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Answers to Topical Questions about Migration

Important knowledge for today’s society from files on emigration after 1945: Professor Christoph Rass and his study group at Osnabrück University use the ITS online archive and he also introduces his seminar students to the questionnaires published there. On the basis of these questionnaires once completed by concentration camp and forced labor survivors, it was decided whether they would receive support from the IRO Care and Maintenance Program. As Rass tells us in an interview, there are clear parallels to how we deal with refugees today.

Can you tell us a little bit about your project?

We use the files from the International Refugee Organization (IRO) from the point of view of historical migration research. These are core holdings for anyone interested in migration that comes about as a consequence of violence-induced mobility—that is, migration of persons who have been uprooted by force. The questions we ask these documents are different from those of classical research on Displaced Persons (DPs) or victims. Until now, these files have hardly been used as sources for negotiating mobility/migration opportunities after a violent event—for example to gain a better understanding of the structures and dynamics of resettlement processes. Essentially, the documents are the historical forerunners to highly topical issues. We consistently work with large samplings from the files, because our aim is to study not just individual cases, but also structures and developments.

Why exactly are they so relevant for the present?

The methods the IRO used to register people, decide their cases and resettle them resemble methods used today in many ways; in fact, the latter developed from the former to an extent. Take, for example, the current BAMF affair. The scenarios are actually very similar. Back then, people had to be checked for whether they had a legitimate claim to recognition as a Displaced Person and to assistance from the Care and Maintenance Program according to the IRO statute. Case workers talked to them, documented their cases and made decisions. Today, not only are the same kinds of procedures being carried out in the European Union relocation programs, but the recognition of refugee status follows much the same scheme. So there’s a lot to be learned about such institutions and processes from historical case examples. The questionnaires in the ITS archive document represent just such a negotiation process. On the basis of the files, we can document this process case by case, and reconstruct process models. We can also consult other sources in the ITS archive or other archives, for example if we want to learn about the migration legislation of the countries that took in DPs or research the biographies of people assigned DP status back in the 1940s. We’re interested in research on this aspect of migration history, but also in the learning processes that come about from these insights and help us understand and shape the present better.

Does your research have a direct benefit for today’s society?

Yes. From our research, we can gain a better understanding of this type of process. Here’s an example. Back then, DPs had a certain say in matters. For instance, they were allowed to express their wishes regarding certain destinations in the resettlement process and help develop strategies for fulfilling those wishes. Participation in a system heightens the system’s acceptance. It was a completely different story with the EU’s 2016 Relocation Program, which was a big failure. In that case, the migrants had no opportunity to voice their wishes. They weren’t involved in decisions but had to allow themselves to be registered and then just live with the location assigned them for their fresh start in life. That may have contributed to the lack of acceptance for the program. The DPs after World War II didn’t have a lot of leeway to shape decisions, but they were asked how they envisioned their futures and their wishes were often taken into account, and there were ways they could influence the proceedings, if very limited. 

That’s interesting. Do you have any other examples of these files’ current relevance?

You can also learn that we face the same dilemma now that society faced back then. DPs were placed according to their usefulness. The receiving countries much preferred young folks to old folks. Sick people were turned down. Single mothers initially had next to no chance of being accepted into the resettlement program. What remained behind was a so-called hard core of DPs nobody wanted—and it was precisely they who were the most vulnerable groups. Today as well, the refugee issue is often dealt with virtually as a labor market issue. Many countries are only prepared to take in refugees who will prospectively be “useful.” That raises the question of what we do with the ones who aren’t “useful.” But we can even evaluate the IRO files in relation to this aspect. What’s important here is that we don’t have to rely solely on how the institutions entrusted with resettlement present themselves but can analyze their practices on the basis of case files.

How do you profit from the fact that the documents have now been published online?

Before I answer, I’d just like to mention that, for some time now, we’ve been collaborating with the ITS to offer courses on the subject of DP migration. The files are very well organized and clearly structured. And our scholarly collaboration with the ITS is outstanding and extremely constructive. But the documents also provide a broad empirical basis that holds a whole lot of potential for research. Now that they’re accessible by way of the online archive, it makes our work far easier. That’s true of both our teaching activities at the university—the online archive offers students low-threshold research possibilities—and our research, particularly when you’re dealing, like we are, with large amounts of data and case numbers. So there are very good reasons why we’re interested in the new opportunities offered by the ITS online archive. It might also be helpful for scholarship if the ITS could offer an additional interface with more nuanced search possibilities, because we ask very specific kinds of questions and that would make it easier for us to take the respective samplings. What’s important for us is to be able to search the holdings for certain criteria. The more precise the filters, the better it is for our research questions.