States before statelessness: understanding the colonial past to the refugee present

‘Refugees are stateless … They are outcasts and outlaws of a novel kind, the products of globalisation … Refugees are human waste, with no useful function to play in the land of their arrival … from their present place, the dumping site, there is no return and no road forward …’ (Bauman, 2004).

The above quotation has great meaning for me. I moved from Syria to England in 2013 and, this year, I was awarded an Economic and Social Research Council scholarship to undertake doctoral research on the educational experiences of refugees resettled in England. My research interest comes from a desire to work on a topic that connects me to the current reality of my home country. But, equally, to share the stories of those who have been forced to make a new life in communities which can be hostile to difference and often ignorant of the legacy of cultural conflict between Western and Middle Eastern countries.

I, like many Syrians, moved to live in a European society at a time when immigration policies are at the core of electoral campaigns . As nationalist parties in Europe become more popular, migrants and refugees are far more likely to face patronising attitudes in the West compared to previous years. Whilst some newspapers are flooded with articles on the negative impact of immigration and the refugee crisis, others attempt to defend the vulnerable by showing how refugees and asylum seekers are victimised.

My own views about the treatment of migrants and refugees emerge from an inherited scepticism. I believe that those of us who grew up in a postcolonial era in the Middle East are cautious of ‘the other’ and, especially, ‘the Western other’. The history of our region is complex. Not even a century has passed since Syria gained independence from France. The legacy of colonisation is still apparent. It is therefore not so easy to tolerate the condescension of a Western European.

Miller (2016) has argued for the legitimate concern of host societies towards immigrants and their demographic impact on society. Moreover, he supports a more precise definition of refugees to cover the majority of those fleeing the Syrian conflict who are not eligible to claim asylum in non-neighbouring countries e.g. European Union Member States. Once these people cross the Syrian border into Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, they are no longer considered to be under any immediate threat and therefore have no need to move further. This view can be popular among right-wing nationalist and anti-immigrant groups in Europe.

And while the Left is overly concerned with facts and data about the current Syrian crisis, as well as portraying the suffering of victims of the Syrian regime through the media, there is little or no analysis of the modern history of the country. Today’s refugees are the grandchildren of victims of the French colonisation of Syria and the British colonisation of Palestine. And a question that always occurs to me when I visit a French or British museum to admire the artefacts from Iraq, Syria, Egypt and many other former colonies is: do European people realise what their ancestors did in the Middle East less than 100 years ago?

In a time when the world is facing one refugee crisis after another, people need to understand how their own histories have contributed to the refugees’ present. We need to accept our responsibility to each other. And we need to come together despite the differences which others will use to try to keep us apart. For, as Korczak (1967) writes, we are:

‘A hundred children — a hundred individuals who are people — not people to be, not people of the future, not people of tomorrow, but people now … right now … today. Not a miniature world but a real world of values, virtues, shortcomings, aspirations and desires not trifling, but significant, not innocent but human’ (Korczak, 1967).


Bauman Z. (2004) Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts. Oxford: Polity

Korczak J. (1967) Selected works of Janusz Korczak. Published for the National Science Foundation by the Scientific Publications Foreign Cooperation Center of the Central Institute for Scientific, Technical and Economic Information, Warsaw. [Available from the U.S. Dept. of Commerce Clearinghouse for Federal Scientific and Technical Information, Springfield, Va.]

Miller D. (2016) Strangers in Our Midst. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Photograph by Syrian photographer Rayan Azhari:



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