Negotiating Asylum and Accommodation – Migrants, Refugees and Host Societies

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the conference “Negotiating asylum and accommodation – Migrants, refugees and host societies. Early Modern and Modern Periods” which will take place on March 20-22, 2019 in Paris. The conference is organized by the research center “FRAMESPA (CNRS (UMR 3136 / Université de Toulouse 2 Jean-Jaurès), the University of Bayreuth and by the German Historical Institute in Paris. We talked to the convener, Susanne Lachenicht, about the upcoming conference.

In your upcoming conference, you plan to bring together cases of asylum seeking from the early modern and modern periods. Why did you choose to focus on this time period, what makes it special and particularly interesting for the research questions mentioned in the call for papers?

Today’s languages and practices with regard to asylum and the accommodation of refugees/migrants have much older roots than many people tend to think. Actually, we could have gone back to the Jewish diaspora which began in the 8th century BC. However, we chose to start with the early modern period as for confessional, economic and imperial reasons the forced and voluntary migration of people increased substantially from approximately the 1500s onward.

While human rights, constitutions, international law helped develop international conventions for protection and asylum between the later eighteenth and twenty-first centuries, the periods prior to the French Revolution brought about practices which are in manifold ways re-activated today: church asylum as a right to claim for, the codification of protection and asylum, international and intercultural negotiations of protection and asylum – as I have shown elsewhere.[1]

We would like to bring together experts in the field to discuss for different world regions and periods the specificities of flight and asylum but also what they have in common. We want to look into the entangled histories, in time and place, of discourses and practices with regard to asylum and accommodation.

Which gaps in the research on migrants, refugees and host societies do you envision to close?

With our conference, we want to draw attention to both a necessary long-term historical perspective to explain today’s (and historical) attitudes and practices of asylum and accommodation. Equally important to us is to emphasize that individuals and groups in need do not find ipso facto asylum and support in a given country, even if the latter claims to comply with human rights law and humanitarian principles. Asylum has to be negotiated. Asylum is asked for, solicited and argued for. The actors involved develop specific strategies, they negotiate, they sometimes make deals and they quite often have to plead or to contend for international aid. There is much at stake: helping people in need means that we draw on a given country’s resources to allow “alien people” to benefit from it – in the form of food, accommodation, diplomatic or even military aid. Furthermore, granting asylum and accommodation is as much about inclusion as it is about exclusion – as Elena Isayev (Exeter) and other scholars put it in a recent special issue on “Displacement and the Humanities”.

With our conference we want to discuss the actors who are negotiating asylum and accommodation: on the part of the refugees/migrants, the hosting societies, the societies people leave to go elsewhere. We want to look into the media used for these negotiations but also into the narratives being produced and how they relate to past migrations. Lastly, we are interested in the arguments and concepts being used: are they about charity, human rights, about utility?

Furthermore, in the early modern period we can see a number of patterns develop which are still dominating public debates today: whether states and societies have an obligation to host and assist people in distress, whether accommodating refugees/migrants comes with risks for the hosting societies. For both the early modern and modern periods we find the argument that a territory’s resources are limited, that welcoming people “from afar” without control might “endanger” local people, meaning the ones that are allegedly “from” the territory. Moreover, some fear that the “identity” of the territory’s “nation” / “people”/ “natives” would be threatened, should newcomers become too numerous and/or too “different”. Foreigners’ “alien” practices and institutions, so the argument goes, would produce “parallel societies” and would thus, again, threaten the host country. At the same time, refugees are often welcomed to enrich hosting societies and economies, with their labour and skills, their cultures, networks and for demographic reasons.

What would be the best outcome of your upcoming conference? How would you like to shape the debate on asylum and accommodation?

Over the last few years, we have witnessed rather emotional debates in the media and the public sphere at large pointing to the so-called “migrant crisis” – in Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Britain, Hungary, Poland, Sweden and in many other European countries. The “migrant crisis” has also heated debates in the United States of America and in Canada. We often dismiss, however, that the countries facing the greatest challenges with regard to flight, refugees, migrants and asylum are non-Western countries: the countries of origin, neighbouring countries, other continents such as Africa and parts of Asia. Many countries and entire world regions are confronted with mass emigration – more often than not sparked by wars and civil wars, genocide, discrimination, the lack of opportunities, hopes for better futures elsewhere. Flight and refugees, asylum and the accommodation of “strangers” is a global phenomenon with multifold local and national consequences.

With our conference, we hope to enrich current debates on asylum and accommodation – in academia and in society at large. Critical historical analysis means to abstain from simplifying answers, from simple equations, from false judgements. Present-day and historical realities of refugees, asylum and accommodation are factual and plural. To understand what is happening, we need to look into individual cases as much as into structures, present and historical ones. In a similar vein as Nancy Green put this in 2005, we hope to move with our conference towards “examining and reinterpreting the structures surrounding the migration process in light of individual choice and vice versa”[2] – in a diachronic perspective.

Enriching today’s discussions on flight and asylum would be in the first place about listening to each other. Critical historical analysis can make us rethink our hopes, fears and expectations with regard to refugees and migration, asylum and accommodation – on all sides. Conferences (or academia at large) and discussions resulting from them can produce what I would call “intellectual empathy”: listening to and understanding the other’s argument, the plurality of facts and perspectives. Listening and understanding is not about adopting other people’s opinion. It is, however, about considering that “the other” might have a point; it is about dialogue, it is about finding compromises to problems in considering the plurality of facts and perspectives with regard to migration, asylum and accommodation.


[1] Susanne Lachenicht, Refugees and Refugee Protection in the Early Modern Period, Journal of Refugee Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2016. Special issue. The History of Refugee Protection, ed. Olaf Kleist, 2017, pp. 261-281.

[2] Nancy L. Green, The Comparative Method and Poststructural Structuralism: New Perspectives for Migration Studies. In Migration, Migration History, History: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives. Bern, Berlin and Brussels: Peter Lang 2005, pp. 57–72.


Citation: Susanne Lachenicht, Negotiating Asylum and Accommodation – Migrants, Refugees and Host Societies, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, XX.XX.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/14009.


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