The movement of people across borders, seas and deserts saturate contemporary international news headlines. Refugees are often described in legalistic and sensationalistic terms: the assumption being that the search for refuge is an exceptional and out-of-character experience that should take place within the parameters of international law. Yet the language used to speak about the movement of people has as much to do with its historical context than the actual experiences of movement and migration. Indeed, the history of migration is an ancient one, while attempts to control and rationalize the movement of people only arose with the modern state.
In Elusive Refuge: Chinese Migrants in the Cold War (Harvard University Press, 2016) Laura Madokoro spotlights the history of migrants leaving the post-1949 People’s Republic of China for the then-British colony of Hong Kong and beyond. This movement—and the millions of people who fled China—was largely ignored, especially when compared to displaced peoples in Europe. In addition to recovering these stories, Dr. Madokoro argues that framed in the context of the Cold War they can tell us much about humanitarianism, geopolitics and the shadow of settler colonialism, from the Antipodes to North America and South Africa.
I recently met with Laura Madokoro in Montreal, where she works as a historian at McGill University. She discussed the politics of migration during the global Cold War, the revelatory nature of language when describing people in motion, and her current and future research plans. Elusive Refuge is her first book. You can follow her on twitter via @LauraMadokoro and keep an eye on the evolution of her current projects here.