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Who counts as a refugee?
Who counts as a refugee?

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5.2 National identity and diasporic citizenship

National identity is frequently associated with country of origin and place of birth. This association created difficulties for many Jewish refugees in the 1930s who, like Lotte and Wolja, had to flee their country of origin. Despite the fact that he had his German nationality revoked and was stateless, the UK authorities viewed Wolja as ‘German’ because he was born in Berlin. In May 1940, when a German invasion was feared, many such people were deemed to be ‘enemy aliens’ and were arrested and interned, mainly on the Isle of Man. Wolja was interned as a German national whose loyalty to the UK was not absolutely certain. The letters between Lotte and Wolja at this time speak of her attempts to get him registered as ‘stateless’ and to secure his release. His letters express his anxiety about her health and safety and about his parents, now in Romania, his fears that he will be deported to Australia or Canada against his will, without her, and the injustice of his situation.

In one of these (unpublished) letters he asked her to find a solicitor:

He should immediately call on Home Office and establish my non-German nationality. As my departure from here may occur very soon, he should apply for postponement of my departure pending decision of nationality question … it is really a pity that I should waste my time in internment camps although I could do extremely useful work for this country. As the Authorities sometimes object to my having applied for naturalization in Germany, I want you to explain in reply: my parents came to Germany because of antisemitic persecution in their home countries, Rumania and Poland. Thus, in comparison, Germany before the national socialism appeared to me to be a refuge. Then I was persecuted in Germany as a Jew. That is the whole story. Thus there should be no reason not to allow me to continue my work, or some work, for this country. I hope you will succeed.

This letter illustrates starkly that national identity is not fixed or static, but a process which may involve complex negotiations. The Jewish refugees allowed in were those judged to be assimilable into the national culture by adapting to the ‘English’ way of life. The refugee organisations supporting the refugees advised them to be as invisible as possible, and never to speak German in public places (Kushner, 1994). In practice, Lotte and Wolja, like many other refugees, put down roots, made friends, found work and had children. Although the children became more or less ‘invisible’, Lotte and Wolja retained a sense of being viewed as ‘foreigners’ for the rest of their lives. This can be understood in terms of an analysis of the meanings of ‘national identity’:

Nations tend to be imagined as racially and ethnically homogeneous … If the nation is imagined as being made up of people said to be of the same colour and said to have the same ethnic origins, then all those who are defined as not meeting these two criteria can be constructed as being ‘outside’ the nation, as not rightfully a part of it.

(Lewis, 1998, p. 101)

This idea of racial and ethnic homogeneity was taken to an extreme in Nazi Germany, forcing Lotte and Wolja to flee because they were Jewish, even though ‘Jewishness’ had previously not been a central part of their identity. They were constructed as ‘Jews’ by a racist state, and had to construct themselves as ‘Jews’ in order to qualify as refugees and receive financial assistance from Jewish organisations in Germany and England. London (2000) describes the ‘deal’ that the British government did with Jewish communities in the UK to ensure that they would look after those refugees who were allowed in. Such a deal has a contradiction running through it. On the one hand, it depends upon a particular notion of ethnic belonging, and can be seen as one example of ‘diasporic citizenship’: that is, one not premised on the boundaries of a nation-state. On the other hand, it also helps to maintain a hegemonic version of citizenship expressing a natural correspondence between a given state and its constituent population.

The idea of a diaspora – a dispersal or scattering of a population – is a concept employed by postcolonial perspectives. It is used to ‘capture the complex sense of belonging that people can have to several different places, all of which they may think of as home’ (Valentine, 2001, p. 313). The idea of ‘diasporic citizenship’ therefore challenges the assumption that there is a relationship between a particular group or ethnic identity and a particular territory. It recognises that people have multiple identities that derive not only from place and ethnicity, but also from movements between different places, from historical relationships, as well as from religion, gender, class and so on.

Victor's relationship to being ‘British’ illustrates this idea of diasporic citizenship. For him, because of British colonial history, the UK was an ‘imagined home’. But he also saw himself as continuing to ‘belong’ in Fiji. His great-great-grandfather was ‘brought [to Fiji] by the British from colonial India in 1879 to toil on the sugar plantations as “overseas bonded labourer in exile”’ (Lal, 1997, p. 1):

The racist coup also shattered my planned return journey from Oxford to Fiji, and forced me to travel down an unfamiliar road into exile. But, unlike my great-great-grandparents, I was filled with a belief that Fiji was (and still is) as much mine by ‘right of vision’ as it is mine by ‘right of birth’.

(Lal, 1997, p. 2)

Brah's (1996) distinction between two notions of ‘home’ can help make sense of Victor's experience. The first is a sense of home as belonging to a nation:

In racialised or nationalist discourses this signifier can become the basis of claims … that a group settled ‘in’ a place is not necessarily ‘of’ it … In Britain, racialised discourses of the ‘nation’ continue to construct people of African descent and Asian descent, as well as certain other groups, as being outside the nation …

… the second … on the other hand, is an image of ‘home’ as the site of everyday lived experience. It is a discourse of locality, the place where feelings of rootedness ensue from the mundane and the unexpected of daily practice. Home here connotes our networks of family, kin, friends, colleagues and various other ‘significant others’ … the social and psychic geography of space … a community ‘imagined’ in most part through daily encounter. This ‘home’ is a place with which we remain intimate even in moments of intense alienation from it. It is a sense of ‘feeling at home’.

(Brah, 1996, pp. 3–4)