Interview with Jordanna Bailkin, Jere L. Bacharach Endowed Professor in International Studies in the Department of History at the University of Washington. She is the author of three books: most recently, Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain (Oxford, 2018).

Firstly, could you tell us a little about your latest book ‘Unsettled: Refugee camps and the making of multicultural Britain’?

Refugee camps are a forgotten site of Britain’s history. There’s a lot of pride in Britain for offering refuge to a number of different groups in the 20th century, but the fact that many of those people lived in camps is a much more readily forgotten part of the story. The spaces where the camps were are rarely marked or memorialised in any way.

I had the experience many times while conducting research where I would be standing on the site of a former camp and speaking with people who had lived there for a long time and I would tell them I was researching refugee camps and they would say “Oh that’s interesting are you going to go to Germany or Poland?”  There would often just be no local memory of the camps.

So the book is an effort to bring the camps back to life and think about the kinds of inter-personal encounters that took place within them, what daily life looked like and how they changed the lives of the people who lived within them and the local communities around them.

How did you first become interested in the topic of British refugee camps?

My last book was ‘The Afterlife of Empire’ which looked at the impact of decolonisation on the welfare state in Britain; thinking about the end and redeployment of imperial power which found new forms in Britain itself. As part of that project I was reading about new towns and urban planning in post-war Britain and I happened to find a throwaway comment by one planning official, who said when the Ugandan Asians get out of these camps it would be good to funnel them to New Towns as we don’t want them coming out of the camps and into cities that already have high levels of immigrant populations.

Several aspects of this struck me as strange. I had never heard of these camps and digging into that a little I found there were actually sixteen different camps for Ugandan Asians from 1972-1973 throughout Britain. Originally I thought the book would solely be about these camps, as they were very interesting spaces offering rich insights and there’s a lot of oral history to be shared as many who lived there are still alive.

But when I began exploring those stories I found that many of the Ugandan Asian camps had been used by refugee populations before. Again those memories had been erased or covered over. These spaces would open up as governments declared emergencies and then they would close down again. Different groups of refugees would often be thought of as totally disconnected and having nothing to do with one another. One of the key features of the book was having a map made of the spaces where refugees lived and try to show how many of them were repurposed and recycled for refugees over the course of the 20th century.

These camps have largely been wiped from Britain’s modern memory but what was or is their cultural significance?

These spaces were incredibly important for providing communication across cultures. This happened in a number of different ways. One of the more obvious ways is that as Britons volunteered in these camps they were exposed to new cultures, new music, new foods. Some were hostile to that and others found it fascinating and forged lifelong relationships (and sometimes marriages) with refugees. Without seeing the camps, we miss a whole aspect of multicultural encounters in 20th century Britain.

The other way those encounters took place, which is more surprising to me as it’s much less talked about, was that homeless and poor Britons would move through refugee camps under the official radar. In the 40’s and 50’s there were poor Irish people who lived in Polish camps or would move through the camp at different times. At one point the National Assistance Board, the key department dealing with poverty, actually set up a centre for poor Britons on the site of a Polish refugee camp. I think they were trying to imagine poor Britons and refugees together, to understand if their needs were the same, if they have different kinds of aid they require, how both groups could be turned into productive citizens. I thought this was interesting, that the relationship between citizen and refugee isn’t just one of people who give aid versus people who need aid – but it’s actually much more politically and emotionally complicated than that.

What were these camps like?

There was tremendous variety in the types of spaces that refugees inhabited in Britain. Some people were housed in stately homes in conditions of relative luxury but the most standard experience was in army or air force bases, either in barracks or huts. The American bases tended to be more luxurious than the austere British camps.

Some of the bases had been abandoned for years but others were still active, so you had refugees crossing paths with British soldiers on active duty, which creates a very different kind of environment than a base that’s abandoned. One chapter deals with the built environment of refugee camps and how different camps affected the local community. Some bases were hated because they created environmental problems and soldiers had bad relationships with the locals. Others were very valued places of commemoration, so on particular dates relating to the war, people would come to the base to remember and pay respects.

Whereabouts were such camps generally located?

A cartographer named Bill Nelson created a map for this book, and when I first saw it, it instantly became more visible to me how widespread these camps were and how they covered every part of Britain. There are concentrations of these camps, near ports for example, but they were also in a lot of unexpected places: for example, in North Wales.

One of my arguments is that as we get later into the 20th century and have greater numbers of refugees who are people of color, there’s much more governmental concern with controlling what happens with refugees after they leave the camps. One of the ways governments tried to do this was by placing camps in more remote locations to keep refugees from moving to large cities that already have a high immigrant concentration. This turns out to be a huge failure. It didn’t have a big impact on broader patterns of refugee resettlement at all but it caused a lot of disruption in refugees’ lives when they had to live far from urban centres – in terms of their search for housing and their search for employment.

Using location as a way to control racial and ethnic patterns of settlement in Britain is something different government officials had talked about trying to do with migrants of colour, but ultimately felt it was impossible to impinge on migrants’ freedoms in this way. The refugee camps presented a new opportunity to try (and fail) to control the racial map of Britain.

For how long a time were people intended to be living there?

Again there was tremendous variety, some would be in the camps for just a few days, especially if they already had relatives in Britain. Other groups, particularly Hungarian refugees, very quickly re-emigrated to the US and Canada, so not every group was intended to resettle in Britain itself. But some groups had very delayed resettlement and Polish refugees really stand out there, with Polish camps open for decades. This makes it all the more interesting that these camps are not typically memorialised. There was one camp that ultimately was turned into an old age home for Polish refugees because it was open for so long and it proved too complicated to resettle the elderly people within it.

The Ugandan Asian camps were all only open from 1972-1973, a relatively short period of time. When speaking with those that ran these camps, they often made them sound like success stories about speedy resettlement. But when talking to people who lived there I got a clearer sense of the traumas caused by the abrupt closure of the camps. Particularly through family separation.  Many would have benefitted from a more structured resettlement process over time.

Were these camps only intended for refugees?

There is no dedicated government department for refugees in Britain. During different refugee crises we see multiple departments get involved to deal with each particular instance – the Home Office, the National Assistance Board, the Colonial Office even. Part of those assignments of responsibility depends how each refugee group is conceived of and understood in relation to Britain and poor Britons in particular. This is something you see a lot of thought and hand wringing given to, about whether analogies can be drawn between poor people and refugees. Are there fundamental similarities between them? Will they compete with each other for resources and be a threat to each other? Does it make sense to conceive of them all as people in need of the states help? Different solutions were posed at different moments in time but they were never satisfactorily resolved.

It was clearly much easier to make connections between refugees and citizens in the aftermath of the Second World War, when a lot of Britons have been bombed out their homes, living in temporary housing, experiencing mass feeding and canteens – experiences which are more “refugee like”. Their own displacement and homelessness leads many of them to seek shelter in refugee camps. During the Polish refugee crisis, demobilised British soldiers actually occupy camps intended for Poles and squat there as they don’t have adequate state housing provided for them. So the camps were places where some Britons felt they could and should seek help.

Those connections became more strained in the 1970s and 1980s as it was more difficult for Britons to think of themselves as undergoing an experience like that and more difficult for the state to think of them in that way too. One of the changes I track in the book is that refugees become less aligned with the poor in the mind of the stat over timee, and more aligned with “ordinary” migrants. This is often to the detriment of the rights of refugees.

One of the interesting aspects of this history is that many of the refugees had British passports. Many of the Anglo-Egyptians and Ugandan Asians were British subjects, so there’s an interesting paradox in Britain where you can be a refugee and a citizen at the same time, which is another reason why I think those identities can become blurred in Britain in the 20th century – in ways that are more difficult for us to imagine now.

You mention people volunteering at the camps, were there many instances of solidarity from the local population?

It was very common. There were a lot of different types of people who came to work in the camps. Some were ex-colonial civil servants who tended to be more politically conservative and see their work with refugees as an outgrowth of their earlier imperial service.

Alongside this, especially in the 70’s and 80’s, you would have significant numbers of young radical, anti-colonial students who had a lot of clashes with the civil servants. There were a lot of contrasting visions even amongst Britons about what the camps should be like, what the future for the refugees should hold, and what rights refugees should have.

Were there many examples of political activism in the camps?

In all of the camps I looked at there were efforts to organise by refugees and efforts to participate in political life. One common method of resistance to camp authorities was  the hunger strike, because when people are in conditions of restricted freedom they often use their own bodies as vehicles of resistance. Some protests are about improving material conditions within the camp but they were also often about opportunities to express one’s own culture, freedom of movement, and family reunification.

Camp authorities would often move people when they perceived them to be a politically organised group – this happened a lot in the Ugandan Asian camps. When people would come to a camp leader to try and lobby for changes, that conversation would end with those people being split up and sent to other camps.

When did Britain begin to move away from the camp model and how would you describe the situation which has replaced it?

The book ends in the 1980’s, not because refugees stop coming to Britain, but the era of camps essentially came to an end. The laws of asylum became increasingly restrictive.

There are no longer places in Britain that we would characterize as refugee camps but there is a rapidly expanding network of immigration detention centres – – which is quite an important and terrifying transition that has taken place in the 21st century. Some of those places used to house refugees  One example being Harmondsworth, the detention centre at Heathrow airport. In the 70’s it was used for stateless Ugandan Asians – those who did not hold British passports and were unable to file for them before being expelled.

A group of Ugandan Asian women, who were married to stateless men, lobbied very effectively to have their husbands enter legally. They make the case that they won’t be able to leave the resettlement camps and settle into the community until their husbands enter because they needed to have the breadwinner and “head of household” with them. Their husbands mostly wound up being released from Harmondsworth.  Harmondsworth functions as a detention centre today, and has grown exponentially in size.

Are there any important lessons that can be learnt from this time which are applicable in Europe today?

These camps made me think about the relationship between aid and detention and what it means to be resettled. What does it truly mean to be “resettled”?

The refugee camps of the 20th century were very different from today’s detention centres but in these camps we can see precedents for controlling the movements of refugees. The coupling of material aid and physical detention has a very long history in Britain, going back to the imperial era (the book ‘Barbed-Wire Imperialism’ by Aidan Forth deals with that imperial chapter of the story). But even just looking at the 20th century I think we can see a wide variety of ways in which refugees, in order to take refuge, always had to accept profound limits on their physical and political freedoms and I think that has established a prehistory for many of the policies we see today.

One of the main questions that comes out of the book is how do liberal democracies grapple with those kinds of limitations on physical and political freedom? And what incursions on those freedoms are we as liberal democracies willing to accept?


This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin . You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.