions concerned mainly the dealing with labels (between (self-)ascriptions and utilitarian/strategic deploying of different categories, their fluidity and temporality as well as potential simultaneousness), the role of the nation state as analytical category in refugee studies, opposition to refugees such as in form of pushbacks, xenophobia, or objections within a skeptical public, and lastly, the call for an even stronger detachment from the idea of a supposed Western model. Acknowledging similar political reasoning behind “Western” politics as reputedly in complete contrast to arbitrary regulations in the “East” and not neglecting possible, still under-researched alternatives such as in non-alignment or Islamic solidarities with refugees could put “the West” into perspective.

With these addressed desiderata that still demand further research, and also emphasized again the need to overcome the still present gap in Eastern and especially Soviet perspectives, the workshop highly fulfilled its objective of taking stock of the intersections between Cold War and refugee history and provided stimulating impulses for future research.

Conference overview:

Bastiaan Bouwman (Berlin/Washington D.C.): Opening remarks

Panel 1: Europe (East and West)
Chair: Gwendolyn Sasse (Berlin)

Karen Akoka (Nanterre): The Geopolitics of Refugee Status Granting during the cold war: revisiting the “Myth of Difference”

Nikola Karasová and Maximilian Graf (Prague): Toward an East-West Comparison of Refugee Regimes: Austria and Czechoslovakia in the Early Cold War

Sara Cosemans and Robbe Himpe (Leuven): “We have wasted precious time”. Chileans ex Romania and UNHCR Cold War Policies in the 1970s

Eva-Maria Muschik (Vienna): In Search of “Permanent Solutions” – Refugees in Cold War Italy as a Concern for International Organizations

Panel 2: Asia
Chair: Thuc Linh Nguyen Vu (Vienna)

Jerome Elie (Geneva): Brokering across the Bamboo Curtain: UNHCR and the Orderly Departure Program from Vietnam

Rebecca Nedostup (Providence, RI): The Laboring Refugee

Kenneth Yung (Hong Kong): Alienation or Integration? Self-exiled Intellectuals and Hong Kong Society, 1949–1969

Panel 3: Latin America
Chair: Sönke Kunkel (Berlin)

Tanya Harmer (London): Refuge in Revolution: Southern Cone Exiles in Cuba and South-South Solidarity during the Cold War

Fionntán O’Hara (London): Refugee Camps as Spaces of the Global Cold War

Michael Rom (Cape Town): Eastern European Jewish Refugees and the Latin American Cold War

Molly Todd (Bozeman, MT): “Romper con el ‘silencio’ de nuestra historia”: Revisiting the Central American Refugee Crisis of the 1980s

Panel 4: Greater Middle East
Chair: Nora Lafi (Berlin)

Laura Robson (State College, PA): Nationalism, Marxism, and the Palestine Question in the Middle East’s Cold War

Agnes Bresselau von Bressensdorf (Berlin): Afghan Refugees, Humanitarian Interventionism and the Global Cold War in the 1980s

Leonard Michael (St. Andrews): From Tehran to Leipzig: The Odyssey of the Tudeh Party of Iran, 1946–1958

Panel 5: United States
Chair: Jessica Gienow-Hecht (Berlin)

Carl Bon Tempo (Albany, NY): Reframing Refugees and the Cold War: A View from US History

Amy Fedeski (Charlottesville, VA): Moving Beyond the Cold War? Refugee Status in United States Law from 1965–1980

Jana Lipman (New Orleans, LA) and Michael Bustamante (Miami, FL): Cubans and Vietnamese: Considering US Cold War Refugee Politics and Connections

Panel 6: Africa
Chair: Stephanie Lämmert (Berlin)

Ana Filipa Guardião (Coimbra): Political Beneficiaries of Humanitarianism? The FNLA and the Angolan Refugee Crisis in the Congo (c.1960–1975)

Benjamin N. Lawrance (Tucson, AZ) and Vusumuzi R. Kumalo (Nelson Mandela Bay): “A Genius without Direction”: The Abortive Exile of Dugmore Boetie and the Fate of Southern African Refugees during the Cold War

Marcia C. Schenck (Potsdam): Refugee Higher Education in Emergencies: Cold War Policies, Scholarship Programs and Decolonization Struggles across Africa during the 1960s

Closing Discussion
Chair: Jussi Hanhimäki (Graduate Institute Geneva)
Bastiaan Bouwman (Berlin/Washington D.C.)

1 For one example see the ERC project “Unlikely Refuge?”: The UnRef Team on Refugees on the Occasion of the 1951 Refugee Convention Anniversary, [28.1.2022].