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Imogen Dobie (University of Oxford)
‘We are all Vietnamese Jews’: the historical connections of search and rescue

This paper concerns the history of humanitarian search and rescue operations, exploring how aid workers rescuing individuals at sea connect their projects to historical stories of displacement and refuge. The paper draws on three examples. First, it examines how search and rescue NGOs assisting Vietnamese ‘boat people’ in the 1970s drew on the history of the Holocaust to justify their work to European states. Second, it examines the story of the MV Tampa, a Norwegian vessel that rescued 438 asylum seekers in 2001, and whose crew drew on centuries-old oral histories of maritime rescue to explain their motivation for the operation. Finally, it looks at the contemporary work of SOS Méditerranée, a search and rescue NGO established in 2015 with explicit reference to the foundation of Germany’s national lifesaving service in 1865. These three examples all show how search and rescue projects – predominately only discussed in connection to contemporary debates on migration – in fact connect to much deeper histories of displacement and relief. The historical experience of seeking or providing refuge therefore stands as a central reference point for humanitarian work at sea.

Paladia Ziss (University of Birmingham)
Memories and/or absence of histories: the mobilisation of historical narratives in social science research on displacement from the Middle East to Germany before and beyond ‘2015’

Since 2015, more than one million refugees mostly from the Middle East arrived in Germany. In the ensuing flurry of social science research into the newcomers’ experiences of arrival, reception and integration, ‘2015’ has almost become a shorthand for a unique turning point in Germany’s migration history (Oltmer, 2020). Yet migration and displacement to Germany from the Middle East and elsewhere existed before ‘2015’: exiles from Iraq and Syria arrived since the 1960s, Iranians since the 1979 revolution and Kurdish and leftist Turkish refugees settled in Germany after the 1980 coup. This interdisciplinary paper explores how historical narratives of these previous episodes of displacement are currently mobilised in social science research on Middle Eastern refugees in Germany since 2015. Which role, if any, do these legacies of displacement play in academic research on ‘2015’ and beyond? When and where are (dis)continuities of displacement acknowledged, and which silences emerge? In exploring the mobilisation and absences of historical narratives in social sciences research, this paper seeks to move beyond a decontextualised understanding of ‘2015’ as a localised and ahistorical event. In doing so, it destabilises the prevalent imagination of ‘2015’ as the encounter of an homogenous “German society” with mostly “Muslim” strangers.


All welcome, this seminar is free to attend but booking is required.

Please note that bookings will close 24 hours in advance, so that seminar convenors can distribute the meeting link directly to all registered attendees.

This event is based on discussion of short pre-circulated papers. Please contact the seminar convenors to request copies: doingrefugeehistory@gmail.com