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.