From the History of Refugees to Refugee History

The plight of refugees has again become a dominant focus of public debate as it was in the aftermath of the two world wars. It seems to speak to the desperation of displaced people and the intransigent stance adopted by many governments. In reflecting on the stance and role of historians, this talk proposes a history of population displacement that is attentive to the circumstances, actions and trajectories of refugees in different times and places, and what it means for refugees to encounter government officials and aid agencies, and to interact with one another as well as with people who had not been displaced. In thinking about refugees as agents rather than as flotsam and jetsam, the talk considers how refugees have expressed themselves, including as historians of their own predicament. My talk draws upon my own research and upon the growing historiography on key sites and moments of displacement in the 20th century. Ultimately it invites the listener to think about the category of ‘refugee’ and the contours of ‘refugee history’.

Peter Gatrell is at professor of history at Manchester University, UK.  He primarily a historian of population displacement in the modern world. Most of his current research activity is devoted to a monograph on the history of Europe since 1945, with a focus on migration in/to Europe. This will be published by Penguin Books and Basic Books.

This presentation was made as a part of the Global Mobility Project at The Ohio State University. Learn more about the project at