Transimperial Guess-Work: British and French Systems of Knowledge Sharing against Transimperial Immigrants

Category: Essay 0

Consider the following two accounts. Both are separate incidents and refer to different immigrants, but each involves correspondence and intelligence-sharing practices regarding transimperial migrants—individuals who moved across the frontiers of empires—between British and French imperial authorities in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa during the 1930s and 1940s. The first account involves the aftermath of an arrest made by Palestine Police officers in Acre in 1943 on the charge of entering British-mandate Palestine from French-mandate Syria without permission. The arrested man, Mahmud, was unable to produce any evidence to support his claim of being a resident of Acre, or indeed a citizen of Palestine, rather than a migrant. As a result, Palestine’s British-led Criminal Investigation Department (CID) telegraphed its counterpart in Syria, the Sûreté Général, to request further information on the suspected illegal immigrant. The Sûreté Général responded that it had reliable information stating the man had been seen in Syria somewhat recently. With this intelligence in hand, the CID ordered Mahmud’s deportation from Acre to Syria, which was where the department’s assistant inspector-general ascertained that he belonged. He inferred this from the intelligence that came from French officials that suggested Mahmud’s time spent in Syria a few years prior indicated he could not be considered a settled Palestinian resident. Within Palestine, the district commissioner’s office for Acre confirmed some of the man’s own side of the story regarding his residence in Palestine since the 1920s, his lack of a criminal record, his employment, and his father’s Syrian nationality. The Transjordanian authorities, also part of the wider British empire in the Eastern Mediterranean, weighed in, too. They supported the contention of Syria’s intelligence networks: the former discovered that Mahmud had spent time in Transjordan. Further inquiries between criminal investigation and security authorities in Palestine, Transjordan and Syria found that Mahmud legally possessed a Syrian passport, which had been confiscated by frontier control officers in 1942. According to the information relayed to the Palestine CID from Syria through the early 1940s, it appeared Mahmud continued to come and go across the frontier, ignoring orders that he return to Syria.[1]

The above account demonstrates the existence of information sharing between British and French authorities in the Eastern Mediterranean regarding when a particular migrant was ‘seen’ in one of imperial powers’ mandate territories. But this intelligence sharing largely came from guesswork on the part of both the officials involved in gathering it, and the local individuals whom they asked for information. While Mahmud had a Syrian passport, he had no birth certificate to prove where he had been born; in addition, an instance of ‘appearing’ in Syria at one point several years prior to his arrest did not mean his insistence on living in Palestine was false. The authorities’ guesswork geared them toward being able to claim that migrants had no real settled residence in Palestine, even though the intelligence being shared about people like Mahmud between the British and French was not necessarily accurate or verfiable. These measures to control the border were also arbitrary: one or two civil servants in the police or security services usually decided, on their own criteria, on who ‘belonged’ where. In many similar accounts in which the CID, Sûreté Général, or Transjordanian Frontier Forces (TJFF) requested undocumented transimperial migrants be deported, the evidence that upheld their deportations came from this type of intelligence-sharing. Thus, the result of this guesswork was serious: it was used to determine legal residency and justify forced removals.

It is important to also note that not only did these borders come to be patrolled in the late 1920s, the post-Ottoman borders across the entire region were not all fully delineated until the 1930s. Traffic and travel across Ottoman Greater Syria by individuals like Mahmud had been commonplace, and marriages, family networks, and business interests spanned the region. Only with the post-1918 mandate administrations did cross-border marriages, travel to visit family, or travel to work or conduct trade require passports and visas. Suddenly, decisions made by the border-crossers to settle and find employment in the territory they passed through were prohibited. Finally, border controls enforced national identities by making belonging less flexible: Mahmud was born in Syria, as had been his Ottoman parents: simply put, this meant that entering and settling in Palestine without permission made him an illegal immigrant.

The second account is framed by a period of ten years, 1938 to early 1948. During that period, the CID and office of the high commissioner in Palestine attempted to extradite a man wanted on robbery charges from Syria. The British authorities initially corresponded with their French counterparts including the high commissioner for Syria and Lebanon as well as the Syrian Arab government, across an era that spanned the transition from French indirect colonial rule to sovereign Syrian political party governance. At the end of the ten years, Fawzi had been neither found nor extradited. The first request for extradition against him was made in February 1938 by Palestine’s high commissioner to his counterpart in Syria and Lebanon and included a description of the offender and his last known whereabouts. Within three months, the French high commissioner responded that after an internal investigation by the Syrian police it seemed the man regularly crossed between Syria and Palestine but that the police could not ascertain if he had returned to Palestine. Two months later, the British consul in Damascus forwarded information to the CID that the offender had recently arrived in Damascus. Over the next four years, Fawzi was found and arrested, escaped custody, and was re-detained, but his extradition never took place owing to inaction on the part of the Syrian police—inaction that persisted despite the praise often given at the time to the empire-wide workings of imperial intelligence services. In 1945, the police authorities informed the inspector general of police in Palestine that the previous year, they had released Fawzi from a prison in Damascus, not withstanding the formal extradition orders made since 1938. In early 1948, despite the outbreak of civil and then interstate violence in Palestine, the British administration learned that the offender had gone to Lebanon and submitted another extradition dossier.[2] The file of correspondence between administrators in Palestine and those in Syria and Lebanon ends without information as to a resolution; in all likelihood, the war for Palestine and the steady withdrawal of British colonial officials throughout that year meant that this extradition order, as well as others, had been disregarded as un-enforceable.

(An example of extradition request from the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Palestine Administration. Israel State Archives, 1944)

The second account depicts the outcome of attempts as extradition in which no actionable information was recovered by the imperial government requesting it. Despite thousands of pages of files on transimperial deportations across the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa during the interwar years that details dates, places, and other information regarding when an individual undocumented migrant was last seen in neighbouring territories, this extradition ultimately failed because of a near-total lack of cooperation between Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon.

Both accounts underscore the challenges that migrants’ transimperial border crossings posed both to colonial hierarchies of control and to colonial connections in the realm of security and intelligence cooperation. The transimperial migrant at the centre of each did circumvent imperial and colonial structures, even if only Mahmud likely saw his actions as benign migration. The authorities specifically referred to both men as either illegal immigrants or illegal border-crossers. These accounts point to the significance of specifically-transimperial borders, as well as how ordinary individuals shaped the structures of frontier control—sometimes dismantling them—simply by migrating between and across spaces that became incorporated into wider imperial networks in the early twentieth century. The ways empires relied on rumors, hearsay, and suggestions as to who crossed these spaces often weakened the control of these borders. In what follows, I undertake an assessment of these connections between empires that allowed intelligence-sharing—view guesswork—during the years leading up to the often-violent processes embedded in decolonisation.

(An example of a letter within an extradition dossier sent by the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting the extradition from Palestine of two men accused of murdering a guard at the Lebanese-Palestinian frontier post of Naquora. From the Israel State Archives, 1944)

Two decades ago, historian Martin Thomas suggested that a missing dimension to the histories of the French mandates was the intelligence material gathered by the mandatory security services.[3] The scholarship published by Thomas that used this material, which had then been recently made accessible in French archives, is largely concerned with French assessments of security and intelligence as they related to the roles of the branches that served these activities. Thomas’s discussion of intelligence-sharing between the British and French regarding colonised subjects is largely confined to two focal points. The first are the urban, elite nationalists who sought refuge or support in one or another mandate territory, or channeled funds across the region for anti-imperial causes. The second focus is on surveillance and intelligence-sharing within rural, tribal communities across Syria. Neither pays much attention to mobile persons who regularly crossed the frontiers of the British and French mandates not explicitly for nationalist and anti-colonial pursuits. Yet, it was these more ordinary border-crossers, who entered the territories without permission that forced the mandates to try and gather informal and at times non-factual information in order to track and trace their movements.

In Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq, all under British mandate from 1918 until the 1930s and 1940s, intelligence took different forms dependent on territory and the wider geopolitical context, especially taking into account Great Britain’s relationship with both Egypt and Arabia. In Palestine, much of the literature on intelligence is framed by the networks created between British officers with the Yishuv’s (the pre-state Zionist community and its institutions and infrastructure) own security and information-gathering services and experts, including ‘Arab experts’ in the Jewish Agency. And to be sure, as Steven Wagner highlights, much of the intelligence regarding Arab nationalist networks produced for the British administration in Palestine came from Zionist sources.[4] While the British-Zionist relationship determined some aspects of frontier control, it did not play a hugely significant role in the transimperial guesswork related to British and French attempts to track and trace cross-border migrants except when these movements concerned Zionist settlements on the frontiers between the mandates.

The challenges launched by transimperial migrants against the systems of border control, in particular, were not the result of uninformed security and intelligence-gathering services. In Syria and Lebanon, the French staff of the Sûreté Général and the Service de Renseignements had strong local knowledge.[5] Thomas also shows the ways in which imperial intelligence-gathering utilised local social and community structures of knowledge and hierarchies within Arab villages and towns.[6] As the archival record on extraditions and border control demonstrates, the British and French determined when a criminal suspect or an unauthorised migrant had last been ‘seen’ in a certain place by using these same structures: asking village and local council leaders, and prominent families to recount when an individual had last spoken with them personally, visited their own families and friends, joined mass or Friday prayers, or visited neighbours during a religious festival or holiday.

To understand these borders and their place in imperial networks of control, it is necessary to consider not the high-level intelligence cooperation across the British and French empires in the Middle East, but the more mundane ‘guesswork’ that informed what officials in each administration considered as intelligence. It is important to explore the tools that allowed not only for transimperial guesswork along the frontier, but which sanctioned the actions on the part of various authorities that this guesswork led to.

For the majority of the mandates’ existence, issues of extradition and deportation of mandated subjects between each state depended upon formal—and even informal—agreements negotiated between Great Britain and France. Whilst these agreements applied across the Middle East and North Africa, they were not made between the individual mandate administrations. This would eventually greatly affect the processes of extradition and deportation as the French relinquished imperial control over their mandates.

It was often the British administration in Palestine that complained of delays when it wished to deport to Syria out of Palestine. In large part, this difficulty arose as a result of migrants’ identifications of themselves before, during, and after crossing the frontier. These non-politically motivated migrants caught out by the guesswork along the transimperial frontiers of the Middle East rarely considered themselves as exclusive nationals of any one nation-state. Historically, as the breakdown of Ottoman identities, institutions, and legal subjecthood accelerated at the same time anti-colonial Arab nationalist grew in ideological and practical reach, identity became politicised. This happened in large part because of the efforts in elitist circles to unite the Arabic-speaking, formerly Ottoman territories into either a single or federated independent state on the basis of a shared Arab-majority identity. Whilst men like Mahmud and Fawzi seemingly had no Arab nationalist alliances and believed they could simply settle in any part of the former-Ottoman Greater Syria they wished, their actions inadvertently supported the nationalist contention for a single Arab state. In fitting with the analytical framework of transimperial historiography, these migrants and the spaces they crossed were “in-between and beyond empires.”[7] In terms of imperial procedure, however, when Palestine wished to force a person that it claimed as Syrian out, the French authorities needed to agree to give that person a visa to enter Syria. In order to grant a visa, the authorities needed to be satisfied that the individual was actually a native of Syria. Verifications were taken seriously, but often progressed slowly: they involved one side sending the details of deportee’s case, including their name, home village, physical description, and any other relevant details to either the director of public safety or the inspector general of police on the other side of the frontier. The same was true for French imperial authorities—including those in Algeria—wishing to deport a subject to Palestine, and vice-versa.

This is illustrated by the case of a proposed deportation in 1941, ordered by Palestine’s CID against a man accused of illegally living in Palestine. The man was tried and acquitted by a magistrate’s court following his appeal in which he argued that his arrival to Palestine in early 1933 from Syria, eight years before the proposed removal, made him a citizen. A magistrate’s court agreed. Yet, the CID and Sûreté Général pursued the case, with the latter reporting to the former that it had information the man had last been seen in Syria only two years prior to his deportation order.[8] What allowed the man to continue to insist on his new imperial citizenship and press his case against both the British and French authorities was the fact that none of the mandates kept any sort of register of citizens nor of persons who entered frontier control stations. The guesswork on the part of the intelligence services across the mandates as to whether a person was who she or he claimed to be remained just that—guesses by any number of officials. Despite rumours and hearsay communicated by other residents as to whether the accused had returned to their home villages or visited family, transimperial migrants could deny such claims. Yet, the denials rarely worked in their favour because Great Britain and France retained their imperial sanctions to administratively detain and remove migrants even when, in the case of the man above, magistrate’s courts decided transimperial migrants were actually citizens.

Transimperial extraditions, regardless of how intelligence was gathered—or not gathered—to allow local and regional authorities to find, detain, and arrange the handover of suspects, followed a particular process between the French and British mandates. To be sure, many migrants were deported from across imperial spaces in the Middle East for being found in those spaces without the proper authorisation to have entered. Others were deported for public safety purposes, or in cases of migrants falling afoul of other aspects of the criminal code including carrying out political agitation. However, foreign migrants in Palestine, for instance, who were not yet tried for a crime committed outside of Palestine could not be deported for that latter reason alone; rather, the country that wished to prosecute them was the only party that could initiate extradition proceedings.[9] Elements of the process became more complicated when they became ‘more’ transimperial: one extradition of a French subject from Algeria to Palestine dragged on for several years until the Algerian man’s lawyer convinced him to go directly to Palestine and bypass the extradition process in order to appear sooner before the courts and receive a decision on the reason for his extradition: in his case, to deal with assets owed due to bankruptcy.[10]

The procedure for extraditions across the imperial Middle East and North Africa necessitated the submission of an extradition dossier on the individual that an administration sought to have handed over to face trial or arrest. The dossier contained the criminal complaint, details on any court filings, witness statements, photographs of the suspect, and statements by town or district police or other officials. In the years leading up to the early 1940s, this was generally submitted to the highest magistrate’s or supreme court of the extraditing mandate to be signed off, and then submitted to the office of the high commissioner for forwarding through the consul stationed in the mandate from which the individual was to be extradited. During much of the Palestine Revolt of 1936–39, Britain implemented imperial military law and thus procedural aspects for extradition of alleged rebels were bypassed.

At each stage in this process, as in the processes of deporting migrants, both the French and British authorities relied on their own notions of mobile subjects as belonging to strictly one national space. This approach disregarded the understandings on the part of residents of the mandates that space, frontiers, and their own identities and movements might not adhere to the categorisations of nationality as imposed by the two empires. Regularly, transimperial subjects, regardless of whether the mandate powers or the League of Nations deemed them to hold a particular citizenship, believed their long residence, employment, and family in a space separate from that of their birth, gave them the right to remain in the mandatory territory in which they chose to enter and settle. The divergence of views—on the one hand, views were backed by legalistic, imperial arguments that also supported the existence of the mandates themselves as protectorates; on the other, appeals against extradition and forced removals demonstrate a sense of belonging by transimperial migrants that was justified by a belief in free will as to where an individual chose or wished to live, where they contributed to the economy and society, and where their family became established in the years following the end of the First World War in the Middle East. These understandings, on the part of many transimperial migrants as to a more flexible and less-legalistic sense of belonging, also served to challenge what was often on guesswork on the part of the British and French regarding the national or civic categorisation of these migrants.

In general, the French and British high commissioners could directly communicate with one another regarding the process of extradition. Communication could be in real time for frontier control officials by the 1930s, when outposts across the borders were connected by telephone. However, by the early 1940s as Syria and Lebanon ratified declarations of independence the sovereignty in each mandate government passed from the French to Arab executives and legislatures, the process became markedly more complicated. The British mandates of Palestine and Transjordan, namely, could no longer send extradition requests to their French official counterparts but rather sent communication to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the national governments of Syria and Lebanon. This essentially closed what had been a diplomatic channel between the two empires.

The nationalisation of governments thus nullified what had been a long-standing transimperial link that benefited the French and British officials in the Middle East. Because Syria and Transjordan had no formal extradition agreement but had extradited individuals under an imperial agreement, for example, the declaration of independence for Syria meant that the former agreement between Great Britain and France no longer applied to Syria.[11]

These changes also meant that the practice of ‘guesswork’ had to change. Syrian authorities were more inclined to believe suspected undocumented migrants’ claims to their own nationality and residence. For political reasons, they were also less inclined to work with the British imperial authorities in the processes of extradition and deportation. This did not mean that certain transimperial structures of frontier control that targeted transimperial migrants did not survive the end of empire in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Guesswork, in the form of how indigenous authorities investigated smuggling of people and narcotics after empire based on rumours and hearsay formed an integral part of intelligence-gathering. In large part, this involved the use of intermediaries in the production of knowledge about border-crossers. Under the structures of imperial rule, the CID or Sûreté General also acted as intermediaries in the production of knowledge. It was their guesswork, particularly in unilaterally naming migrants as nationals of one state or another or in denying these migrants’ claims to their own identity, that codified the often-arbitrary determination of nationality by a whole generation of imperial intelligence officials. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the intelligence sharing networks that focused on border control remained functional after imperialism, including between the state of Israel and certain Arab states. Whilst the principles of pan-Arab nationalism remained part of discourse through the decades immediately following decolonisation, paradoxically, inter-regional cooperation aimed at stopping undocumented border-crossing in the Arab world strengthened.

Further Reading:

Lâle Can, Michael Christopher Low, Kent F. Schull, Robert Zens (eds): The Subjects of Ottoman International Law, Bloomington 2020.

M’hamed Oualdi: A Slave Between Empires: A Transimperial History of North Africa, New York 2019.

Daniel Neep: Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: Insurgency, Space and State Formation, Cambridge 2012.

Cyrus Schayegh, Andrew Arsan (eds.): The Routledge Handbook of the History of the Middle East Mandates, London 2015.

Martin Thomas: Empires of Intelligence: Security Services and Colonial Disorder After 1914, Berkeley 2008.

Gerasimos Tsourapas: Migration Diplomacy in the Middle East and North Africa: Power, Mobility, and the State, Manchester 2021.

Steven Wagner: Statecraft by Stealth: Secret Intelligence and British Rule in Palestine, Ithaca 2019.

[1] The first case comes from the file Deportation of Mahmud Eid, Israel State Archive (ISA) M255/46.

[2] The second case comes from two separate files: Extradition from Syria of Fawzi Rashid Agha Said Hadj Kassem, ISA M277/15; Extradition from the Lebanon of Fawzi Rashid Said Agha, ISA M292/42.

[3] Martin C. Thomas: French Intelligence-Gathering in the Syrian Mandate, 1920-1940, in: Middle Eastern Studies 38/1 (2002), p. 1.

[4] Steven Wagner: Intelligence and the Origins of the British Middle East, in: The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 43/4 (2015), p. 726.

[5] Thomas: French Intelligence-Gathering, p. 6.

[6] This analysis is indebted to Chris Bayly’s seminal work on British India: Chris A. Bayly: Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870, Cambridge 1996.

[7] Daniel Hedinger, Nadin Heé: Transimperial History: Connectivity, Cooperation and Competition, in: Journal of Modern European History 16/4 (2018), p. 432.

[8] Proposed deportation of Bashir Hassan Sabban, ISA225/7.

[9] Deportation from Palestine, ISA M705/1.

[10] Extradition of Fugitive Offenders, Joseph Neiger—Algeria to Palestine, Colonial Office 323/1625/14, The National Archives (TNA).

[11] Extradition Procedure between Transjordan and the Lebanon, ISA M429/41.

Author profile

Lauren Banko is currently Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of History and the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) at the University of Manchester. Her three year fellowship project is entitled ‘Medical Deportees: narrations and pathographies of health at the borders of Great Britain, Palestine, and Egypt, 1919-1949.’ She received her PhD from SOAS, London, and is a social historian of the 19th and 20th century Arab Middle East/Eastern Mediterranean with a focus on interwar colonialism and the mandates system, especially in Palestine. Her current monograph project examines clandestine, illicit, and undocumented transregional or transimperial migration by socio-economically precarious individuals into Palestine from the wider Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and Central Asia during prior to the establishment of Israel, and the impacts upon migration as a result of colonial and postcolonial mobility control and documentary identity regimes. Lauren is part of the Reckoning with Refugeedom: Refugee Voices in Modern History collaboration, hosted at the University of Manchester, and is interested in developing the concept of ‘refugee-adjacency’ as it relates to persons directly close to refugees and the experience of refugeedom but who are not themselves displaced. Her fellowship focuses on the transregional and transimperial circulations of knowledge among refugees, displaced persons, and low waged labourers classified by immigration controls a medically undesirable. As part of this, the project is concerned with the ways in which these migrants, mostly from the Middle East and North Africa and who circulated to and across the British metropole, Palestine, and Egypt, understood and negotiated illnesses and border controls. It examines the medico-legal border during a time when imperial authorities accelerated the use of biopower as a tool to manage the mobility of colonial and postcolonial subjects.
Select publications:
-“The quiet violence of colonialism and the uncertainty of illegibility: affective encounters by the deportable between Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon,” Social History 47 (May 2022).
-“Border Transgressions, Border Controls: Mobility along Palestine’s Northern Frontier, 1930-1946,” in Regimes of Mobility: Borders and State Formation in the Middle East, 1918-1946, ed. Jordi Tejel and Ramazan Hakkı Öztan (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).
-“Grief, a wedding veil, and bureaucratic persecution: being refugee-adjacent in the aftermath of tragedy, 1941-1946,” Immigrants & Minorities 39 (2021).
-Banko, Lauren, Nowak, Katarzyna, and Gatrell, Peter, “What is Refugee History, Now?,” Journal of Global History (Fall/Winter 2021).
-Banko, Lauren, “Migrants, Residents, and the Cost of Illegal Home-Making in Mandate Palestine,” Jerusalem Quarterly 84 (Winter 2020).

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