Writing the Histories of People in Motion: An Interview with Laura Madokoro

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Laura Madokoro, McGill University

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.

–Martin Crevier

MARTIN CREVIER: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

LAURA MADOKORO: I have a bit of a rambling academic trajectory. My graduate career started with an M.A. at the University of Toronto. I then took a long break from academia, working at Library and Archives Canada as the archivist in charge of the immigration portfolio. It gave me a very strong sense of the collection and its potential for research.

When I was thinking of coming back to academia, one of the things I was interested in was Canada’s response to refugees in the Cold War – think of the well-known stories such as those of the Hungarians and the Czechs and the Indochinese. I decided to do my PhD at the University of British Columbia. This was an incredibly fortuitous decision. There is a profound difference in the way different parts of Canada perceive Canada’s national history. This is in part due to the influence and presence of the Pacific World on the West Coast in ways that are absent elsewhere in the country. And so, chance and circumstance brought me to an institution with a very different outlook to that which I was trained and brought up with. I am of Canadian-Japanese heritage, but grew up in rural Québec, where there was very little in the way of obvious connections with Pacific Canada.

As I was starting my PhD, I happened to read a sentence in a textbook that mentioned that Canada had accepted refugees from Hong Kong in 1962. I thought that was amazing. I had never heard of this movement, even though it was the first time the Canadian state had resettled refugees from Asia. Yet we do not celebrate this event in the way we do with the Indochinese refugee movement of the late 1970s, for instance. My thesis started as a way to understand the story of migrants in Asia and how their experiences dovetailed with an international community that was largely trying to minimize its responsibility towards refugees, especially those beyond Europe.

One of the things that became very clear when I started to do this research was that it wasn’t a Canadian story, but a white settler story. Other countries such as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa had similar reservations about reaching out to refugees in Asia during the Cold War despite all their rhetoric and liberal high politics (South Africa was the exception that proved the rule because it never advanced any notion of being liberal or democratic in the Apartheid years). So my project evolved from a very national project to one about refugee movements, the history of the term ‘refugee,’ and what this teaches us about humanitarianism and the history of white settler societies.

Afterwards, I did a postdoc at Columbia University for a year. This was amazing as I got to work with one of my intellectual heroes, Mae Ngai.

CREVIER: The words used to describe people in motion are central to your research. For example, Elusive Refuge begins with a quote from an American official using the term “rice refugee.” Why do these words matter?

MADOKORO: Language is very important. One of the things that I find interesting in my field of refugee studies is that it is dominated by legal scholars and social scientists. Because of the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the meaning of the word “refugee” is taken as a given. This international definition tells us in very narrow terms who the international community considers to be a refugee and sets out the responsibility of states to provide asylum on the basis of that definition. But that definition only emerged in 1951 and within a particular set of circumstances.

One of the things historians can therefore do is to interrogate in profound ways the history of the term: why it gets used in certain ways after the Second World War and specifically, how refugees come to be defined as politically persecuted. We have seen an evolution in the political definition of the term, but legally it has not really evolved beyond the 1951 framework and so remains very narrow. Because the definition is so specific, refugees tend to be portrayed as extreme or as out of the ordinary. In fact, the history of movement is a very long one, while the history of border controls, including regarding ‘refugees,’ is a relatively recent phenomena that carried forth from the nineteenth century. This means that the debates we are having today about how to talk about people in motion – refugees, immigrants, migrants, illegal migrants, etc. – are all a product of systems that are designed to control movements. They do not reflect the long history that preceded strong nation states and border controls.

It is really important as we are having these debates to reflect on who refugees were and are. Fundamentally, they are human beings in motion. In the book, I spend some time explaining why I use the term “migrant”. My rational was not to suggest that the people I was writing about or engaging with weren’t victims of political persecutions or hadn’t fled terrible situations. Rather, I was trying to capture a whole spectrum of experiences. Within the spectrum, some wanted to be described as refugees; some figure out that claiming that label was one way for them to access mobility options that wouldn’t exist otherwise. That was very important in the Cold War where countries like the US and Canada made exceptions for refugees when they were not making exceptions for broader migrant categories.

I talk a lot about refugeehood and migration because I really think there needs to be attention to the analytical spaces people were moving through and how the term refugee is used in different ways. That applies to migrants as well as humanitarians who advocated on behalf of people by emphasising their ‘refugee’ experiences—and by states that sometimes advanced their liberal-democratic image by playing up the refugee category while narrowing it in other ways. There is a risk in doing that because some people feel attached to the term refugee and I wouldn’t want to suggest that the people I was writing about were not refugees, but I wanted to complicate the idea that it is obvious to judge who and who is not a refugee and to underscore that there were all kinds of processes at play that shape when and how someone becomes a refugee. In some ways, I am trying to account for the spaces and time in-between.

CREVIER: Elusive Refuge takes us through various settler colonial spaces: New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, the United States. What is it about these spaces that warrants them being studied together? And what about the period you choose to study? Histories of immigration policies in the English-speaking world – thinking of Henry Reynold and Marylyn Lake’s Drawing the Global Color Line­(Cambridge University Press, 2008) – tend to focus on the turn of the century.

MADOKORO: One of the original titles for the book was Redrawing the Global Color Line– very much inspired by Henry Reynold and Marylyn Lake’s book. What they did was so important. In particular, they captured the emotion; they got at the fear that animated white settler societies as they looked at the shifting global landscape in the early twentieth century.

I was struck by the narrative of progress in the postwar period for all these settler spaces (though this is less so for South Africa). The history of becoming more liberal or multicultural is always told with such confidence. But when I was looking at the records, both in terms of the drafting of the convention on the status of refugees and the records that looked at Chinese migration from all parts of the diaspora, fear and anxiety were manifest. That is profoundly important. That kind of fear and anxiety was being communicated by officials and across national borders. In the same way that these countries pointed to each other when they said ‘look how progressive we are being,’ we can also see an emotional affinity in terms of the concerns they expressed regarding opening the door, even ever so slightly, to refugees from China. The policies were being played out in national settings, but they were part of a larger global context.

The United States is always this awkward outlier when it comes to the history of settler colonialism because of its profoundly different relationship with the British Empire. What is interesting in the context of the Cold War is that the United States had to live up to its rhetoric in a way that other countries didn’t. In the 1960s, everyone was speaking in the language of humanitarianism, but the United States actually had to deliver. The 1953 Refugee Relief Act had important sections that dealt with Asia that predated what other countries did. The United States was thus connected, but also has a very distinct history.

That is true of South Africa as well. The challenge in connecting the histories of the white settler colonies is to recognize that there were commonalities and points of real intersections. Police officers in Australia were looking at what the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was doing in terms of controlling Chinese migration. But there were also variations and the challenge is to account for them. So, methodologically, South Africa was very useful in that regard. Like other countries it had similar legislation regarding Chinese migrants. But after the war, with the rise of Apartheid, there was no pretense that it was a liberal democracy open to some kind of immigration. They simply ignored the issue of refugees leaving the PRC. But as the international community started to isolate South Africa in the 1970s, its international discourse started to change. It becomes more aligned with Taiwan, which by then was also being marginalized internationally. The nature of Chinese migration to South Africa ultimately differs from that of the other white settler societies, which was very much focused on the PRC after the Second World War and throughout the Cold War.

There is value in thinking about connections and differences. It’s a very interesting exercise in terms of thinking about how rhetoric can bring states to act. It makes us understand that the nation state is not all-powerful and that it operates in real moments of uncertainty and fear and in conjunction with other states and non-state actors.

CREVIER: You argue that this insecurity is an inheritance of empire. How does this play out? And why have Canadian historians been reluctant to engage with this legacy?

MADOKORO: Canadian historians by and large have not wanted to think about Canada perpetuating empire. It has been a historiography focused on the individual state. The conventional narrative is, of course, that from the First World War empire gets left behind. But it doesn’t. Beyond the obvious ideas about racial hierarchies, the connections that Canada maintained with various parts of the empire were important in this story. Subtle networks of affinity and reference survived. There was a level of comfort in dealing with officials in Hong Kong because they were British colonial officials. That made the management of the refugee situation in Hong Kong different than in other places. Migrants were moving to and through a space that was both Chinese and British. That, I think, raised the awareness that the Canadian public had about events in Hong Kong, but – as with their counterparts in New Zealand and Australia – it also meant that their relationship with London, which sought to deter outside interest in the colony, tainted their view of the situation. Although attention was drawn, there was very little critique about how British officials in London or colonial authorities in Hong Kong were managing the situation.

The most important connection was the racialized dimension of the migration and immigration policies in all of these sites. Whiteness was essential—more so than language (which was of course complicated in the Canadian and South African contexts) or the British/American cleavage. The original intent to establish white settler societies was perpetuated in the postwar period as states worried about demographic projections and the desirability of immigrants.

CREVIER:So how is imperial whiteness reinvented during the global Cold War?

MADOKORO: This is one of the lessons of the book. I set out to tell the history of racism and how it had changed but not disappeared. But you quickly realize its more complicated than that. There is a weird othering that happens, with which I am sure we could find many contemporary examples. Notions about who was a deserving migrant took on increasing importance and this perpetuated powerful hierarchies, and redrew the global color line. Humanitarians were guilty of this but not in an intentionally bad way. They were trying to raise awareness and support for refugees in China but they ended portraying the people they wanted to help in ways that othered the refugees from the so-called benefactors in the West.

This included a very racialized dimension. Physical textual descriptions were more common than photographs. A feature of this was the language of masses – teaming, crowded masses. This, whether they realized it or not, echoed nineteenth century language about the yellow peril in Asia. This created empathy, but because the discourse was evolving in a historical context where migrants from Asia had been seen as undesirable, it translated into a desire to contribute financially as opposed to including refugees and migrants physically, through resettlement that would have them made them members of the body politic.

CREVIER: Oral history and photographs appear a lot in your research. How do you approach working with non-textual material and archives?

MADOKORO: I am a bit of an eclectic researcher. I hadn’t intended in the book to think about photographs, but once I saw the photographs themselves – a 1962 special issue of LIFE Magazine in particular –  it was clear that these had to be part of the story. In parallel, the textual records were quite dry: few diaries and many state and organizational records. There was very little space for the stories of the migrant themselves. It might sound cliché to say that the “migrants need to speak for themselves” but given my interest in how the notions of refuge and refugeehood played out in this time period, the fact that the state or humanitarians might be using the word ‘refugee’ told me something about people and circumstances but couldn’t tell me everything. I thus decided that I wanted to speak with as many people as possible about their migration experience.

The parameters for selecting potential participants were tricky, I ended up trying to interview anyone who had left the PRC after 1949. I did not explicitly seek ‘refugees,’ my categorization was intentionally open-ended. When I did my interviews, I described my project but did not want to assume people were refugees or who thought of themselves that way. It was difficult because some people did not want to be associated with the term while some were very comfortable with it. The latter were often those who had come later, as I ended up interviewing people who had come from Indochina. For many leaving the PRC, it was not clear if they were refugees because there wasn’t yet an international legal framework to support and categorize them as such. I was surprised at how much people relied on their official migrant categories to explain their migration experiences.

Certain stories also challenged what I was thinking in very important ways. For example, there is the story of Adrienne Clarkson, a scholar and former Governor General of Canada. Her story is not in the book because it predates the 1949 period. In her writings and public interventions, Clarkson speaks of her experience as a refugee experience. Yet her family came through Canada via a program of civilian and prisoners of war exchange. Her father was Australian and her mother was a Hong Kong-born British subject. They had no ties to Canada except that her father worked for the High Commission. When her family arrived in 1942, the Head Tax, which was first introduced in 1885 and was intended to discourage workers from Asian from migrating to Canada, was still officially on the books and yet she recounts their arrival and settlement as a story of welcome and acceptance. I really struggled as a historian with reconciling those two facts. Despite our best intentions, I think that as historians we want to have tidy narratives but the disconnect between legal frameworks and Adrienne Clarkson’s narrative is not a tidy history. In  reading her works and speaking with her, I had to think through messy histories that don’t connect.

CREVIER: The 1951 Convention Regarding the Status of Refugees is obviously important in all of this. Can you give us some context and insight on the drafting and making of the Convention?

Signing of the Convention Regarding the Status of Refugees on July 28 1951 in Geneva, Switzerland (Source: UNHCR.org)

MADOKORO: To this day, the 1951 Convention is the cornerstone of the legal framework around the protection of refugees. It defines who is a refugee. It mandates specifically – especially the article around non-refoulement– that you cannot send someone back if they face persecution. The historiography has evolved around a consensus that the convention was limited in three ways: in application, because of the focus on Europe; in time, because of its initial non-application to post-1951 circumstances; and in scope, because of its focus on individual persecution. The definition reflected the context of the Cold War. It also served the interest of countries like the United States that did not want to take on huge responsibilities for refugees essentially because there were millions of displaced people in Europe alone.

What troubles me about this historiography is that it sounds like 1951 was a highly humanitarian achievement. In fact, refugees in India and Asia were written out of the framework, while Africa never figured at all. The situation in Asia and India loomed in the drafters’ thinking, but only in the sense that it motivated them to make the convention as limited as possible. Furthermore, the historiography does not recognize that exclusion was not the only option. Signatories could choose if they wanted to apply the convention to Europe or to larger spaces. That all signatories, including white settler societies such as New Zealand and Australia decided to take the most restrictive option tells us a lot about how states sought to keep their responsibilities as narrow as possible.

The migrants I was researching were actually written out of the Convention. For me, it became all the more important to understand how different communities, including humanitarians advocated for a concept of refugee and refugeehood that went way beyond the 1951 document.

I was talking to someone recently who was really excited about the Global Refugee Compact, which is the current discussion about the best way to serve refugee communities. This person was talking about the spirit of international cooperation as it existed in 1951. I wasn’t convinced. There was a spirit of cooperation and discussion, but it was about how to keep responsibilities as narrow and as limited as possible so we have to be careful about how we frame the scope and intention of the 1951 Convention and we have to be really attentive to the circumstances that led to its creation.

CREVIER: Fast-forward to the fall of Saigon in 1975. The response to the Vietnamese refugee crisis is seen as a great humanitarian moment. Should we see it as such?

MADOKORO: It is extraordinary the amount of international attention that is focused on Indochina. The moment is important and significant, but it is also complicated. It comes on the heel of decades of advocacy on behalf of refugees in Asia and that is really important. I don’t want to speculate too much, but I wonder what would have happened in Indochina if there hadn’t been previous movements in the 1950s and 60s, if there hadn’t been missionaries and humanitarians in Hong Kong and elsewhere familiarizing audiences in the West with the idea that refugees in Asia were worthy of some kind of assistance. The danger is of assuming that the response to the crisis in Indochina came out of nowhere; that it was immediate and spontaneous. In fact, there was a lot of work that went into it. Related to that, the response is also delayed. Saigon fell in 1975 but you don’t see international efforts picking up until 1979 at the same time that the numbers of people leaving starts to become unbearable. Countries like Australia and Canada that had supported the US in the Vietnam War see it as a postwar involvement. For the American case, there has been a ton of literature on what resettling Indochinese refugees meant for recovering America’s moral high ground. Mimi Nguyen in The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Duke University Press, 2012) and other critical refugee scholars have written about how rescuing victims of communism served a redeeming purpose after a brutal war in Vietnam.

The state’s interest in carefully categorizing and managing movement really manifests itself in 1989 as various resettlement programmes are being closed down. It was another moment in the book when I was reminded that we cannot tell the history of refugees without the larger context of where people are moving. The Canadian government started to worry that they were not helping refugees as defined, but were advancing a family reunification program as a result of the requested sponsorships. This sort of activity fell into a different category of immigration, which was not what the program had set out to do. And so it the resettlement program closes down in part because Ottawa cannot keep these categories neat. We’ve talked about ‘refugee’ as a linguistic tool, but it is also a conceptual tool.

CREVIER: You co-edited Dominion of Race (UBC Press, 2017) last year with Francine McKenzie and David Meren. Your stated objective is to rewrite race into Canada’s international history. How did this project come about?

MADOKORO: The volume was well overdue and does not go nearly far enough. There is still much work to be done in this area. I think Canada’s international historiography has been constrained by a great interest in figuring out Canada’s place within and beyond the British Empire, and then vis-à-vis the United States. This has meant that instead of asking questions about Canada’s international presence in and of itself, it has been continuously defined in relation to other imperial projects. We have not had the chance to ask questions about what has animated Canada’s international history beyond these very powerful geopolitical frameworks. In Dominion of Race, these remain present but the contributors are questioning this predominant focus, asking for example why we haven’t talked of Canada and Africa in ways that are comparative in scope and size – although John Price’s book Orienting Canada: Race, Empire, and the Transpacific (UBC Press, 2011) was an important precursor to our project. We wanted to ask, “what does race do to Canada’s global history, what does it do to the substance of international policy?”

Dominion of Race was about starting an overdue conversation. The fact that it is overdue is also something we need to talk about. Why have the Americans been talking about this for decades? An important angle in our discussion is that Canadian historians have been complicit in perpetuating priorities.

CREVIER: How did you make the transition from your book and the edited volume to your current work on sanctuaries?

MADOKORO: There are many connections between these projects. In Dominion of Race, we also wanted to pick up on the profound change that happened in American international history where there has been a real focus on non-state actors as important international agents. For a long time, Canadian international history was primarily preoccupied with state actors. Certainly, there has been great studies of missionaries (Ruth Complon Brouwer’s New Women for God: Canadian Presbyterian Women and India Missions, 1876-1914 (University of Toronto Press, 1990) for instance) and NGOs, such as Andrew Thompson’s In Defence of Principles: NGOs and Human Rights in Canada (UBC Press, 2010) but nothing as substantive as in other historiographies.

That is a good segue to my current project, which is a history of sanctuary. A primary lesson I drew from my research for Elusive Refuge is that states don’t suddenly decide that they are interested in refugee issues. It has to be brought to their attention. Either for security reasons, which is the primary geopolitical way of understanding it, or as a response to humanitarian advocacy. In Hong Kong it started in the 1950s when missionaries were expelled from the People’s Republic of China and established themselves in the British Colony. They started to communicate information abroad about their experiences.  The relationship between states and humanitarians is not always an easy one. Advocacy often goes much further than what states are willing to do because states are interested in managing migrants whereas civil society thinks about helping people. I also came across a number of instances referring to the Chinese community protecting people from deportation by hiding them. What became clear is that there is a story of protection that goes beyond refugees and that goes beyond the state that we need to understand if we want to talk about how we help refugees and how we engage in the international community.

Related to that, I have a few projects. The biggest one is called Sites of Sanctuary and the other is called Refuge Beyond Refugees, but they are all connected to this question of sanctuary. Sanctuary, in legal and humanitarian terms, goes back to biblical times. It has a heyday in medieval England. It dies out in England, being removed as a statute in 1624. Yet sanctuary re-emerges in the Americas: in Latin America with liberation theology; in 1980s United States with Latin American refugees. The new sanctuary movement is about religious and secular communities protecting peoples using the medieval language of sanctuary, although there is no legal framework. This continues to today. The federal government in Canada has an unwritten policy that they will not violate the sanctuary of religious spaces, but the idea of what is a sacred space in Canada is now being contested. In 2006, an Algerian refugee was removed from a church although this was done by Quebec City’s police force, not the federal RCMP.

The Sites of Sanctuary project is empirically focused. I am simply trying to figure out where and when sanctuary occurred and who was involved. My approach is really broad and global. I am moving beyond religious spaces but definitely interested in instances when churches have intervened. I want to get at the relationship between civil society, religious authority and the state.

With Refuge without Refugees, I want to go somewhat further, though this is very much a Canada-focused project. Although I am still in the early days, I am struck by the number of instances where we can see people seeking refuge on First Nations reserves or other kinds of spaces connected to Indigenous-settler relations. There is a really interesting Indigenous-settler level to the story of sanctuary in Canada. For instance, I spent my summer reading scholarship on the seventeenth century French-Iroquois wars, following the trial and tribulations of the Wendat people. What is below the surface in this story is territory being offered as refuge or tribes adopting refugees and to think about what it means to offer refuge in the present on unceded territory.

There are all sorts of ways that we can think about protection that we haven’t properly addressed in our rush to speak of nations as sites of refuge. It is born out of my suspicions about the narrative of the Underground Railway in Canada, a network of safehouses and routes used by slaves to escape the American South, not to mention sanctuary during the Vietnam War. There is this very strong national narrative of Canada as a place of refuge. I get this on some level, but I think we haven’t stopped to think about what it means to be a place of refuge and how that might look really different from various perspectives. It’s going to look different from the state, for different civil society communities and for First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

CREVIER: You have published a lot outside of academic outlets. What do you think the historian can bring to the public sphere? Thinking generally, but also specifically about the current context where debates about immigration seem to be everywhere.

MADOKORO: I would say that my interest in engaging wider audiences is born out of a belief that history can tell us much about why we are the way we are today.

I wrote a short piece about the voyage of the St-Louis, which was the boat that came from Europe to Cuba, the United States and then Canada, all of which refused the large number of Jewish passengers from disembarking in 1939. Hundreds went back to Europe and perished in the Holocaust. For good reasons, this is seen as tragedy. Governments have learned of the voyage of the St-Louis. When the Indochinese refuge crisis was happening, the senior mandarins in the Canadian Department of Manpower and Immigration told their staff to read the book None is too Many (1982) by Irving Abella and Harold Troper, which is about the voyage of the St-Louis. Jack Manion, who was one of the heads of the department, said “this is not to happen on my watch; I do not want people writing books like this about the Indochinese refugees.” This is a very profound example of how a historical moment shapes policy decades later and how general knowledge can have a real impact. So for me it is important to write for scholarly audiences, as well as the general public, recognizing that the two aren’t really mutually exclusive.

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