Externalising the ‘Refugee Crisis’: A Consequence of Historical Denial?

By Aydan Greatrick, University College London

The Global North has struggled to respond to the ‘Refugee Crisis’ in coherent and meaningful ways, in part because of policy short-termism that fails to take history seriously. If we are to find better ways of responding to displacement, we must re-examine our historic assumptions, and attempt to move beyond our premature conclusions about the best shape of our humanitarian institutions – especially at the international level.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, international institutions – including humanitarian ones – have been increasingly swept up in a narrative of historical modernity that no longer makes sense. The collapse of the Soviet Union appeared as the final, inevitable, victory of democratic capitalism over tyranny and oppression, allowing institutions and states to adopt a set of assumptions about the political directions of other states and societies, particularly in the Global South. At this juncture, some prematurely claimed that the world had reached the ‘end of history’, an interpretation that no doubt informed the assurances of policy makers and governments in the North who found ample motivation to intervene in the Global South, on both humanitarian and military grounds, in response to emerging threats to international peace and security. Subsequently, the Arab Spring was interpreted as the culmination of this trajectory in the Middle East and North Africa: Syria’s 2011 to Berlin’s 1989.

Since 2011 however, as the ‘Refugee Crisis’ began to arrive on the shores of Europe, such narratives of historical modernity lost their persuasive force. The complexities of the situation, and the hostile responses that greeted many refugees, revealed a Europe devoid of those very values typically used to justify foreign or humanitarian intervention: liberal compassion, universal human rights, international protection and – in some instances, particularly in Hungary – democracy. As such, the ‘Refugee Crisis’ is not a crisis sustained by refugee flows, but a product of the North’s deeply entrenched pathology of historical denial that has made it difficult to produce policy solutions that fall outside of a narrow historical framework. As Reece Jones has argued, policy makers have subsequently worked to “limit the geographical and temporal scope of the discussion by focusing on the war in Syria and the migrants fleeing that conflict” rather than on a more structural, long-term analysis of our international systems of governance.

The tragic consequences of this trend are most clearly evident at the EU borderline, which has seen thousands of refugees perish in the Mediterranean, whilst others remain contained in their ‘region of origin’. This more generally reflects the ways in which European states, in response to the ‘Refugee Crisis’, have earnestly externalised their responsibilities to states like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan through deals like the EU-Turkey agreement. This has allowed EU states to push back refugees, breaching long-standing norms related to refoulement, producing a dangerous – and illegal – precedent in the management of human mobility. Unfortunately, and in spite of these trends, these policies have been justified as a measured and reasonable response to a ‘Refugee Crisis’ that otherwise threatens to overwhelm the EU and its member states.

Waiting, near Thessaloniki, Greece. (c) Avicenna Hilfswerk e.V.

Overcoming the deep historical contradictions that exist in the Global North – contradictions that must be meaningfully engaged with, so that international norms relating to displacement can be properly maintained and indeed expanded in response to new political challenges – is imperative for humanitarians. Ways forward can, fortunately, be gleamed from the work of numerous historians, most notably Jo Guldi and David Armitage, whose book The History Manifesto offers a number of striking examples of how history has been marginalised by short-termist, market orientated policy processes, often at the expense of more nuanced, effective decision making. Engaging with such approaches has also been prioritised in the field of refugee studies, where scholars are beginning to argue for more interdisciplinarity so that we might overcome the ‘academic partition’ that has been allowed to form between historians on the one hand, and social scientists on the other.

Finally, as is the case with the Refugee Hosts project, which is investigating local responses to displacement in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, efforts are being taken to demarginalise different histories of displacement within policy processes, providing opportunities to improve responses to forced migration that have otherwise relied on a short-termist and narrow historical mindset. To this end, academics are looking to engage with marginalised histories as a means of uncovering ‘alternative humanitarianisms’ – including diverse models of ‘South-South humanitarianism’ – capable of improving international and northern responses to displacement.

In this way, a deep engagement with history becomes an extremely valuable tool that may help to explain, understand and process the complexity of global politics which has otherwise been obscured by our premature conclusions about the best shape and form of our institutions. Indeed, that these institutions are also being undermined by other forms of bad history, such as the promise of nationalism in Europe, highlights the need for a thorough engagement with the past, lest we drift aimlessly toward a continued state of denial. To this end, historical approaches – as Lyndsey Stonebridge has argued – may become a means of tearing us from our “amnesia,” allowing us to form new narratives and institutions that accurately reflect the complexity both of the crises in which displaced peoples and hosting communities find themselves, and the crises of thought that allows the EU and other institutions to respond to displacement in a way that is inconsistent with its norms.

Rising to this challenge will require us to produce knowledge co-productively, particularly with displaced and hosting communities in the Global South, an approach espoused by the Refugee Hosts project. Far from encouraging a sense of denial, history will then help to displace the narrow historical frameworks that have underpinned current policy responses to the ‘Refugee Crisis’, working to produce a system of historical knowledge within humanitarian thinking that moves beyond the not-so-post-colonial epistemes of the present.


Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) ‘Repressentations of Displacement from the Middle East and North Africa,Public Culture, 28(3)

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Pacitto, J. (2015) “Writing the Other into Humanitarianism: A Conversation Between ‘South-South’ and ‘Faith-Based’ Humanitarianisms” in Sezgin, Z. and Dijkzeul, D. (Eds.) The New Humanitarians in International Practice: Emerging Actors and Contested Principles (Routledge)

Fröhlich, C. (2016) “The European Response to the Syrian Civil War: Pathologies UncoveredE-International Relations.

Fukuyama, F. (1992) The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press)

Guldi, J. and Armitage, D. (2014) The History Manifesto (Cambridge University Press)

Jones, R. (2016) Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move (Verso)

Stonebridge, L. (2015) “What History Tells Us About the Refugee Crisis,” New Humanist


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