Records of displaced find a home on the net

March 2, 2001

Vital documents on refugee movements are being put on the web. Tony Durham reports.

A small Sanskrit manuscript wrapped in a flap of leather is the most visited document in Oxford's Bodleian Library. The Shikshapatri is a code of ethics for the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism. The copy in Oxford was presented in 1830 by the sect's founder, Sahajananda Swami, to the British administrator, Sir John Malcolm. If the university's Refugee Studies Centre can raise Pounds 100,000 from the government's New Opportunities Fund to get the book digitally scanned, the Shikshapatri will find new readers on the internet.

The Swaminarayan sect emerged in the eastern Indian province of Gujarat in the 19th century. Adherents migrated from Gujarat to east and central Africa, but after Idi Amin expelled all Asians from Uganda in 1972, many came to Britain as refugees.

If published online, the Shikshapatri will join hundreds of other documents on forced migration that the centre is digitising. The centre has, for 11 years, been holding summer schools that attract a variety of speakers, from policy-makers to aid workers. It also runs masters degrees and short courses.

The RSC's new director, Stephen Castles, started in February. A former professor of sociology at the University of Wollongong in Australia, he has personal experience of forced migration. His father fled Nazi Germany and then spent three years in a refugee camp in Australia.

Castles says: "Forced migrants are a challenge to democratic societies because if democratic societies are not able to provide humane ways of reacting to the situations (that cause refugees to flee), it really questions our liberal qualities."

The RSC's library holds a collection of 4,000 books and 340 videos, as well as hundreds of journals and newsletters sent by publishers and organisations around the world. But its shelves are dominated by hundreds of grey boxes of unpublished literature. The anthropologist who set up Oxford's refugee studies programme in 1982, Barbara Harrell-Bond, reputedly never threw anything away.

The boxes, a collection of conference papers, newsletters and internal reports, are an amazing resource for the centre's research staff and visiting fellows. Some have already been digitised for the internet.

A $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation kicked off the digital project in 1997 - 3,000 documents will have been digitised by this summer, scanned in by the Higher Education Digitisation Service at the University of Hertfordshire.

A web portal, combining documents from the Oxford library with a catalogue of resources elsewhere on the web, has won further funding of $1 million from Mellon and Pounds 900,000 from the European Union. Work began in January on the project, involving the Czech Helsinki Committee and Tufts University, Columbia University and New York University in the United States.

Potential news sources for the portal include the Reuters Foundation's AlertNet website ( www.alertnet.org ), which gives a global picture of who lost their home today, who arrived in an unwelcoming country and who is freezing, starving or being persecuted.

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