On 16 and 17 February 2017 the IHRA and Holy See brought together public policy-makers from Europe, North America and the Middle East and representatives of media, NGOs and civil society organizations in Rome to discuss refugee policies from 1933 to the present day.

The preliminary outcomes and suggestions which emerged from the conference, and were grounded in the history of the Holocaust, included:

  • collecting war crimes evidence from refugees,
  • enhancing cooperation between NGOs and the state,
  • reaffirming respect for the value of international law, its implementation, and human rights.

The perspective of refugees, and the impact of statelessness and powerlessness on displaced persons were also highlighted.

“This conference should send a strong signal to the international community that we have both a moral and a historical responsibility to address the present-day situation facing refugees. The IHRA knows all too well the consequences of the international community failing to act. The current refugee situation is the litmus test for international solidarity.” – Ambassador Mihnea Constantinescu, former IHRA chair.

“When considering what we, as experts and educators on Holocaust history, could do to take action in the current refugee situation, we realised our strength lies in our expertise. Policy-makers and people working on the ground with refugees have little to no time to read anthologies on the refugee policies of the 1930s, but we can make our knowledge on successful and failed refugee policies from the past visible and accessible to organizations and governments dealing with this issue today.” – Dr. Veerle Vanden Daelen, Deputy General Director and Curator Kazerne Dossin.

We wanted to be able to extend the conference to this blog, without just reproducing what has been said in Rome. Therefore, we have asked attendants of the conference to reflect on the discussions they had in Rome and use this inspiration to contribute their thoughts to our blog.

Nabis-195Each of the guest bloggers we will publish over the next weeks, approaches the refugee situation from his or her own perspective. They may reflect on issues and topics that have not been brought to the forefront on this blog, a fact that makes their contributions all the more valuable and refreshing. If you are looking for a summary of the discussions and speeches in Rome, you can find that here.

Without further ado, we give the floor to our first contributor Carl Bon Tempo, Associate Professor of History from the State University of New York at Albany.

Connecting the Past to the Present in Refugee History
By Carl Bon Tempo

I am an historian of the United States’ refugee policies in the twentieth century and, recently, I have been fielding questions from students, friends, and the media about President Donald Trump’s policies towards refugees, especially the on-going crisis in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Europe. The temptation, of course, is to focus on President Trump. He is, after, all a powerful and singular figure in contemporary American life, and a politician unlike any Americans have seen in some time, if ever. And, he is attempting to reconstruct the nation’s policies towards immigrants and refugees.

Thus, we should focus on President Trump’s thinking and actions when it comes to refugee affairs, but we cannot focus on them solely. Rather, the history of American engagement with refugees demonstrates the persistence of larger structures and historically contingent elements in determining American refugee policies. A focus on a single factor, either historically or in current events, distorts more than clarifies.

One can turn to the American experience with refugees in the early Cold War for an example. From 1945 to 1960, the United States admitted hundreds of thousands of refugees. Most Americans explain this decision as a result of the Cold War – the U.S. looked to help opponents of communism – or as a result of World War II and the Holocaust – the U.S. looked to alleviate its guilt in failing to help Jews in the face of extermination. This explanation focusing on foreign policy goes a good way toward explaining the genesis of American refugee admissions.

Carl Bon Tempo

But, we must also recall that it was during these years that many more Americans, largely because of their war-time experiences, embraced a more cosmopolitan and pluralist worldview, growing more comfortable with, or even welcoming, others of different ethnicities, nationalities, or religions. The result was a restructuring of the nation’s identity that continued into the 1960s. These immediate post-war years also featured strong economic growth in the United States, making newcomers less a threat to labor markets. Economic prosperity, then, tamped down opposition to refugee admissions. Finally, both political parties calculated that there were political gains to be made in bringing refugees to the United States.

From this multiplicity of factors came programs that brought hundreds of thousands of refugees to the U.S. from Europe. There were, of course, limits to this largesse: for one, refugees of color from outside Europe still struggled to find their way to America’s shores. And, refugees exhibiting anti-communist bona fides became the focus of American efforts.

These observations bring me to the present. If the American posture towards refugees in the mid-twentieth century was complicated and the product of several historically contingent factors and structures, why should the contemporary situation be any different?

To be sure, we should focus on President Trump and his adviser’s thinking and goals as they reshape American policies towards refugees in early 2017. But, we need to pay attention to other factors – like the economy, notions of national identity, partisan politics, and foreign policy – that have structured the history of the United States and refugees as we seek to understand American engagement with refugees in our world. Connecting the past to the present is not easy or clear-cut, nor should it be mono-causal. The challenge for the historically-minded observer of the present is to identify the larger structures of the past that play a role in shaping the present.

Do you have thoughts, remarks or questions after reading this contribution? Let us know and don’t hesitate to leave a reply.