Blog post by Dr Arjumand Bano Kazmi, Postdoctoral Fellow at Institutt for kriminologi og rettssosiologi (IKRS), Oslo University
Just now, I felt a little different, a little nervous about how I had started to feel the pages of the archived files. I noticed how carefully I was placing one page after another, taking my time, feeling the difference of the surface of each page, almost caressing them. I am listening to the countless voices, talking to me, telling me their stories. In the memos, letters, official and confidential reports, meeting minutes, press cuttings, telex, incoming and outgoing cables, fax messages, photographs, and the yellowish Action Sheets – reside stories, voices of concern, of hope and despair. With every turn of the page, some are heard loud and clear, others feel like whispers. I am one of them, of the family of voices, and yet I have not uttered a word. Part of me now resides here, at these archives, where the sounds and silences overlap. Who says archives are dusty, remote, and dead. If they were, how is it that I am feeling so alive, that I belong here, I am part of them. Surely, I am alive and so are the archives.
It is my third day at the UNHCR Archives in Geneva. I am researching about the UNHCR and Pakistan partnership in supporting Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Part of the BEYOND project, at the University of Oslo, my postdoctoral research employs an interdisciplinary qualitative research approach into examining the socio-legal and political factors that have shaped Pakistan’s response to the Afghan refugee crisis. In addition to exploring the nuances of the UNHCR-Pakistan partnership in providing protection to Afghan refugees, I am also studying the reasons behind Pakistan’s non-ratification of the Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. I have come to the UNHCR archives after spending eight months in Pakistan for the fieldwork research.
I did not have this feeling of belonging on the first day of my visit. Like all relationships, this too took some time. To begin with, I felt ambivalent and distant. It felt more like a duty, part of the job, required for my research. I had little hope to find something from the past, which would be worth the time and effort. You see, I am a people’s person. I like conversations, interviews, observations, and field visits as preferred methods of qualitative research. It was almost impossible for me to fall in love with the old kept pages. I never thought that as I continued with my research journey, I would find one of my many homes at the archives. After all, home is where you feel at ease, comfortable, and emotionally attached.
My sudden feelings for the archives surprised me too and so I decided to reflect upon in this blog. This may help some ambivalent researchers to explore the archival research method. It is surely worth the effort.
To be sure, it is not my first encounter to work with archived files. First being at the Dawn News library in Karachi, Pakistan in March earlier this year. I felt a little unsettled then too, but this feeling that I have here is different. There, I was given access to the digitized files, a desk with a computer, and a nice cup of strong chai. Here, it is real. Each file is alive, carries a certain weight, form, age and so demands a different care. I had selected 125 files on the UNHCR website prior to my arrival at the UNHCR Archives and have emailed the list to the concerned UNHCR staff. The process of prior selection would mean that these files will be ready for me upon arrival. I am allowed to work here for 5 days from 9am to 1pm. UNHCR staff have been very helpful right from the start of our e-mail exchanges. Upon arrival, there was a desk ready for me with three full trollies of files. The staff informed me about the etiquette of handling these files – no eating or drinking around the files and I wasn’t supposed to use a tiny fan (that I borrowed), facing the files. ‘These are delicate papers’, I was advised. There are of course both strengths and limitations of archival research. For instance, three full trollies of holdings can be endlessly long and detailed, appear intimidating and time-consuming. At times, I feel I don’t know what I am looking for. On the other hand, this research method is most rewarding because it presents you with the information that exists on “a scale of time which is unparalleled by other sources of data” (see Brenna, 2023).
And what can I possibly say about the stories that these files or data have narrated to me so far? There are simply far too many to mention here, and I still need to make sense of them. But let me give you a flavour so you can also see how alive these pages are, how and why archival records, although set in the past, are intimately entangled with present realities and future implications. The sensory imagination of the past events and voices give meaning to the present ones. It allows us to feel moments of the past that are shaping the meanings for today. We come closer to some truth which we are seeking. As Hossain (2023) observes in ‘Doing Legal History in Refugee Law’, had he not accumulated enough dust on his fingers, conducting archival research, carefully sifting through pages, and smelling what decades-old papers smelled like, he would not have acquired “the rite of passage of getting close to the truth.” In seeking truth at the archives, time and space truly become relative, and we hear a calling to abandon our habitual conception of time which is divided between the past, the present and the future.
So here is one such story that I hear, which challenges my habitual conception of time. I have conceived this story from browsing the archived files. Let’s call it ‘A Return’.
Afghan refugees are returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan in large numbers. Almost close to some five hundred refugees each day, if not more. Repatriation, as this move is generally called, must be voluntary and should not ideally proceed too quickly, because conditions inside Afghanistan are still far from safe, especially for hundreds of vulnerable groups of refugees including women, children and political activists. Afghanistan after all, is a war-torn country. It will take many years to remove the countless mines from the fields and to reconstruct the rural and urban infrastructure, to provide livelihood for thousands of Afghans who stayed in Afghanistan, and who fled and now return to their homeland. And what about their health needs – there aren’t enough hospitals or doctors to help the distressed. With the support of the UNHCR and other international and national voluntary agencies, Pakistan has generously hosted millions of Afghans for years. It has shared its limited resources, including hospitals and schools with the refugees, but there have also been complaints from many that their refugee villages had scarce supply of clean water wells and sewage disposal facilities, and schools are not resourced. Young male refugees are routinely beaten and harassed by the local police who accuse them of illegal entry or over-stay in Pakistan. The UNHCR protection team through local NGOs and the Pakistan Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees (CAR) officials try to safeguard those who get arrested but many wait for long before help arrives. Yet, most refugees would still prefer to stay in Pakistan over returning to Afghanistan. They fear repatriation. Not because they don’t love their homeland, oh’ they very much do. But because they don’t believe the official optimism that Afghanistan is safe and resourced for basic living. Ahmed (a pseudonym) has lived in Pakistan for years, says that ‘right now, the situation in Afghanistan is not conducive to return. We will be happy to go back when there’s relative peace, no fear and enough to eat’. Each repatriating refugee is given funds by the UNHCR for rehabilitation when they arrive in Afghanistan. But that’s hardly enough and so does not appeal to many who over the years have developed ways to earn and survive in Pakistan. The fear of the unknown, which is part and parcel with the repatriation process, is profound. Nevertheless, it needs to be voluntary by definition.
This story is beyond time. It could be narrated as events of 1982, 1992, 2002 or even 2022, the years when repatriation was taking place (with some sizable variations in the numbers of returnees). The Afghan refugee situation in Pakistan is now a protracted one spanning over four decades. Yet the misery of the millions stays, more or less, the same. The misery of the millions is also beyond time.
The archives narrate this story and so did the refugees I met in Pakistan earlier this year. ‘Whispers’ are the voices of refugees in the archived files that I am seeing here. You can just about hear these whispers if you listen and look carefully in the official texts that consist of letters, memos, reports, and statistics. Most researchers won’t find any direct references, names, or case files of individual refugees in the files provided to them and that is because individual case files require special access permission from the UNHCR given to very few for confidentiality reasons. For a brilliant account of examining refugee voices through UNHCR Archives, see Gatrell (2021) who felt like an ‘intruder on other people’s misfortunes’ and refers to the experience of accessing these voices ‘intimidating’.
Do you see how difficult it is not to feel alive with the pages at the archives? How in seeking truth, past entangles with the present and perhaps with the future too? Refugee and migration research is far from ‘ahistorical’ (see Elie, 2014). Archival research piece-together the information gathered through interviews and observations of the fieldwork. It pieces-together past, present and future. You feel present in the moments that were lived and gain invaluable insights for the future from being immersed in the dusty world of the archives.
PS. I am most thankful for the little fan kindly given to me by the UNHCR archival staff to keep my research experience pleasant in this very warm summer week in Geneva.
Brenna, C. (2023). Archival Research. In: Okoko, J.M., Tunison, S., Walker, K.D. (eds) Varieties of Qualitative Research Methods. Springer Texts in Education. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-04394-9_6, accessed 3 July 2023.
Elie, J. (August 2014). Histories of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. In: Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and others (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies; online edn, Oxford Academic, 4 Aug. 2014), https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199652433.013.0002, accessed 3 July 2023.
Hossain, S. M. (July 2023). ‘Doing’ Legal History in Refugee Law: A Snapshot of Bangladesh’s Engagement with Non-Refoulment, Journal of Refugee Studies. https://doi.org/10.1093/jrs/fead025 , accessed on 3 July 2023.
Gatrell, P. (Autumn 2021). Raw Material: UNHCR’s Individual Case Files as a Historical Source, 1951–75, History Workshop Journal, Volume 92, Pages 226–241, https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbab019 , accessed on 3July 2023.
Pictures (Taken by Dr. Arjumand Kazmi with permission to share from the UNHCR and the DAWN News)
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