views updated May 14 2018


I. World ProblemsLouise W. Holborn


II. Adjustment And AssimilationJudith T. Shuval



The refugee problem is a phenomenon of our age. It is the product not only of the most destructive wars of history, World War I and World War II, of modern dictatorial regimes, and of the national awakening of peoples, but also of the closed frontiers characteristic of the twentieth century. There were refugees in earlier centuries but no refugee problem in the modern sense, for the involuntary migrant could merge with those who by choice sought new homes elsewhere. In our time, the refugee problem has been distinguished from refugee movements of earlier days by its scope, variety of causes, and difficulty of solution.

Modern refugee movements, beginning in Europe and subsequently becoming world-wide, have given rise to a new class of people who are homeless and stateless and who live in a condition of constant insecurity which erodes human dignity. They have caused grave political and economic problems for the countries of temporary reception, problems which have proved too burdensome for the administrative facilities and financial resources of private organizations and national governments. The refugee problem has thus transcended national jurisdiction and institutions.

Furthermore, while in its earlier stages the refugee problem was seen as a temporary and limited phenomenon, it has now come to be acknowledged as universal, continuing, and recurring. In response to this challenge the international community has developed a complex mechanism of world-wide cooperation involving a tripartite partnership of national governments, private agencies, and international organizations; no longer confined by strict definitions of the word “refugee,” it is prepared to approach the problem in all its various aspects—political, social, economic, and humanitarian.

Defining the refugee

There is no single definition of “refugee” that is suitable for all purposes. When associated with humanitarian aims, the connotation of the term differs from that used in international agreements, since the human aspects of the refugee problem are clearly distinct from the question of a refugee’s status in any given situation (Rees 1957; Weis 1960). However, all refugees have in common these characteristics: they are uprooted, they are homeless, and they lack national protection and status.

The refugee is an involuntary migrant, a victim of politics, war, or natural catastrophe. Every refugee is naturally a migrant, but not every migrant is a refugee. A migrant is one who leaves his residence (usually for economic reasons) in order to settle elsewhere, either in his own or in another country. A refugee movement results when the tensions leading to migration are so acute that what at first seemed to be a voluntary movement becomes virtually compulsory. The uprooted become either internal refugees, that is, “national refugees” (persons who have been displaced in their own country), or “international refugees” (persons outside their country of origin). The latter are designated refugees in legal terminology when they lack the diplomatic protection granted to nationals abroad.

There are no generally accepted criteria to determine when a refugee ceases to be a refugee. Proposed criteria include: when the refugee is earning a living and has found a permanent place to live; when he has acquired a new nationality and has obtained equal rights with the inhabitants of the country of asylum or resettlement; and both criteria together.

Statistics on refugees are affected by many factors: the difficulty of obtaining accurate data; the purpose for which the statistics are compiled; and the fact that refugees are always on the move. The best estimate for 1967—over 11 million refugees—is based on persons registered by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), voluntary agencies, and governmental and intergovernmental offices. Doubtless there are many unrecorded refugees receiving noaid; it is equally likely that many instances of duplicated registration occur, enabling some refugees to benefit from more than one agency.

European refugee movements

Europe, in the twentieth century, has been a vast sea of refugee movements set in motion by the disruptions of war, the breakup of empires, the impact of violent nationalism, and the arbitrary actions of dictatorial regimes. Early in the century, political turbulence in the Balkans and Asia Minor resulted in the movement of hundreds of thousands of people from one country to another, culminating in large exchanges of populations, in particular of Greeks, Bulgars, Serbs, Armenians, and Turks. The Convention of Lausanne, January 30, 1923, stipulated a compulsory exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. A total of 1.3 million Greeks, including tens of thousands from Russia and Bulgaria, were transferred to Greece, and about 400,000 Turks to Turkey. Between 1913 and 1925 more than 220,000 Bulgars moved into the truncated territories of Bulgaria, and the Convention of Neuilly, November 27, 1919, provided for a voluntary exchange of populations between Greece and Bulgaria. After the Russian collapse in 1917, 30,000 Assyrians who had fought against the Turks escaped to the Caucasus, Greece, and Iraq, and later to Syria. Armenians fled from persecution and massacre in Asia Minor following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Turkish nationalism. By 1923 an estimated 320,000 Armenian refugees were scattered in the Middle East, the Balkans, and other European countries (Simpson 1939a, pp. 11–61).

About 1.5 million Russian nationals were dispersed and left stranded in north, central, and southern Europe and in the Far East as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, the rout of the anti-Bolshevik armies in European Russia in 1919–1920, the famine of 1921, and the collapse of White Russian resistance in Siberian Russia in 1922 (Kulischer 1943, p. 39; Simpson 1939a, pp. 62–125).

The ranks of refugees were further increased by those in flight from dictatorships in Spain, Germany, and Italy. Some 140,000 of the Spanish refugees who sought safety in France between 1937 and 1939 remained in that country after the Spanish Civil War came to an end; smaller numbers, especially children, were evacuated to Great Britain, Belgium, Mexico, and the Soviet Union; between 40,000 and 50,000 fled to north Africa (Simpson 1939b, pp. 58–63). Between 1933 and the outbreak of World War n, more than a million refugees, most of them Jews, left Germany: many succeeded in fleeing to western Europe or across the seas, but nearly 700,000 of them remained in the territories subsequently occupied by Germany and its allies. Refugees from Italian dictatorship numbered 65,000-70,000 in 1938; many of them went to north Africa (Simpson 1939a, pp. 117–125).

Refugees in World War II

World War n caused the most formidable displacement of population ever experienced. First, there was the mass movement of Germans within “Greater Germany.” Ethnic Germans were transferred into Germany, mainly from eastern Europe; it has been estimated that approximately 600,000 persons had been transferred into the German Reich by the spring of 1942 (Kulischer 1943, p. 25). Other government measures for the movement of German nationals included the dispersal of industry in Germany, the “colonization of the conquered territories,” and evacuation from bomb-target urban centers. In addition, hundreds of thousands of German Jews were herded into concentration and extermination camps. Finally, large numbers of Germans fled from the path of the victorious Allied armies. Then there was the displacement of non-Germans: those expelled from the defeated countries; those whose movement was effected by agreements or treaties for the transfer and exchange of populations; those dispatched to “Greater Germany” as prisoners of war or forced laborers; and those non-Germans, mostly Jews, systematically deported from the defeated countries to the concentration camps of Germany. It has been estimated that by May 1945 there were 40.5 million uprooted people in Europe, excluding non-German forced laborers and those Germans who fled before the advancing Soviet armies (Kulischer 1948, pp. 255–273).

Postwar refugees from eastern Europe

About 1.6 million persons displaced from east European countries during the period 1939–1945 are estimated to have refused repatriation after World War II (these figures are based principally on those compiled by the Occupation authorities in postwar Germany and by the International Refugee Organization). But the first major postwar movement of refugees from eastern Europe was as a result of the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, when 60,000 Czech refugees fled to the western zones of Germany and Austria. At the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution in October 1956, more than 200,000 Hungarian refugees poured over the borders into Austria (180,000) and Yugoslavia (20,000). There is still a small but steady flow westward of escapees from the communist countries of eastern Europe, estimated, at the end of 1964, to be between 12,000 and 15,000 per year. During the period 1945–1966, according to records kept by the U.S. Escapee Program, a total of about 1,270,000 persons escaped from eastern European countries to western European countries. West German authorities estimate that, during the same period, some 3,735,000 German refugees fled into West Germany from East Berlin and other parts of East Germany. A similar number are escaping from Communist China to other Asian countries.

“Repatriates” to European countries. The 9.7 million German “expellees” from the territories east of the Oder and Neisse rivers, the 3.3 million persons from eastern and southern Europe, and the nearly 65,000 persons who moved, under governmental agreement for family reunion, from East Germany to West Germany, were national and ethnic German refugees for whom the West German government assumed responsibility (Hol-born 1956, p. 15; International Labor Office 1959, chapter 1). Similar problems attended the liquidation of European colonial regimes. For instance, the years 1945–1958 saw the repatriation of many French citizens from former French territories in Asia and Africa: 75,000 returned from Indochina after the establishment of independent Vietnam, 10,000 left both before and after the establishment of the Republic of Guinea in 1958, and 138,000 came from Tunisia and 172,000 from Morocco after the attainment of independence by those countries in 1956. Over 15,000 French citizens left Egypt after the Suez crisis in 1956. Some 950,000 more left Algeria during and after the struggle for independence which culminated in the establishment of an independent republic in 1962 (McDonald 1965). The Netherlands received about 300,000 Dutch Indonesians when Indonesia became an independent state in 1949 (Smith 1966, p. 47).

All of the above were accepted by their respective countries as national refugees, i.e., as legal citizens. The relationship between the repatriates and the indigenous population was very strained at first, particularly in regard toe mployment and social adjustment, but the national governments assisted in the settlement and integration of the newcomers and, in the case of the Dutch Indonesians, in the resettlement of many overseas.

Refugees in Asia

In the second half of the twentieth century, the scene of mass population movements has shifted from Europe to Asia. The people involved have tended to come from a simple agricultural setting, and their flight, for the most part, has been to equally undeveloped and often politically unstable countries. The result has been widespread destitution and misery.

India and Pakistan

Following the partition of British India, in 1947, into the two sovereign states of India and Pakistan, 15 million people crossed the newly defined borders, in the greatest mass migration ever recorded. A government refugee program was evolved for the estimated 8 million Hindus who, by 1954, had crossed over into India; and the Pakistan government reported that a similar number of Muslim refugees from India had to be provided for by government programs (U.S. Congress …1954; International Labor Office 1959, pp. 108–120). A further uprooting, though on a much smaller scale, took place as a result of the hostilities between India and Pakistan over Kashmir in August 1965.


In the wake of the defeated Japanese armies, U.S. and Soviet forces occupied Korea. At the Potsdam Conference of 1945 the country was divided at the 38th parallel into a Soviet zone (North Korea) and a U.S. zone (South Korea). Attempts to reunify the zones into a single Republic of Korea failed. In the political and military upheaval that followed, millions of uprooted and homeless people wandered over the country. In 1955 the number of repatriates and refugees from Japan and North Korea was estimated at 4 million. These uprooted people had increased the South Korean population by about 25 per cent as compared with its size in 1945 (International Labor Office 1959, pp. 124–125).

The South Korean government’s task of rehabilitating and reconstructing its country was immeasurably complicated by the presence of these destitute and homeless people. A comprehensive program of resettlement and integration was begun under the direction of the provincial governments with the aid of the UN Civil Assistance Command (later Korean Civil Assistance Command) and the Office of the UN Command Coordinator for Korea. The UN Korean Reconstruction Agency (UNKRA), which was created by the General Assembly in 1950 and terminated in 1959 and was supported by contributions from 34 UN members and five nonmember states, provided food, shelter, and medical treatment for hundreds of thousands of refugees and lent skilled staff to the UN Command for the control and distribution of relief. In August 1947, the UN reported that all but 3 million had been resettled or given new homes. By mid-1961, 1.6 million of these had been resettled; a further 1.4 million were living in barely human conditions on government-provided land in the area of Seoul and Pusan, an estimated half million of them—the so-called “hard core” cases— supported by Protestant churches, Korean World Service, and by other voluntary agencies (the source of this information is the Newsletter of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, in its issues for June 1961 and July-August 1962; other sources put the total number of refugees from North Korea to South Korea during the period 1948–1953 at about 5 million).

Vietnam and Laos

Mass refugee movements occurred during and after the armistice conference, held in Geneva in July 1954, which terminated hostilities in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Article 1 of the convention provided for the division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel (a “provisional military demarcation line”): the Vietminh (People’s Army of Vietnam) were to the North, and the French Union forces to the South. Civilians were to be allowed to move freely from one zone to the other, and the authorities of each zone were to assist their movement. By May 18, 1955, the final evacuation date, 860,000 persons (of whom 676,000 were Catholics) were known to have left North Vietnam for South Vietnam (Corley 1958/ 1959, p. 526); the actual total, however, may have been about 960,000. In addition to Vietnamese, about 42,000 seminomadic tribesmen joined the flight to the south (ibid., p. 528). Because of communication problems and the opposition of Vietminh forces, their flight was a difficult and dangerous undertaking. French military and civilian planes flew many refugees south, and the U.S. Navy task force transported others by sea from embarkation points along the coast (Lindholm 1959,pp. 63–76). Two Vietnamese organizations, the Refugee Commission and the Catholic Committee on Resettlement of Refugees, were aided by the governments of the United States, France, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia, and also by UNICEF, WHO, and various private charitable organizations (Corley 1958/1959, p. 528). By 1960, 315 refugee villages had been established for the newcomers on undeveloped agricultural land and, in the normal course, the integration of the refugees would soon have been completed (Schechtman 1963, p. 168).

However, in face of gradually intensifying military and guerrilla activities in the south since 1954, large numbers of refugees have moved from unsafe areas in search of shelter and protection. These later movements have occurred for a variety of reasons: panic flight from areas of military operation; escape from Vietcong terrorism, extortion, and recruitment; and movement away from communist-controlled areas, both at the urging of religious leaders and as a result of government resettlement programs. In addition, some have left their homes because of typhoons and floods. By January 31, 1966, the Agency for International Development (AID) reported an estimated 1,001,808 refugees in South Vietnam (U.S. Committee for Refugees 1966, p. 23); at about the same time, the Office of Refugees and Migration Affairs of the U.S. Department of State estimated that since 1961 1.4 million South Vietnamese had become refugees in South Vietnam. It seemed likely that the actual movements exceeded both these figures. Another estimate by the U.S. Department of State (based, like its other estimate, on hearings before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held during 1965 and 1966) put the number of Laotian refugees from areas of Laos under communist control at about 350,000 during the period 1960–1966.

The Government of the Republic of Vietnam, with the assistance of AID and some 24 American voluntary agencies, has developed an ambitious program of assistance for emergency and longrange services, including programs that attempt to increase the refugees’ productivity in resettlement areas. It is hoped that as many of the refugees as possible will eventually return to their villages in peace (see also U.S. Congress, Senate 1965a; U.S. Congress, Senate 1966a).


Invading Japanese armies caused refugee movements from southern China as early as 1938, but the major flow of refugees resulted from the protracted Chinese civil war, the final establishment of a Chinese communist government in 1949, and the transfer of the Nationalist government to Formosa. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese fled in various directions. An estimated 337,000 fled to the east and southeast Asian countries, where they lived in precarious conditions (Schechtman 1963, pp. 310–322). By 1960, 14,000 of these had been assimilated in the northern part of Laos, being ethnically the same as the Laotians and sharing the same religion. The great majority found refuge in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, where, of the 1962 population of 3.2 million, more than 1 million were estimated to be refugees (Schechtman 1963, p. 312; compare United Nations, Hong Kong …1955, p. 955). But the true figures are difficult to determine, for mingled with the refugees were many former Hong Kong residents returning after the war. It is also estimated that, during the period 1948–1966, about 40,000 European refugees entered Hong Kong and the Philippines from mainland China.

In May 1962, in self-defense against this human tidal wave, the British blockaded the borders in an attempt to control and limit the inflow of refugees; the communists, too, who had hitherto done little to prevent the exodus, now took steps to end it. But the inflow continued by sea, and in 1962 an additional 200,000 refugees were added to Hong Kong’s teeming millions. Although British policy in Hong Kong incurred much criticism, recrimination was tempered by awareness of the difficulties facing the authorities there. It had to be admitted, too, that the remaining countries of the free world had failed to offer an alternative place of refuge to most of the fugitives from Chinese communism. On June 4, 1962, President John F. Kennedy did indeed authorize the parole of specified Hong Kong Chinese, and by June 1966 over 14,000 of them had been paroled into the United States. Brazil, too, accepted a limited number. The offer of the Chinese Nationalist government on Formosa to resettle 50,000 refugees was viewed with skepticism, in view of that government’s own food and population problems; only the Portuguese colony of Macao maintained an open-door policy. By early 1966 an estimated 80,000 Chinese refugees were in Macao, and approximately 1.25 million-2 million in Hong Kong (U.S. Committee for Refugees 1966). According to figures based on records kept by the British authorities in Hong Kong and by a joint committee consisting of representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee for European Migration, and the U.S. Escapee Program, about 2,080,000 Chinese refugees entered Hong Kong and Macao from mainland China during the period 1948–1966.

Since 1953 the Hong Kong government has been engaged in the building of multistory resettlement housing and the establishment of a vast network of small industries in an attempt to keep pace with the rapidly increasing population. With the aid of international and local voluntary organizations, they have been doing an exceptional job of integrating the mass of refugees, but these efforts have inevitably lagged behind the needs of the situation (U.S. Congress, House, Committee on the Judiciary 1966, pp. 11–13). Figures for those Chinese who went to Formosa are also hard to determine. Their integration was greatly aided by the Nationalist Chinese government and the Free China Relief Association (International Labor Office 1959, pp. 128–129).


Communist China’s assertion of authority over Tibet in 1950 and the Lhasa uprising in 1959 resulted in the flight of thousands of Tibetans over the Himalayas. There are about 43,000 Tibetan refugees in India, 7,000 in Nepal, some 3,000 in Bhutan, and 3,000 in Sikkim. The Indian government engaged in settling about 7,000 on land, while about 28,000 were resettled through their own efforts. The remaining 8,000 presumably found work of some kind. In Nepal, under a bilateral agreement between the governments of Nepal and Switzerland, the resettlement of these refugees is the responsibility of both the Swiss government and the Swiss Red Cross (International Council …1965, p. 23). Emergency aid was provided by the U.S. government and by private groups. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) aided in the vocational training and resettlement of Tibetan refugees, with a view to making them self-supporting.

Refugees in the Middle East

Palestine Arab refugees

The UN decision to partition Palestine was followed by the 1948–1949 Arab-Israeli conflict and the flight of an estimated 500,000 people from their homes in the area of fighting. Of these, the majority were Arabs, with a smattering of Armenians, Greeks, and non-Jewish nationals of other countries. By June 30, 1966, 1,317,000 were registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA): 707,000 in Jordan, 307,000 in the Gaza strip, 164,000 in Lebanon, and 140,000 in Syria (UNRWA 1966). From the outset, the compilation of accurate statistics on the refugees was made extremely difficult; for political reasons, and out of a desire for additional material aid, figures were inflated by false registrations and unreported deaths (Gabbay 1959, pp. 165–171). UNRWA was established by the UN in 1949 as a temporary organization. But since substantial progress in the reintegration of the refugees, either by repatriation or by resettlement, has not materialized, the mandate of the agency has several times been extended. From May 1, 1950, to December 31, 1965, UNRWA spent close to $535 million, contributed to a large extent by the United States.

By June 30, 1965, 70 per cent of the refugees received basic dry rations and 40 per cent had been sheltered in 54 camps, the rest having found their own accommodations. More than 228,000 children were going to school, 168,000 of them in the 406 UNRWA-UNESCO schools. UNRWA operates 10 vocational or teacher training centers and undertakes basic preventive and curative health care through 88 clinics and other facilities; in addition, more than 250,000 refugees, mainly children, benefit from UNRWA’s programs of supplementary feeding and milk distribution (United Nations, Relief and Works Agency …1966). With the cooperation of the Arab host governments and the international organizations, UNRWA attempts the dual task of providing relief and assisting refugees to become productive and self-supporting.

However, the problem of the Palestine Arab refugees is as much political as socioeconomic. Until a political solution is achieved, these refugees will continue to symbolize the instability that, in 1967, resulted in yet another Arab-Israeli war.


The persecution of the Jews by Nazi Germany was an important factor in speeding up the establishment of the Jewish national home first envisaged in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Immigration of Jews into Palestine, which had continued both openly and clandestinely since the end of World War i, became legally unrestricted upon the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. An ambitious resettlement program has been pursued by the government of Israel, involving a total of 1,209,282 immigrants by 1964 (Israel …Statistical Abstract, 1965), the majority being refugees from the countries of central and eastern Europe, north Africa, and the Middle East. The Jewish Agency for Israel, the Joint Distribution Committee, and the United Jewish Appeal, as well as the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, assisted in this work.

Refugees in Africa

The attainment of independence by more than 35 African countries during the period 1951–1966 has been accompanied by a complex displacement and uprooting of peoples, which in turn has resulted in severe problems. Deep-seated tribal and ethnic rivalries in many of the newly independent countries and restrictive conditions under continuing white minority rule have resulted in a flight to neighboring territories, adding to the long-existing tendency to economic migration. The estimates below of the number of people involved in these movements must be treated with caution. The task of obtaining accurate figures on refugees —never an easy one—is here made even more difficult by a number of factors: the poverty and relative lack of development in the countries of origin and asylum; the complexity of motivations leading to these movements; the variety of aids and attempted solutions, ranging from repatriation (as in the case of the Algerians and the Congolese) to attempts at local integration, especially in the case of irredentist movements (as with the Somalis).

Since 1961, an estimated 650,000 persons have fled into adjacent territories. A partial breakdown of the figures for African refugees indicates the following movements.

(1) As of late 1966, more than 300,000 refugees had made their way to the Republic of the Congo : at least 250,000 came from Portuguese Angola, 25,000 from Rwanda, and 40,000 from the Sudan, as well as an unknown number from various other countries. Accordingly, the UNHCR helped to establish and maintain coordination between the Congolese authorities, the UN Organization in the Congo, the International Red Cross, and a number of voluntary agencies.

(2) By the end of 1966, Burundi had an estimated 78,000 refugees from Rwanda and the Congo.

(3) Also by the end of 1966, the Central Africa Republic harbored more than 6,000 Congolese and 25,000 Sudanese.

(4) In the fall of 1965, about 2,000 Burundis crossed into Rwanda.

(5) About 50,000 refugees from Portuguese Guinea moved into Senegal during 1964 and 1965. In 1966 these refugees were benefiting from a joint program of the Senegalese government and the United Nations, as well as from bilateral aid from the United States and France.

(6) According to estimates available early in 1967, there were about 30,000 refugees in Tanzania, including 12,000 from Mozambique and an equal number from Rwanda. Most of the remainder were Congolese.

(7) In December 1965, Zambia requested emergency aid for some 5,000 refugees. By the end of May 1966 more than 1,000 Angolese refugees were in Zambia.

(8) By mid-1966, the number of refugees in Uganda was estimated at 140,000 (70,000 from Rwanda, 45,000 from the Sudan, and 25,000 from the Congo). About one third of this number arrived during 1965–1966.

(9) An unknown number of refugees of various origins have sought asylum in other African countries, including Kenya, Chad, and Ethiopia.

The governments of all these countries of asylum have developed emergency and resettlement programs in cooperation with the UNHCR (for further information, see United Nations, Office …1966a).

(10) Since March 1960, a number of fugitives from South Africa’s apartheid policies have sought asylum in neighboring countries, notably Tanzania; similar flights have occurred from Southwest Africa and from Rhodesia, totaling an estimated 1,500 by 1966 (U.S. Congress, Senate 1966a, p. 98).

The above survey of African refugees does not include an estimated 1 million or more Eastern Nigerians who fled into their Eastern Region homeland following the September 1966 massacre of Easterners in the Northern Region. The Eastern Region government set up the Eastern Region Refugee Commission in Enugu, Nigeria, in an effort to cope with this influx. Since they were national refugees, they were ineligible for aid under international refugee aid programs, but the burden of their resettlement would seem too great for Nigeria to bear alone, whatever the outcome of the 1967 civil war.

Refugees in the Western Hemisphere

Political refugees have been a common phenomenon throughout the history of the Western Hemisphere. Small in number, they have chiefly comprised exiled political leaders and people of means seeking temporary asylum in other countries. In recent decades, however, the refugee problem has undergone a fundamental change (Inter-American Commission …1965, p. 65). Refugees now tend to be fugitives from political persecution, the majority with little or no means, and their flight has been the cause of recurrent strain between their countries of origin and the countries in which they seek asylum.

The number of refugees in this area is difficult to determine, for much of this movement is of a complex, and often clandestine, nature. During recent decades, many Haitians, especially those in the skilled and professional classes, are known to have taken refuge in the Dominican Republic, the United States, and several Caribbean countries. Bolivians fleeing their country have been mainly workers seeking to escape their government’s persecution; the majority of Paraguayan refugees are also opponents of the present regime. There is scant information about those who fled the Dominican Republic after the fall of the Bosch government in 1963 and the revolution of 1965.


The major movement of population in the Western Hemisphere, and one which has caused considerable concern to the Latin American countries and the United States, has been the mass exodus of Cubans since the revolution of 1959. By October 1963 they totaled an estimated 350,000. About 275,000 crossed to the United States. The rest fled to Spain, Puerto Rico, and various Latin American countries. Many of these came under the protection of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The United States federal government, through the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, provided a financial assistance program, as well as educational, retraining, and vocational programs. It established a policy of resettling as many of the refugees as possible outside of Miami, the main entry center. A number of voluntary resettlement agencies were contracted with to furnish resettlement services on behalf of the government. By December 1, 1965, nearly 100,000 of the 185,000 refugees registered at the Cuban Refugee Center in Miami had been resettled to self-supporting opportunities in 3,000 communities throughout the 50 states and Puerto Rico. A further influx of Cuban refugees into the United States began in December 1965, following an agreement between the Cuban and United States governments for reunion of refugee families. Under this agreement about 4,000 Cubans per month were being airlifted into the United States. The total arrivals by December 9, 1966, were 50,051, of whom 76 per cent had been resettled. By December 1966 the federal government had spent more than $200 million, not including the additional sums and services provided by the nongovernmental agencies (Holborn 1965a). The majority of Cubans, on entering the United States, were granted no more than parole status, which greatly hindered their economic integration. But in October 1966 Congress authorized an adjustment of their status to that of permanent residents.

Toward a solution of refugee problems

The League of Nations, in its attempt to solve the refugee problems created by World War I, was severely handicapped by a limited conception of its powers and responsibilities. It was assumed

(1) that those problems were of a temporary nature and that a final solution could be achieved;

(2) that the mandate of the League’s organs included only refugees so designated by international arrangements; (3) that the responsibilities of its international organs were not operational; and (4) that embarrassment of League members could be avoided by eschewing actions which would favor one country at the expense of its political opponent (Warren 1958; Macartney 1934).

It had become obvious that the western European countries were in no position to offer further hospitality to refugees unless these countries could be relieved of earlier arrivals. The Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (IGCR), created in 1938 on the initiative of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to help refugees from Germany and Austria, therefore embarked on an international program for planned and assisted migration (Warren 1958, p. 112). This was a new dimension in the conception of an effective refugee program, and one which was carried over into the period after World War n. Thus the refugee became a migrant, and as such had to fit the immigration requirements of the country of resettlement.

United Nations activities, 1944–1951

During the gradual liberation of Europe by the Allied forces, the tasks of assistance to refugees and displaced persons from eastern Europe were divided between the High Commissioner for Refugees of the League of Nations, the IGCR, and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). The last, created under an agreement signed in Washington on December 9, 1944, by 44 nations, provided care and maintenance in camps for refugees and displaced persons in its operational areas and aided them in their repatriation (Woodbridge 1950). IGCR gave material assistance to those in other areas and prepared for resettlement those who could not be repatriated; the High Commissioner continued to provide legal and political protection. According to estimates in 1946, there were some 1,675,000 refugees for whom new homes had to be found (Holborn 1956, chapters 10, 11).

Even before its formal inauguration, the United Nations was confronted with the task of dealing with millions of uprooted people, and it has been continually harassed by the problem ever since. Like its predecessor, it recognized the refugee problem as one of immediate urgency and as international in scope and character. It also followed League precedent in regarding the enormous and widespread refugee and displaced persons problems created by World War n and its aftermath as a passing phenomenon for which lasting solutions could be found. Thus the organs established by the United Nations to deal with refugees have all been of a temporary nature.

In December 1946 the UN General Assembly approved the creation of the International Refugee Organization (IRO) to take over all responsibilities from IGCR and UNRRA in July of the following year. The Preparatory Commission of IRO (PCIRO) shouldered these responsibilities until the constitution of IRO came into force on August 20, 1948, delayed until this date by the need for ratification by a fifteenth state. IRO then embarked on a comprehensive large-scale program and worldwide operational field activities.

By December 1951, IRO had spent $430 million contributed by its 18 member governments (the United States contributed $237 million). In carrying out its tasks, IRO administered a network of camps; it provided housing, food, and medical care; it arranged for the rehabilitation and retraining of refugees, as well as for their legal protection; it negotiated agreements for resettlement, brought the refugees to ports of embarkation, and, in a vast shipping operation, transported them overseas in its own ships (Holborn 1956, chapter 21).

However, by 1950 there were still an estimated 1,250,000 or more refugees throughout the world. Of these, 400,000 were registered with IRO but had not yet been settled; instead, they remained in Germany, Austria, and Italy, with an unknown but substantial number of unregistered out-of-camp refugees. In addition, new refugees from the countries of eastern Europe continued to flow into western Europe and were in need of some form of international assistance when IRO was liquidated.

International activities since 1951

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM) were created to help complete the unfinished task of resettling refugees. The Office of the UNHCR was established by the UN General Assembly under the Statute of the UNHCR in 1950. The office is an integral part of the United Nations, but with the independence necessary for the effective carrying out of its mandate. The High Commissioner promotes, organizes, coordinates, and supervises international action on behalf of refugees protected by former international agencies and on behalf of any person who is outside the country of his nationality (or if he has no nationality, the country of his former habitual residence) because he has been persecuted by reason of his race, religion, nationality, or political opinion, and cannot —or, owing to such fears, does not wish to—avail himself of the protection of that country. Once a refugee acquires the nationality of his country of residence or resumes his former nationality, he is no longer under the mandate of the High Commissioner (for a summary of these and other aspects of the international program, see Holborn 1965b).

ICEM was formed on the initiative of the United States at the Migration Conference at Brussels in December 1951 as an agency for planned and assisted migration for European national migrants and refugees. It is independent of the United Nations, operating under its own constitution and directed and financed by thirty emigration, immigration, and “sympathizing” countries. It inherited the International Refugee Organization’s shipping fleet and world-wide network of embarkation and reception facilities, as well as its invaluable administrative experience. By December 1966, ICEM had transported 1,464,630 Europeans to overseas countries, of whom 726,000 were refugees—including Hungarian refugees and refugees under the United States Escapee Program (Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration, Annual Report 1966).

Nongovernmental voluntary agencies

Traditionally, the basic responsibility for dealing with an influx of refugees rests with the authorities of the country of asylum. However, from the time the refugee problem first became apparent, the voluntary agencies have stimulated public concern and action. They have implemented the programs financed by governments and have provided the human link between the individual refugees and the governmental and international agencies. They have been largely instrumental in organizing the sponsorships of refugees wishing to emigrate and have been active in making local integration a success by helping refugees to adjust as members of new communities. In 1963 the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), an organization in Geneva that incorporates more than eighty voluntary agencies, was awarded the Nan-sen Medal in recognition of its work.

Political and legal protection

The right of asylum, by which a state can accord hospitality and protection to political refugees and refuse to repatriate them, is widely accepted and practiced in international law. But a state is under no legal obligation to grant asylum: refugees cannot claim it as a right. The granting of asylum to refugees is frequently the cause of political tension between the country of asylum and the country of origin— tension which in turn affects the refugee. The provisions of international law that determine the status of an alien assume that he has a nationality. If he does not, he has no clearly defined rights, and it may often be impossible for administrative officials, no matter how well disposed, to assist him. It is therefore of great importance for all parties concerned to secure some regularization of the status of the refugee and to designate an international authority to act as his representative.

A series of conventions drawn up between 1922 and 1951 sought to narrow the legal no man’s land of refugees. They made provision for the granting of identity and travel documents (such as the so-called Nansen passport), for civil status, employment, education, and social assistance (United Nations, Department of Social Affairs 1949). Two basic principles were established by these agreements : (1) that the personal status of the refugee (legal capacity, right to marriage and divorce, adoption, etc.) shall be governed by the law of his country of residence; (2) that the principle of reciprocity shall not be refused to a refugee in the absence of de jure reciprocity. However, these rights have been established only for specified categories of refugees and have been granted only by those states which have ratified the conventions or act as if they have ratified them. Legal protection, therefore, is limited in practice to certain groups, and even for these groups is assured only in certain countries. Thus, although political protection by an international agency is extended to all eligible refugees, the appropriate international organizations can aid refugees only insofar as international conventions or negotiations make it possible.

A general Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted by a plenipotentiary conference at Geneva in 1951. This document declared that the term “refugee” should apply to all those who had been so considered under the Arrangements of 12 May 1926 and 30 June 1928, the Conventions of 28 October 1933 and 10 February 1938, the Protocol of September 1939, or the Constitution of the IRO (for all of which see Holborn 1938), and to those persons who, because of events occurring before January 1, 1951, have a “well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”; are outside their country of nationality; and cannot “or owing to such fear” are unwilling to, avail themselves “of the protection of that country” (United Nations, Office …1966k, p. 15). The Convention, signed by 24 states, came into force on April 22, 1954, and by December 1966 had been ratified by 50 governments.

Under the influence of the Convention, the term “refugee” has become a new legal concept. It has gradually been accepted “that the refugee has a special status that sets him apart from the ordinary alien because he is without any country’s diplomatic protection” (Read 1962, p. 49). In addition, it is no longer relevant from where the refugee has come: eligibility for refugee status is determined by the relationship of the refugee to events (Weis 1954). Some measures in favor of refugees have been taken by various international governmental bodies and also through special protocols applying to international conventions and special provisions inserted in general international instruments [for a different view of this definition of “refugee” seeMigration, article onSocial Aspects].

In recognition of the universal nature of the refugee problem and its indefinite duration, a draft protocol to the 1951 Convention drawn up by the UNHCR in consultation with the governments concerned was signed by the president of the 21st UN General Assembly on January 31, 1967. When ratified by six countries, it will make the Convention universally applicable to refugees and will secure for new groups of refugees the same status as that enjoyed by those already covered by the Convention.

Material aid

“Rights” and “status” do not in themselves constitute solutions to the problem of refugees, but are merely conditions for solutions. By the end of 1951 an estimated 400,000 nonsettled refugees (130,000 of them living in camps) were still under the mandate of UNHCR. All of these needed material assistance and either resettlement by migration to overseas countries or local integration in the country of first asylum. The Ford Foundation made available a $3 million grant for operational service. Following this precedent, the UN General Assembly authorized the High Commissioner to set up a three-year aid program, to be financed through voluntary contributions from governmental and nongovernmental sources and to run from 1955 through 1958.

While the Office was engaged in this program, it was requested by the UN General Assembly on November 9, 1956, to act as a general coordinator for the activities of governments and voluntary agencies on behalf of the more than 200,000 Hungarians pouring into Austria and Yugoslavia. Following the Hungarian emergency, a resolution of the General Assembly in 1957 emphasized the need for greater flexibility to cope with emergencies. The High Commissioner was then authorized to establish an emergency fund, to be made up by repayments of loans granted to refugees and to be used under the general directives of the executive committee of the UNHCR programs. Approximately 150,000 refugees had benefited from these programs by December 31, 1965: over 96,500 resettled on a permanent basis through UNHCR programs and some 43,000 through other means.

From January 1952 to January 1966, the UNHCR assisted 3.8 million refugees with international protection and/or material aid. Some 1.6 million ceased to be refugees either by returning to their country of origin or by acquiring citizenship in the country of asylum or final resettlement. But in spite of this reduction, the number of refugees was 2.25 million as of January 1, 1966 (U.S. Committee for Refugees 1966).

Expansion of UNHCR responsibilities

The concept of “good offices” empowers the High Commissioner to provide assistance, without a specific mandate, to countries which request it. In 1957 the UN General Assembly recognized as a matter of concern to the international community the problem of nearly one million Chinese refugees who had, from 1949 onward, flooded into Hong Kong from mainland China (United Nations, Hong Kong …1955). The assembly did not place these refugees under the High Commissioner’s mandate, but asked him to lend his good offices on their behalf. The concept was applied again to assist the large number of Algerians (estimated in 1959 at 200,000), the majority without means, who had fled into neighboring Tunisia and Morocco. Initial emergency relief had been given by the International Committee of the Red Cross. In May 1957 the Tunisian government appealed to the High Commissioner for assistance, and, acting under a UN General Assembly resolution of November 1958, he joined with the League of Red Cross Societies in a relief operation to aid refugees in both countries. This task was successfully concluded by July 31, 1962. In addition, the High Commissioner organized relief operations in 1958, financed through voluntary contributions, for those who had fled their homes in Egypt as a result of the Anglo-French-Israeli Suez venture in October 1956. Finally, a resolution of the UN General Assembly in the World Refugee Year 1959 extended the authority of the High Commissioner to lend his good offices for the welfare of nonmandate refugees. This resolution provided an avenue of assistance to the new nations of Africa beset by the problems of population movements that had followed in the wake of independence. Togo was the first to seek help in this way, at the beginning of 1962 (Read 1962, p. 45).

In the African context, bearing in mind the fragile nature of the social and administrative structures of the newly emerging nations, the Office of the UNHCR was faced with an entirely new set of problems, requiring new approaches and solutions. Here its first task was to assess the immediate needs (notably food and medical care) and to alleviate these through an allocation from the Emergency Fund. The Office’s second task was to seek “operational partners” experienced in emergency relief work, such as the League of Red Cross Societies, and to obtain additional sources of material aid. The next stage is to promote integration on the spot as a permanent solution for the refugees, since voluntary repatriation is often impossible, and resettlement even more so. Here again, UNHCR works closely with the international voluntary agencies, as well as with the governments of the asylum countries.

An important aspect of refugee aid in the less developed countries, such as those of Africa, is that tackling the problem of integrating refugees in the country of asylum results simultaneously in the provision of developmental aid to the indigenous population. Thus, for example, at Mugera in eastern Burundi, UNHCR has taken the lead in creating a village for 25,000 Rwandese refugees, with all this entails in infrastructure and organization. In this work, the High Commissioner often calls upon the UN operational agencies experienced in development work, such as ILO, FAO, WHO, and UNESCO.

While regional organizations like the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) can contribute much to the alleviation of refugee problems, it is important that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees be continued. Fortunately, the international community’s awareness of the close interrelation between the political, social, economic, and psychological aspects of refugee problems has culminated in the strengthening of the High Commissioner’s coordinating role to the point at which any given refugee situation can be dealt with in its entirety. It appears increasingly likely that only the High Commissioner, as the representative of the United Nations, can embody the impartiality and prestige required for a humane and effective solution of these problems.

Louise W. Holborn

[Directly related are the entriesHomelessness; Migration. Other relevant material may be found inInternational Crimes; International Organization; and in the biography ofKuxischer.]


American Academy Of Political And Social Science 1966 The New Immigration. Edited by Edward P. Hutchinson. Annals, Vol. 367. Philadelphia: The Academy.

Cohley, Francis J. 1958/1959 Vietnam Since Geneva. Thought 33:515–568.

Eddy, Charles B. 1931 Greece and the Greek Refugees. London: Allen & Unwin.

Gabbay, Rony E. 1959 A Political Study of the ArabJewish Conflict: The Arab Refugee Problem. Geneva: Droz.

Holborn, Louise W. 1938 The Legal Status of Political Refugees, 1920–1938. American Journal of International Law 32:680–703.

Holborn, Louise W. 1939 The League of Nations and the Refugee Problem. American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 203:124–135.

Holborn, Louise W. 1952 The United Nations and the Refugee Problem. Yearbook of World Affairs 6:124–148.

Holborn, Louise W. 1956 The International Refugee Organization, a Specialized Agency of the United Nations: Its History and Work, 1946–1952. Oxford Univ. Press.

Holborn, Louise W. 1961 Intergovernmental Partnership for Planned Migration. Migration 1, no. 2:5–18.

Holborn, Louise W. 1965a The Cuban Refugee Problem. Report prepared for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Cuban Refugee Program. Unpublished manuscript.

Holborn, Louise W. 1965b International Organizations for Migration of European Nationals and Refugees. International Journal 20:331–349.

ICVA News.→ Published since 1962 by the International Council of Voluntary Agencies.

Inter-american Commission On Human Rights 1965 Draft Report on the Political Refugees in America. Prepared by the Secretariat of the Commission. OEA/Ser. L/V/II.ll, Doc. 7 Rev. Washington: Pan American Union.

Intergovernmental Committee For European MigrationAnnual Report of the Director to the Council.→ Published in mimeographed form since 1952.

Intergovernmental Committee For European Migration 1956 Constitution, Adopted at Venice, October 19, 1953. U.S. Department of State, Publication No. 5987. Washington: Government Printing Office.

International Council Of Voluntary Agencies 1965 The Refugee Problem Since 1955, by Jacques Vernant. I.C.V.A. General Conference Document No. 20F. Unpublished manuscript, I.C.V.A., Geneva.

International Labor Office 1959 International Migration, 1945–1957. Geneva: The Office.

International Migration. -→ Published since 1961. Titled Migration from 1961 to 1962.

Israel, Halishkah Hamerkazit LestatistikahStatistical Abstract of Israel, 1965.

Jahn, Erhard 1966 Developments in Refugee Law in the Framework of Regional Organizations Outside Europe. A.W.R. Bulletin 4, no. 2:77–90.

Kulischer, Eugene M. 1943 The Displacement of Population in Europe. Studies and Reports, Series O, No. 8. Montreal: International Labor Office.

Kulischer, Eugene M. 1948 Europe on the Move: War and Population Changes, 1917–1947. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Lindholm, Richard W. (editor) 1959 Vietnam: The First Five Years. East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press. See especially pages 63–76, “The Role of the United States Navy.”

Macartney, Carlile A. 1934 Refugees. Volume 13, pages 200–205 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Mcdonald, J. R. 1965 The Repatriation of French Algerians, 1962–1963. International Migration 3:146–155.

Migration News. -> Published since 1952.

Organization Of American States 1964 Immigration in Latin America. Washington: Pan American Union.

Proudfoot, Malcolm J. 1956 European Refugees, 1939–1952: A Study in Forced Population Movement. Evanston, 111.: Northwestern Univ. Press.

Read, James M. (1951) 1953 Magna Carta for Refugees. Rev. ed. New York: United Nations, Department of Public Information.

Read, James M. 1962 The United Nations and Refugees: Changing Concepts. International Conciliation No. 537. New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Rees, Elfan (1957) 1959 We Strangers and Afraid: The Refugee Story Today. New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Schechtmann, Joseph B. 1946 European Population Transfers, 1939–1945. Oxford Univ. Press.

Schechtmann, Joseph B. 1963 The Refugee in the World: Displacement and Integration. New York: Barnes.

Simpson, John H. 1939a The Refugee Problem: Report of a Survey. Oxford Univ. Press.

Simpson, John H. 1939b Refugees: A Review of the Situation Since September 1938. London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Smith, Richard F. 1966 Refugees. American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 367:43–52.

United Nations, Department Of Social Affairs 1949 A Study of Statelessness. Lake Success, N.Y.: United Nations.

United Nations, Hong Kong Refugees Survey Mission1955 The Problem of Chinese Refugees in Hong Kong. Report submitted by Eduard Hambro. Leiden (Netherlands): Sijthoff.

United Nations, Korean Reconstruction AgencyReport of the Agent General. -” Reports submitted to the sixth through the fourteenth sessions of the General Assembly.

United Nations, Korean Reconstruction Agency1956 UNKRA in Action. New York: United Nations.

United Nations, Office Of The United Nations High Commissioner For RefugeesReview. A monthly newsletter.

United Nations, Office Of The United Nations High Commissioner For RefugeesStatute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. -> Published since 1951.

United Nations, Office Of The United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees 1955 A United Nations Plan for Refugees. Geneva: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

United Nations, Office Of The United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees 1958 The Convention of 28 July 1951 and the International Protection of Refugees, by C A. Pompe. Paper HCR/Inf/42. Geneva: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.→ A press release.

United Nations, Office Of The United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees 1961 Forty Years of International Assistance to Refugees. Geneva: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

United Nations, Office Of The United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees 1963 The Red Cross and the Refugees. Geneva: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

United Nations, Office Of The United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees 1966a African Refugees: Report. Geneva: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

United Nations, Office Of The United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees 1966b Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Geneva: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

United Nations, Relief And Works Agency For Palestine Refugees m The Near EastAnnual Reports ofthe Director. -> Published since 1950. See especially page 20 in the 1966 issue.

United Nations, Relief And Wokks Agency For Palestine Refugees In The Near East 1966 UNRWA 1966 and the Palestine Refugees: Facts and Figures. Beirut: United Nations.

U.S. Committee For Refugees 1966 World Refugee Report: Annual Survey Issue, 1966–1967. New York: The Committee.

U.S. Congress, House, Committee On The Judiciary 1954 Refugees in India and Pakistan. Report prepared by Emanuel Celler. 83d Congress. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Congress, House, Committee On The Judiciary 1963 Study of Population and Immigration Problems, Administrative Presentations (II), Refugees and International Migration. Special Series, No. 10. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Congress, House, Committee On The Judiciary 1966 Refugee Problems in Vietnam, India, and Hong Kong, British Crown Colony. 89th Congress, 2d Session, House Report No. 1769. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee On The Judiciary, Subcommittee To Investigate Problems Connected With Refugees And Escapees 1965a Refugee Problems in South Vietnam and Laos: Hearings. 89th Congress, 1st Session. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee On The Judiciary, Subcommittee To Investigate Problems Connected With Refugees And Escapees 1965b Refugees and Escapees. 89th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Report No. 37. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee On The Judiciary, Subcommittee To Investigate Problems Connected With Refugees And Escapees1965cRefugees From Communism in Asia: A Study. 89th Congress, 2d Session, Senate Report No. 59. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee On The Judiciary, Subcommittee To Investigate Problems Connected With Refugees And Escapees 1966a U.S. Apparatus of Assistance to Refugees Throughout the World. 89th Congress, 2d Session. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee On The Judiciary, Subcommittee To Investigate Problems Connected With Refugees And Escapees 1966b Refugee Problems in South Vietnam. 89th Congress, 2d Session, Senate Report No. 1058. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee On The Judiciary, Subcommittee To Investigate Problems Connected With Refugees And Escapees 1966c Refugee Problems in Vietnam, India and Hong Kong, British Crown Colony. 89th Congress, 2d Session, Report No. 1769. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Department Of State, Bureau Of Security And Consular Affairs 1966 Annual Report of the Visa Office, 1966. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Vernant, Jacques 1953 The Refugee in the Post-war World. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Warren, George L. 1958 The Development of Intergovernmental Collaboration in Migration. Catholic Lawyer 4:112–117, 161.

Weis, Paul 1954 The International Protection of Refugees. American Journal of International Law 48:193–221.

Weis, Paul 1960 Le concept de réfugié en droit international. Journal du droit international 87:929—1001.

Weis, Paul 1966 Territorial Asylum. Indian Journal of International Law 6:173–194.

Witkamp, F. T. 1957 The Refugee Problem in the Middle East. R.E.M.P. Bulletin 5:3–51.

Woodbridge, George 1950 The Displaced Persons Operations. Volume 2, pages 469–532 in United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, UNRRA: The History of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.


Refugees, or “displaced persons,” are individuals who have involuntarily left their homes or communities and have been compelled by forces over which they have little or no control—war, invasion, persecution, or natural disaster—to change their place of residence, often from country to country. They are to be distinguished from voluntary migrants by the nature of the “push” factors which motivate them to move; however, many of their adjustment problems are similar. After World War II there were about twelve million displaced persons in Europe alone; the principal countries to which they moved were the United States, Canada, Australia, Israel, Argentina, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and Brazil (Borrie 1959, p. 17).

The strain of prolonged displacement from their homes and communities, often combined with prolonged residence in temporary camps, serves to intensify the adjustment problems of refugees. The detachment and “normlessness,” as well as the physical deprivation which accompanies this status, often results in what has been called “DP apathy,” namely, an initial attitude of passivity and lack of initiative. This is also the result of dependency patterns that tend to develop in situations, such as in refugee camps, where all basic needs are met by the authorities. Observers have noted a certain detachment from the past and a feeling of lack of continuity resulting from constant interruption of stable patterns (Bakis 1955).

Moving from one social system to another requires that the refugee be resocialized into a new set of groups and norms. In the long run, adjustment implies loss of group visibility as members become indistinguishable from members of the host society. This is accomplished through a process of increasing conformity to the latter’s norms and cultural patterns. The extent to which the group will in fact become invisible depends not only on members of the group itself but also on the extent to which the host society demands complete conformity or tolerates differential cultural patterning. Once refugee groups have accepted certain over-all cultural patterns, there is usually an increasing acceptance of cultural pluralism on the part of the host countries [seeAssimilation].

Criteria of adjustment

Defining the criteria of adjustment presents a particularly ambiguous problem when the “core culture,” or culture of the host country, is unstructured or heterogeneous. This has been the case in Israel, where the host society is itself relatively new and is made up of large numbers of culturally diversified subgroups. The question then becomes to what the new group is supposed to conform. Even in countries like Australia, Canada, and the United States, the range of conformity of oldtimers is itself wide. Furthermore, a newcomer tends to conform to the norms of the appropriate class or reference group with which he identifies, and the norms of these groups may differ among themselves within the social system of the host society. It is therefore sometimes unclear as to how close to the “core culture” a refugee must come before he can be considered “assimilated.”

Economic adjustment

Successful entry of the major breadwinner into the occupational system of the host society is generally considered to be a major criterion of adjustment. It is also the first critical step taken into the new society. Most countries that have admitted large numbers of refugees, with the exception of Israel during its early years, have not suffered from a serious unemployment problem. Indeed, in recent years many of the countries that have accepted refugees have done so largely as a means of building up their manpower resources, although ideological considerations are, of course, always present. Getting a job upon arrival is therefore usually not a critical problem. Some countries select prospective immigrants in terms of their qualifications to fit into the labor demands of the society. However, it is worth noting that at times of economic recession it is generally the newcomers to the labor force on whom local workers will focus their hostility.

Entry into the economic system is often accompanied by considerable downward mobility. Having little choice, refugees are pressed to accept jobs at a lower status level than that to which they have been accustomed or for which they have been trained. Downward mobility produces frustration and tends to slow up other aspects of the adjustment process. Professional or intellectual refugees have been particularly frequent sufferers from this form of deprivation. Thus the fact of “having a job” must be considered qualitatively in terms of its implications and symbolic meaning to the individual, if it is to be used in research as a criterion of adjustment.

Social adjustment

Satisfactory entry into the economic structure is not necessarily associated with successful adjustment in other spheres. Although the over-all satisfaction stemming from successful economic adjustment may in some cases be generalized to other areas, thus speeding the adjustment process, there are also cases of economic success coupled with a large measure of social isolation from the host society and retention of many traditional norms. In a sense the economic process of adjustment is the easiest and quickest; other processes of assimilation are generally slower.

There are at least two reasons for this differential patterning of the over-all adjustment process. Refugees may be employed in enterprises employing only other refugees. This is quite common during the early stages of settlement, particularly if the host authorities have provided temporary housing adjacent to employment opportunities. The work situation will then provide an opportunity for interaction only with other refugees, either from the same countries of origin or from other countries, but in any case not with members of the host society from whom local norms can be learned.

Furthermore, even if the refugee works side by side with members of the host society, the work situation may be limited to formal, instrumental relationships and may provide little overlap with the more informal spheres. The patterns that are learned will then be the ones associated essentially with job performance but not those having to do with other aspects of life in the new society. It is entirely feasible, even common, for the refugee to differentiate his behavior into an acculturated portion, which is associated with his work situation, and a traditional portion, in which he speaks his own language, maintains traditional social patterns, and socializes his children in the traditional manner.

Other criteria of adjustment that have been used are knowledge of the host country’s language and culture, social relations with and membership in host groups, satisfaction with life in the host country, and identification with and conformity to the norms and patterns of the host country. Acceptance of the host country as one’s “home,” weakening of traditional group patterns, adoption of external symbols of membership in the host society in the form of clothing, food preferences, recreation, etc., are also usable criteria of adjustment.

Taft has noted that each of these general criteria may vary in terms of four dimensions. Does the individual want to be assimilated? Does he do anything in this direction? Does he perceive that he is accepted or rejected? Is he in fact accepted by the host group? Criteria of adjustment must thus be viewed both from the point of view of the individual refugee or group itself and from the point of view of the host society; and the image of the process may differ from these two points of view (Taft 1963, p. 153).

The process of adjustment

Two sides to the adjustment process must be considered: that of the refugees on the one hand, and that of the host society on the other. A satisfactory outcome of the adjustment process necessitates a certain complementarity of the two.

The degree of similarity of the refugee’s traditional culture, as well as the general similarity in social structure of his former homeland to the host society, plays a major role in the adjustment process. In a general sense, the extent of such differences determines how much change will be required in the acculturation process. The social structure of the country of origin and the refugee’s former place in it predetermine his skills and attitudes and thus direct him to a specific segment or stratum of the host society. Immigrants with few industrial skills or little experience with modern business procedures, for example, will have difficulty moving into these sectors of an industrialized Western society. Similarly, a differently structured class system in his country of origin will increase the newcomer’s difficulty in moving into what he considers the appropriate stratum of the host society. This problem has been less severe in Western countries that have admitted refugees of European origin, and considerably more evident in a country like Israel, which has admitted large numbers of immigrants from Near Eastern and north African countries into a predominantly Western-oriented social system.

Predisposition to change

Inevitably a certain measure of change is demanded of the refugee in the course of his adjustment process. His own predisposition to change plays a major role in conditioning this process. Such a predisposition implies a willingness to accept new roles for himself, often abandoning traditional ones. It also implies a certain “time-perspective” that enables the refugee to see beyond present difficulties of adjustment to future goals. This will be accompanied by a relatively low level of resentment at the difficulties met with along the way (Zubrzycki 1956, p. 155).

On the whole, refugees are less predisposed to change than immigrants who have changed their country of residence voluntarily and who therefore tend initially to identify more positively with the host society. In most cases refugees immigrate to the host country because it is the only, or one of the few, alternatives available to them. Their initial response may therefore continue to reflect the sort of “DP apathy” referred to above; his results in a relatively low predisposition to change. Another response is one of relief in finally escaping the uncertainties and insecurities of refugee existence and a determination to rebuild one’s life; this may result in a relatively positive predisposition to change. The former is probably more characteristic of older refugees and the latter of younger ones.

The predisposition to change is also dependent on the extent to which the refugee perceives the host country as his permanent locus of settlement. In some cases refugees intend to use the host country only as a temporary refuge until they are able to return to their former country or to immigrate elsewhere; such an orientation results in a low predisposition to change. With the passage of time it often becomes clear that return to the country of origin will be impossible or undesirable; the pattern of orientation then tends to shift toward a more positive predisposition to change.

The perceived status differential between the culture of the host society and that of the refugee is important in conditioning his predisposition to change. When the host culture is viewed as superior to their own, refugees will be more motivated to abandon traditional norms and patterns and to adopt those of the host society. When the reverse is the case, and the refugee feels that his traditional patterns are superior, the predisposition to change will be lower.

Institutions that aim to maintain group solidarity among the refugees will function in accordance with the general predisposition of the group. For example, a native language newspaper or an ethnic church will attempt to speed entry into the host society in a group with a high predisposition to change but will try to reinforce group separateness in a group with a low predisposition to change.

Level of expectation

The expectations of the newcomers concerning the host society play a major role in their adjustment. When expectations are unrealistically high, frustration may result. Thus there is reason to believe that realistic knowledge of what to expect in the new society aids the adjustment process considerably. The point of reference to which newcomers compare the reality of the new society is often their country of origin; they tend to view it nostalgically, thus exaggerating its favorable features. The point of comparison is rarely the DP camp in which they may have lived immediately prior to immigrating, since that was inevitably viewed as temporary, but rather the last stable community in which they lived (Shuval 1963, pp. 43–113).

Similarly, unrealistic expectations on the part of the host society impede satisfactory adjustment by refugees. Lack of knowledge of the newcomers’ cultural patterns or expectations of too rapid conformity may lead members of the host group to feelings of hostility when their expectations are not met with quickly.

Orientation of the host society

The attitude of the host society toward the entry of refugees will be favorable when a labor shortage exists and the newcomers are seen as major manpower supplements; this has been the case in recent years in Canada and Australia. In these cases, economic expansion has tended to weaken the traditional objections of organized labor to immigration. In the United States, on the other hand, the labor unions have been instrumental in limiting immigration since the 1920s. Another factor inducing a favorable attitude on the part of the host society has been the ideological one, as in the case of Israel, where refugees have been welcomed unconditionally in terms of the over-all goal of that society to provide a homeland for all Jews,

With time, the over-all orientation of the host society often becomes differentiated with respect to various subgroups of refugees. Other factors having to do with color and cultural differences among subgroups of refugees may lead to patterned hostility on the part of certain members of the host society. Hostile attitudes toward groups already present in the host society may be generalized to specific appropriate groups of refugees (Shuval 1962).

Visibility of the refugee group

The sheer size of the refugee group plays a major role in the process of its adjustment. Size must be considered in relation to the size of the population of the host society or to that segment of the host society into which the refugees move. While the largest absolute number of refugees immigrated to the United States between 1946 and 1954 (1,700,000), they represented but a small proportion of the total population of the host country; the 790,000 who immigrated to Israel during the same period more than doubled the total population of the country. The size of the group is relevant because it affects its visibility and identifiability as a social unit. When the group is relatively small, its absorption can occur with few members of the host society being aware of or affected by the process. When it is proportionately large, absorption of the refugees turns into a major national problem, with virtually all members of the host society aware of and frequently involved in one way or another in the process.

The social homogeneity of the refugee group also affects its visibility to members of the host society and consequently the rate at which it will successfully lose its group identity. When members of the refugee group are heterogeneous with respect to their class origins, religious identity, educational background, health status, or occupational potential, they are able to move more smoothly into the appropriate segments of the host society. If, on the other hand, they are highly concentrated in one such category (for example, lower class, Jews, unskilled workers, or chronically ill), the visibility of the group is increased and members of the host society continue for much longer to apply the appropriate label to all members of the group.

Ecological patterns

Ecological patterns of residence play a major role in determining patterns of adjustment. The initial tendency of immigrant groups—for reasons of in-group solidarity, government policy, or limitation of alternatives—is to locate themselves residentially close to members of their own group. Such proximity tends to ease the process of adjustment for members of the group by lending support during the initial period of strain. At the same time, it tends to slow down acculturation in at least two ways. First, it reinforces traditional patterns of language and culture, thus slowing down conformity to norms and values of the host society. Furthermore, by maintaining group visibility, it focuses the attention of the host society on the group and on its nonconformity, often arousing hostility on the part of the members of the host group.

In Israel an attempt was made during the earlyyears of refugee settlement to mix groups at random, but the many social problems that this generated led with time to a planned policy of ethnically homogeneous rural settlements. In terms of over-all adjustment, the impediment resulting from such ethnic isolation is probably overbalanced by the more favorable group adjustment and psychological stability resulting from it.

Patterns of adjustment

The initial settlement of refugees often occurs in temporary camps. This has occurred, notably in Australia and Israel, because of the sudden large scale of the immigration and because the host society was typically unprepared, economically or socially, for the influx. In the United States and Canada, initial settlement has more frequently been on an individual basis, with assistance rendered through governmental or community organizations.

Camps tend to isolate residents from the general stream of social life of the host society because of their physical isolation, as well as because of the necessary interaction of residents with other refugees, both socially and often in the work situation. The temporary nature of such arrangements tends to limit residents’ ability to plan ahead or to structure their future lives in terms of more permanent goals. In this sense, camps in the host country tend to perpetuate the kind of normlessness and detachment that characterize the refugee prior to immigration. In addition, Borrie (1959) has noted that continued residence in a situation in which the individual is supplied with his basic necessities, while authority remains in the hands of the government, tends to increase the individual’s expectations that he is entitled to certain rights and services. In an attempt to break this pattern of dependency, Israel abandoned the policy of complete support for immigrants during the first years of immigration by establishing “ma’abarot,” that is, communities in which housing was provided, but residents were expected to support themselves.

During the initial stages of adjustment, refugees have been observed to follow two different patterns of adjustment: increasing conformity among those with a generally positive orientation toward the host society, and increasing withdrawal and lack of conformity to the norms of the host society by those groups who are initially disappointed or frustrated (Shuval 1963, pp. 117–138; Taft & Doczy 1962, pp. 64–67). Over a longer time span, a gradual pattern of conformity to norms of the host society appears among most refugees. On the other hand, there is reason to believe that certain fundamental aspects of the traditional culture are peculiarly tenacious; while many changes may occur, the ethnic group tends to retain its identity in certain spheres for a surprisingly long time (Glazer & Moynihan 1963).

The host society is often interested in focusing refugee settlement in rural or nonurban areas. In some countries this policy is based on considerations of economic planning and security. For refugees originating in urban communities, the over-all adjustment process is often made more difficult when the need to adapt to a nonurban community is superimposed on the general requirements of adjustment to a new society. Despite this policy, there seems to be a voluntary trend on the part of refugees to filter back to urban centers. Often this internal migration is motivated by the need to be near kin or near urban centers of employment that are perceived as more favorable.

It is often technically difficult for the authorities of the host society to keep families of refugees together at the time of settlement. This has imposed a particular strain on groups that have traditionally lived in extended family systems; but even for groups accustomed to a nuclear family pattern of living, the strain of adjustment is heightened by isolation from familiar primary groups of kin. There seems to be reason to believe that detachment or uprooting from earlier social networks in the country of origin increases the need for stable, supportive relationships, particularly during the early years of adjustment to the new society. Such relationships are most effectively provided by family or, failing this, by individuals from the refugee’s own country of origin.

Judith T. Shuval

[Directly related is the entryMigration. Other relevant material may be found inMinorities.]


Bakis, Edward 1955 “D.P. Apathy.” Pages 76–88 in Henry B. M. Murphy, Flight and Resettlement. Paris: UNESCO.

Borrie, Wilfrid D. 1959 The Cultural Integration of Immigrants. Paris: UNESCO.

Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. (1954) 1955 The Absorption of Immigrants: Comparative Study Based Mainly on the Jewish Community in Palestine and the State of Israel. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Glazer, Nathan; and Moynihan, Daniel P. 1963 Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and the Irish of New York City. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press.

International Sociological Association 1955 The Positive Contribution by Immigrants. Paris: UNESCO.

Kosa, John (1957) 1958 Land of Choice. Oxford Univ. Press.

Murphy, Henry B. M. 1955 Flight and Resettlement. Paris: UNESCO.

Shuval, Judith T. 1962 Emerging Patterns of Ethnic Strain in Israel. Social Forces 40:323–330.

Shuval, Judith T. 1963 Immigrants on the Threshold. New York: Atherton.

Taft, Ronald 1963 Applied Social Psychology, Ecological Studies of Immigrant Assimilation, and Scientific Psychology. Australian Journal of Psychology 15:149–161.

Taft, Ronald; and Doczy, A. Gedeon 1962 The Assimilation of Intellectual Refugees in Western Australia. The Hague: Research Group for European Migration Problems.

Zubrzycki, Jerzy 1956 Polish Immigrants in Britain: A Study of Adjustment. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Refugee Policies

views updated May 23 2018

Refugee Policies

David M. Reimers

According to the 1951 Geneva Convention, a refugee is someone with "a well-founded fear of being persecuted in his country of origin for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." The U.S. Senate accepted this definition sixteen years later, but it was not officially made part of immigration law until the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980. From 1789 to 1875 the states controlled immigration policy and admitted refugees, but they did not label them as such. From 1875 to the 1940s the federal government continued this policy. During the early years of the Cold War, refugees were generally defined as persons fleeing communism.

In admitting refugees, foreign policy has often played a key role, but it has not been the only factor. Economic conditions in the United States have helped determine how generous the nation would be in accepting refugees. Lobbying by particular ethnic, nationality, and religious groups also has influenced refugee flows. Finally, Americans liked to think of the nation as, in George Washington's words, an "asylum for mankind." This humanitarian impulse often dovetailed with foreign policy as the United States wanted to appear generous to other nations. It is also important to realize that many refugees also have economic motives for wanting to escape their home countries and seek their fortunes in the United States. Indeed, the line between "a well-founded fear" and the desire for an improved lifestyle is often blurred.


The American colonies had little control over the admission of newcomers; they could not even halt the English practice of sending convicts to the New World. Americans began to shape their own destinies after 1789 when the nation's Constitution went into effect. That document said nothing about refugees, or immigrants for that matter. Moreover, the federal government did not begin to regulate the flow of newcomers until 1875. Three events and subsequent flows of migrants to the United States emerged in the 1790s. First was the French Revolution (1789), second, the Haitian Revolution (1791), and third, the failure of the United Irishmen to win independence for Ireland in the 1790s.

The first test of the nation's policy occurred when French émigrés, fleeing the increasing violence of the French Revolution, began to come to America. Those arriving in the fall of 1789 were mostly of the elite classes who witnessed the collapse of the old regime and who feared that their wealth, status, and privileged positions were under siege. Their numbers were small by comparison to those who followed. The second wave consisted of patriotic and intellectual nobles and the middle classes who had supported them. These refugees, who had backed liberal reform, watched with dismay as the French Revolution turned radical and violent. A few priests who opposed the confiscation of their lands and secularization of the revolution joined them, as did some members of the military who did not favor the ideals of the French Revolution. Numbers are not precise, but between ten and fifteen thousand crossed the Atlantic. They settled in Atlantic coastal towns and cities, with Philadelphia receiving the largest number.

Americans, including George Washington and the ruling Federalist Party, were supportive of the revolution in its first days. The Marquis de Lafayette sent the key to the Bastille to Washington, but as bloodshed increased, many Americans turned against the revolution. The Federalists especially were shocked by the growing violence. When war broke out between England and France, the Jeffersonian Republicans supported France and the Federalists England. Yet neither party wished to go to war, and the government's policy of neutrality was widely accepted. The cities and states where the refugees settled raised money to aid them, many of whom had brought little money and few possessions with them. In other cases, individuals and voluntary groups assisted in finding employment. The refugees themselves raised funds and even published several newspapers. The French minister Edmond-Charles Genet was not sympathetic to the refugees, especially those who seemed to favor England over revolutionary France. When he tried to influence American politics, he won little favor and was recalled to France. Yet the intrigues of a French minister and the radicalization of the revolution in France did not change the official neutrality of the United States, and émigrés were still permitted to enter even though the two political parties differed over aspects of exile culture and politics. However, as conditions changed in France some of the refugees returned.

Closely allied to the events in France was the slave uprising in St. Domingue (Haiti) in the 1790s. The revolt erupted in 1791, three years before revolutionary France outlawed slavery. After thirteen years of civil war, Haiti achieved independence in 1804 and became the first independent black state in the Western Hemisphere. Initially, the United States supported white planters' efforts to put down the revolt, but the French were ultimately unsuccessful. After 1791, as the white planters witnessed losses of their estates and power and increasing violence, they fleda few to France, some to Cuba and Jamaica, and others to the United States. These refugees differed from those from France proper. To be sure, the elite planters held political views similar to the elite of France, but the refugees were not limited to the white elite; only a minority of the newcomers were white. Some planters carried their slaves with them. These slaves remained slaves whether they were brought to slaveholding states or even if they were brought to northern cities such as Philadelphia and New York, for the northern states were just beginning to end slavery in the 1790s. In addition, "free people of color"a mixed-race group in Haiti who were not equal to whites in law but who were free and often skilled workersbelieved that they would not prosper in a successful slave rebellion and fled too.

The slave revolt posed the question of whether Americans should receive another influx of refugees and how the United States should respond diplomatically if the uprising succeeded. The white Haitians were welcomed especially by American slaveholders who sympathized with the principle and reality of slavery. Some others believed the nation should receive the refugees because it would maintain the principle of America as an "asylum for mankind." The refugees settled in coastal cities, with New Orleans the center of their community. That city did not become part of the United States until after the Louisiana Purchase, but even then it continued to receive refugees when many of the St. Domingue exiles who at first went to Cuba were forced by the Spanish to settle elsewhere in 1809.

Like those fleeing France, many of these exiles brought few possessions and little money with them. Funds were raised by cities, states, and community groups to assist them. An official position was taken by the U.S. Congress when it appropriated $15,000 to assist the refugees and suspended duties on French ships arriving in American ports if they were carrying exiles.

While welcoming St. Domingue's planters, slaveholders grew alarmed that so many slaves and free people of color entered. They feared that persons from these two groups were too familiar with events in Haiti and might attempt to stir up opposition to slavery in the United States. To white southerners a black-ruled Haiti was a symbol of decadence and ruin. Moreover, they were alarmed by the rise of antislavery sentiment and groups in the North. Faced with these perceived threats, the southern states tightened restrictions on slavery. Several banned the importing of slaves from the Caribbean, but the federal government did not outlaw the international slave trade until 1808 as it was required to do by the Constitution. In 1861 the United States finally recognized the black republic and established diplomatic relations.

The third revolution of the 1790s was a failed one, but it sent refugees to the United States and prompted a debate about foreign policy and immigration. The Society of United Irishmen, composed of both Catholics and Protestants, sought to end English control of Ireland. However, Ireland did not win its freedom; England crushed the rebels, tried and sentenced some leaders to jail, and encouraged others to leave. England also passed the Act of Union in 1800, which merged the mother country with Ireland and divided the Protestant-Catholic alliance. The failure to win Irish independence led thousands of Irish refugees to immigrate to America in the next one hundred years.

The Jeffersonian Republicans generally sympathized with the rebels, but the Federalists wanted to align American foreign policy with that of Great Britain against France. Many Federalists also believed the Irish were a "wild horde" and were none too eager to see them settling in American coastal towns and cities. The Irish refugees in turn sided with the Jefferson party. As a result, the Federalists succeeded in raising the number of resident years needed for naturalization from two to fourteen. Some Republicans joined the Federalists in raising the time required for naturalization because they believed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which set two years as the required period, did not provide enough time for newcomers to be indoctrinated in the principles of republicanism. Congress also passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, one of which gave the president power to deport immigrants even in peacetime if they were considered dangerous. President John Adams did not exercise this provision, but the Sedition Act did lead to several newspaper editors being arrested and sent to jail, including the Irish-born Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont.

One wing of the Federalist Party favored war against France and alliance with England. But while fighting an undeclared war against France in the last few years of the 1790s, President Adams blocked efforts for a declaration of war, and the crisis passed. With the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800, the naturalization period dropped from fourteen to five years, where it has remained ever since. The Alien and Sedition Acts were also allowed to lapse.


The crisis of the 1790s set the tone for the next century. The United States would proclaim neutrality but permit refugees from foreign lands undergoing war or revolution to settle in the United States. In the 1820s, when the Greeks revolted against Turkish rule over Greece, most Americans sympathized with the Greek cause, and they willingly received a few Greek refugees in the United States. However, the official position of the United States was the new Monroe Doctrine (1823). President James Monroe declared that he expected European powers to refrain from ventures in the Western Hemisphere and not attempt to halt the revolutionary process there, and in return the United States would stay out of European affairs.

In 1831, Poles sought to overthrow Russian domination of their land. After exchanges of notes between the United States and Russia, the former remained neutral in the dispute and both powers agreed to a commercial treaty in 1833. However, important American citizens expressed their sympathy with the Poles and warmly welcomed several hundred Polish exiles who fled when the rebellion failed and raised money to assist in their settlement. Some Poles wanted Congress to grant them a tract of land in the West that was to become a new Poland in America. The legislators, while willing to permit the refugees to obtain land on the same terms as all others, rejected the scheme.

Revolutions broke out once more in Europe in 1848, and when they failed, thousands of refugees, chiefly Germans, fled to the United States. Once again, many Americans hailed the principles of the "forty-eighters" in their quest for constitutional government in their homelands, but officially the United States government elected to pursue a policy of neutrality. No case represents this position more than that of Hungarian Lajos Kossuth. While American officials proclaimed to the Austrians that they favored the principles of liberty anywhere, and sympathized with those Hungarians seeking independence from Austria, the United States did not intervene in the affairs of Hungary and Austria. When the Hungarian leader Kossuth arrived in the United States in 1852, he drew large crowds, but there was no chance that America would intervene in European affairs.

When the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, called the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States, launched two attacks on Canada from the United States in 1866 and 1870, America was faced with a diplomatic crisis or embarrassment. As much as many Americans opposed English rule in Ireland, the government moved to halt these assaults, which seemed to many to have the flavor of a comic opera. Moreover, the United States was at peace with Great Britain, and American officials said that the Irish question was Britain's affair, not that of the United States.

In Latin America the United States pursued a different policy. Americans sympathized with the Cuban revolt against Spain that began in 1868 and lasted until the Spanish-American War (1898) ended Spanish rule. In the early years of the rebellion, when conditions deteriorated for the rebels, many sought asylum in the United States, where they settled in New York and Florida and began to organize again to overthrow Spanish control. American politicians demanded that Spain grant Cubans their independence. Relations between the United States and Spain deteriorated in the 1890s, and when the battleship Maine exploded in Havana's harbor, the cries for action led to a congressional declaration of war in 1898. As a result of the ensuing Spanish-American War, Cuba received independence but found itself closely tied to America.


The federal government finally took control of immigration in 1875 when it banned prostitutes from entering the United States, as well as convicted felons and Asians said to be "coolies." Coolies were defined as Asians brought into the United States without their consent. Seven years later, Congress barred Chinese immigrants, but not dissenters of one kind or another from Europe. After President William McKinley was assassinated by an American-born anarchist in 1901, Congress passed the first law barring immigrants because of their political beliefs when it restricted anarchists from coming to the United States.

Various ethnic groups put pressure on the federal government to take an active role in aiding their people in their homelands, either by admitting refugees or by condemning the oppression faced by their countrymen. Armenian groups periodically attacked the government of Turkey for fostering massacres of Armenians under Turkish rule, especially the particularly violent one in 1915. In a similar manner, American Jews attacked Russia for permitting and even fostering pogroms. German Jews organized the American Jewish Committee in 1906 in order to influence the U.S. government to put pressure on Russia to end such violence and to assist Jewish immigrants. These efforts by various groups had only limited success until 1945, but they did foster aid to fellow ethnics in their homelands.

During and after World War I, which witnessed the communist seizure of power in Russia, some European refugees considered too radical and sympathetic to communism found themselves unwanted. Raids carried out by the federal government, peaking in 1920, led to thousands of arrests and deportation of foreign-born immigrants. In addition to shipping some radicals to Russia, the federal government refused to recognize the Soviet Union until 1933.

With the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s and Adolf Hitler's winning power in Germany in 1933, a new crisis of refugees loomed. As nazism spread, thousands of Jews and political dissenters searched for a haven outside Germany. Many fled to neighboring countries, but as the German army overran those nations, to emigrate was under-standable, but getting into the United States was difficult. High unemployment tempered the desire to immigrate to America, and if they did want to come, the "likely to be a public charge" provision of the immigration laws was strictly enforced during the early days of the Great Depression. Moreover, the national origins quotas established during the 1920s limited the number of Europeans who would come.

Groups working to aid immigrants did suggest that the nation open its doors, but Congress was in no mood to change laws, and public opinion polls indicated strong opposition to admit many immigrants. In the depression years and during World War II, advocates of a tight immigration policy, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion, even suggested that all immigration be halted. The Roosevelt administration did ease its restrictions in 1938 but then tightly enforced the rules again in 1939. With nearly a quarter of the labor force unemployed during the worst years of the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration was reluctant to embark upon a liberal policy for refugees. Because many of those trying to leave were Jews, anti-Semitism also played an important role. President Franklin Roosevelt denounced the atrocities in Germany, but the plight of refugees did not prompt the administration to change immigration policy. Several hundred thousand refugees did manage to come to the United States during the 1930s, but overall only one half million immigrants were admitted, a figure considerably less than admitted during a single year between 1900 and 1914.

Fewer people arrived during World War II when shipping was disrupted. Roosevelt and his cabinet and other government officials were informed about the Holocaust by reports from Europe relayed to Washington by Jewish organizations, but the administration insisted that defeating Germany quickly was the best way to bring the Holocaust to an end. As more news about the Holocaust reached Washington, the president expressed concern and other officials hinted that refugees be allowed to come to America. In June 1944, President Roosevelt admitted 1,000 persons who were living in North African internment camps to a temporary refuge shelter at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York. The president's action was meant to provide an emergency home for these refugees, but they were eventually allowed to stay.


It was after World War II that the United States finally recognized refugees in law, with foreign policy playing a key role in the emerging legislation and executive action, especially the Cold War between the United States and Russia. It is also important to note that American refugee policy was not limited to the admission of immigrants. During the 1930s a number of organizations, operating in an international arena, were formed to deal with the European crisis, but they had little impact. These groups continued to function in the postwar decades. Moreover, the newly formed United Nations also played a growing role in settling refugees. Building upon the work of the League of Nations, the United Nations emerged as the most important international agency coping with refugees when it created the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and adopted the Convention on Refugees in 1951. The United States supported the UNHCR financially and eventually accepted the convention's statement as its own. While more than three million refugees settled in the United States from 1945 to 2000, American support of the UNHCR was based on the belief that most refugees wanted to return home when conditions permitted and not necessarily immigrate to the United States.

The sweep of the Allies across Europe in 1944 and 1945 made possible a huge population movement as persons enslaved in Germany attempted to go home, as ethnic Germans were forcibly removed from nations where they had lived, and as millions who had seen their villages and cities destroyed sought refuge. The liberation of Jews from the concentration camps also left these survivors homeless, and most were in poor health. Other persons fled the approaching Russian army and ended up in the Western powers' territory. Many of these unfortunate people found themselves housed in displaced persons camps.

On 22 December 1945, President Harry S. Truman directed that 40,000 refugees be admitted and charged against national origins quotas, in the future if necessary. Truman's action was only a first step in dealing with the postwar refugees, and it hardly scratched the surface. American authorities and their European allies realized that the refugee situation had to be resolved if the economies and societies of western Europe were to be rebuilt. And as relations between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated, American leaders also developed other programs to bolster their allies. These included the Truman Doctrine of aid to Turkey and Greece in combating communism (1946), the Marshall Plan for stimulating the economies of western Europe (1948), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949) for its collective security. Congress barred communist immigrants from coming to America and voted to admit others by passing the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. As amended in 1950, the measure eventually permitted roughly 400,000 persons to immigrate to the United States, which relieved the western Europeans of some of their financial and population burdens.

While the immediate crisis in western Europe eased, there still remained people without homes. President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Congress for a law to admit additional refugees, and the legislators responded with the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 that admitted another 189,000 persons. The measure also included a few thousand Palestinians from the Middle East and 5,000 Asians. This marked the first time that the term "refugee" appeared in U.S. law. Subsequent legislation in the 1950s admitted other persons fleeing communist nations and the Middle East. Most Middle Easterners came under regular immigration laws, even though many were stateless or fleeing from violence. It is not known how many were Palestinians because many entered as immigrants from Jordan or other nations.

The emerging Cold War refugee policy faced another test when the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 failed. Some 180,000 Hungarian "freedom fighters," as they were called, fled to Austria before the Austrians closed the border. The Austrian government was willing to temporarily aid them but wanted the Western powers to provide for their permanent settlement. The Hungarian quota allowed for only 865 immigrants, but President Eisenhower established a precedent that evoked the "parole" power of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 to admit nearly 40,000 refugees. Being classified as "parolees" left them in limbo because parolees could remain in the United States but were not permanent resident aliens (immigrants) or refugees. Congress had to pass legislation to permit them to change their status. Because this provision had been intended for individual cases, some in Congress protested. In the Cold War climate of the 1950s, however, the desire to strike a blow against communism and aid these anticommunists overcame congressional qualms, and the lawmakers passed the Hungarian Escape Act of 1958 to grant the Hungarians refugee status.

The ad hoc nature of refugee admissions bothered some legislators, and when Congress revamped the national origins system in 1965 they provided for a more organized policy. The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 created seven preferences for the Eastern Hemisphere, mostly based on family unification. However, the seventh preference set aside 10,200 places for refugees, defined as persons fleeing communist or communist-dominated nations or the Middle East. Under this provision several thousand Czechoslovakian refugees came to the United States when the Soviet Union and its allies crushed the "Prague Spring" rebellion in 1968. Thousands of Soviet Jews also entered under the new laws. The president was also given the power to admit refugees from a "natural calamity." The last part of the definition was meant to be humanitarian. For example, some refugees had come in the 1950s following an earthquake in the Azores. Originally, the new system covered only the Eastern Hemisphere, but when a uniform worldwide system was created in 1978, the seventh preference increased to 17,400.

Thousands of Soviet Union Jews also entered under the new laws, but Jewish immigration became a foreign policy matter when Congress put in place trade restrictions against the Soviets. A bill sponsored by Senator Henry Jackson and Representative Charles Vanik passed in late 1974 and was signed by President Gerald Ford in early 1975. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment to a trade bill made future trade and credit policies tied to Jewish immigration. The Soviets responded by severely curtailing Jewish emigration and thereby cutting trade with the United States. Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union had to wait until the end of the 1980s for a major increase.

The Cold War was by no means limited to Europe. In Asia the United States intervened in the Korean War (19501953) and again in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. In the Western Hemisphere, Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959 and embarked upon a policy making it a communist country. These wars, along with Castro's victory, led to another wave of refugees. Shortly after Castro won control, some elite Cubans fled to Miami. As the flow grew, Presidents Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson used the parole power to admit them. From 1959 to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, more than 200,000 arrived. Flights were suspended after the missile crisis, although some escaped by boat to Florida. In early 1965 Castro indicated that he was interested in renewing the exodus, and when President Johnson signed the new immigration act at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in October, he said that the United States was willing to accept all who desired to leave Castro's communist state. American policymakers believed that accepting refugees would demonstrate the failure of communism in Cuba and also be a humanitarian gesture. Once again the president paroled them. In 1966, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act that assumed that any Cuban to reach American soil was a refugee from communism and was welcome in the United States. Several hundred thousand Cubans took advantage of the new law, but the flow slowed to a trickle in the early 1970s. In addition, the federal government provided aid for these newcomers, which marked the first time after World War II that the government gave monetary assistance for refugee resettlement.

Another wave from Cuba entered in the spring of 1980. They sailed from the Cuban port of Mariel and were thus called "Marielitos." The Marielitos were picked up by boats operated by Cubans already in the United States, and by the time the U.S. government halted the exodus, about 130,000 had arrived. President Jimmy Carter did not use immigration laws to admit them; he created a new classification called "conditional entrants," a limbo status. Eventually, they were permitted to change their status under the Cuban Adjustment Act. The entire episode made it seem that immigration policy was out of control, especially in view of the fact that Castro dumped criminals and mental patients into the boats heading for America.

As Cuban emigration slackened, that of Southeast Asia began. The Vietnam War uprooted tens of thousands of Vietnamese, many of whom left rural areas for cities. The U.S. government aided these persons in settling in their new homes in Vietnam, but officials had no thought of bringing them to America. Then came the 1975 collapse of the American-backed regime in Vietnam. As Saigon was besieged and conquered by communist forces, tens of thousands of Vietnamese were rescued by helicopters and thousands more fled by boat. Roughly 130,000 came in this first wave of 1975. They were brought to the United States for resettlement. In view of the American military role in Vietnam, U.S. officials believed that the United States had to accept them. In 1978 and 1979 Vietnam's ethnic Chinese also fled, largely by boat, which earned them the name "boat people." Moreover, conditions in Cambodia and Laos deteriorated, which prompted many to cross the Thailand border for the safety of refugee camps supported by the United States and the United Nations. The total from 1975 to 1980 vastly exceeded the 17,400 slots provided annually for refugees. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter paroled them into the United States, and Congress provided funds for their settlement and allowed them to become refugees.

It seemed to many that refugee policy, other than aiding those fleeing from communism, still lacked coherence. In 1980, Congress passed a new law, the Refugee Act of 1980. It increased the annual "normal flow" of refugees to 50,000 and established and funded programs to assist them. In addition, it dropped the anticommunist definition of "refugee" and substituted for it the United Nations statement. While the law said 50,000 refugees were the "normal flow" to be admitted annually, the president retained the power to permit more to arrive, and in no year after 1980 did the number drop as low as 50,000; it usually averaged twice that figure. More than one million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians alone came to the United States from 1975 to the 1990s.

Cubans and Southeast Asians were the main beneficiaries of American foreign and refugee polices, but others also managed to become refugees. When the anticommunist Polish Solidarity movement sputtered in the early 1980s, Poles in the United States were permitted to remain temporarily and eventually to become refugees. It was a common practice to permit citizens of another nation visiting or studying here to win a temporary reprieve from returning home when their visas expired if their country suddenly experienced violence. Eventually, like the Poles, many were able to stay permanently in the United States.

The Cold War mentality was clearly evident when citizens of countries who were not fleeing communist regimes tried to win refugee status. After the successful 1973 revolt against the socialist government of Chile led to the execution and internment of thousands of Chileans, the United States took in fewer than 1,700 Chilean refugees. Since the United States had opposed the socialists and had been involved with the revolt, the American acceptance of so few refugees is understandable.

The government's position on communism and the admission of refugees also explain why so few refugees were admitted from Haiti. The dictatorial regime there run by the Duvalier family from 1957 to 1986 supported American positions taken on Western Hemisphere affairs and the Cold War, which pleased the State Department. There is no doubt that Haitians lived under oppressive rule, but there is also no doubt that Haiti was one of the poorest nations in the world. Immigration officials stressed the poverty of potential immigrants, not their lack of political rights and the violence conducted by authorities. Consequently, few immigrants were granted refugee status from Haiti. During the Mariel Cuban crisis, thousands of Haitians also made it by boat to Florida. They were included in President Carter's "entrant" category, but their status remained in limbo until the Immigration and Reform Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) granted amnesty to those in the United States before 1982.

The IRCA did not mean a new policy for Haitians coming after 1982. The immigration authorities and the State Department continued to call them economic migrants. Federal officials insisted that if Haitians were considered refugees, a tide of boat people would head for America. After the end of Duvalier rule, a democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, took power. When the Haitian military overthrew the regime of Aristide in 1991, the boat exodus picked up again. Under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard seized boats trying to escape from Haiti to Florida and sent them back to Haiti or temporarily housed them at the Guantánamo naval base in Cuba, where their claims could be processed. Bill Clinton had criticized the policy of President Bush, but he continued it when he became president in 1993. Moreover, the fear of Haitians fleeing the military regime and flocking to America, without proper documents and claiming asylum, motivated President Clinton to order an invasion of Haiti in the fall of 1994 to restore democracy. Among other reasons, the president repeated the belief that if democracy were not restored to Haiti, tens of thousands would try to come to America.

A similar situation prevailed in Guatemala and El Salvador and to a lesser extent in Honduras. These nations lived under right-wing and dictatorial governments recognized and supported by the United States and were plagued by civil wars. Many Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans claimed that they should be considered refugees, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) insisted that, like Haitians, they were economic migrants and not legitimate refugees fearing persecution. Nor did the INS believe that the fear of being killed in a civil war was sufficient for winning refugee status; hence, few managed to emigrate as refugees.

In Nicaragua a different situation prevailed. There, the left-wing movement, the Sandinistas, overthrew the dictatorial rule of the Somoza family. The Carter administration attempted to work with the new government, but under Ronald Reagan the Central Intelligence Agency armed so-called contra forces that crossed Nicaragua's border in guerrilla raids attempting to overthrow the Sandinistas. Yet Nicaraguans fleeing to the United States also had difficulty emigrating as refugees.

There was another way to become a refugee, an immigrant, and eventually a U.S. citizen. According to immigration law, if a migrant was on American soil, even if one had entered illegally, one could claim asylum, arguing that the applicant had a "well founded fear" of persecution if returned home. Only two thousand or so persons won asylum annually in the 1970s. For example, the government denied asylum to most of the Haitian boat people during the 1970s and deported them. After the 1980 refugee act incorporated the new UN definition of refugee status in place of the anticommunist one, and when the civil wars in Central America escalated, the number applying for asylum skyrocketed. More than 140,000 applied in 1995, for example, and by the end of the 1990s the backlog reached several hundred thousand. Haitians came by boat, but tens of thousands of Central Americans illegally crossed the border separating the United States and Mexico. The State Department and the INS insisted they were mostly illegal immigrants who should be deported. INS officials in Florida did modify policy slightly toward Nicaraguans. An official said that he could not deny asylum to Nicaraguans when the United States insisted that the government of that country was undemocratic and that the CIA-backed contras were trying to overthrow it. Nicaraguans still had difficulty in winning asylum status, but their approval rate was more than double that of their neighbors. In 1989, for example, 5,092 Nicaraguans won asylum, compared with 102 Guatemalans and 443 Salvadorans.

Friends of these contestants for asylum insisted that a double standard was being applied: Cubans merely had to get to the United States, but Central Americans had to win their claims on an individual basis. Many undocumented immigrant Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans did adjust their status due to an amnesty for undocumented immigrants passed in 1986. As noted, the law covered those in the United States before 1982, but for others fleeing violence in Central America after that date individual asylum was required, which was even more difficult to demonstrate when the civil wars in Central America ended in the early 1990s. Fewer than 10 percent of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans were granted asylum in 1999up slightly from the rate of the 1980s but less than half of the general approval rate. Those who came after the IRCA amnesty were left in limbo, although minor modifications in immigration policy did permit some to remain. Moreover, once these Central Americans won asylum, they were eligible to adjust their status to that of regular immigrants and could then use the family preference system to sponsor their relatives. For example, in 1996 Haitian immigrants numbered 18,386, with 8,952 of these under the family preference system and another 4,815 coming as immediate family members of U.S. citizens who were exempt from the quotas. Comparable figures for Salvadorans were 17,903; 8,959; and 5,519. Data for Hondurans and Guatemalans were similar. The United States did permit Salvadorans and Hondurans the right to stay temporarily in the United States when earthquakes and hurricanes struck in the 1990s. These temporary stays, called temporary protected status (TPS), were not asylum; when TPS ended, the undocumented aliens were expected to go home.

Although during the Cold War the United States clearly favored persons fleeing communism, it also accepted those seeking refuge from other oppressive regimes. The United States accepted more than 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded in 1979, but after the Soviets left and the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban took control of the nation in the 1990s, the United States still accepted some Afghan refugees, numbering about 2,000 annually.

American relations with Iran changed dramatically when another Islamic movement overthrew the American-backed shah of Iran in 1979. U.S. policy was aimed at keeping Iran's oil flowing to the West and at using the shah's government as a buffer against Soviet expansion. Anti-shah Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and imprisoned fifty-three Americans for more than a year. They were released at the same time that Ronald Reagan replaced Carter as president. Clearly, the United States could not oppose this new government holding American employees and at the same time deny refugee status or asylum to those Iranians already in the United States who did not want to return to Iran. In the 1980s, 46,773 persons from Iran arrived as refugees or recipients of asylum. Over 60 percent of those applying for asylum won it, which was among the highest rates of acceptance of any group.


The end of the Cold War in Europe in 1989 changed the nature of refugee policy, but it was still closely tied to foreign affairs, if not to the Cold War's anticommunism. The United States gave asylum to Chinese dissidents, the largest single group being Chinese students in the United States when the pro-democracy demonstrators were violently repressed in China in 1989. When the movement collapsed in bloodshed at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, President George H. W. Bush granted the students the right to remain in the United States on a temporary basis. The students' allies pointed out that because some of the students had been outspoken in their opposition to the Chinese government, they faced persecution at home. Congress later made them refugees; they did not have to prove on an individual basis that they qualified under the principles of the 1980 immigration act.

In 1996 Congress also provided 1,000 asylum places for Chinese who opposed the one-child-per-family policy of the Chinese government. There had been precedent for this political decision. When the Golden Venture, a ship loaded with 282 Chinese immigrants without legal documents, ran aground off the coast of Long Island in 1992, the INS took the passengers into custody and heard their claims for asylum. About one-third of the passengers' claims were denied and they were deported; another third were settled in Latin America, and the rest were eventually allowed to stay in the United States. Some had claimed that they were refugees because they opposed the one-child-per-family policy and forced abortions in China.

Refugees also continued to arrive from Russia and other nations of the former Soviet Union. Senator Frank Lautenburg of New Jersey convinced Congress in 1989 to amend the Foreign Aid Appropriations Act to permit Jews and evangelical Christians to be considered religious refugees provided that they could demonstrate a "credible basis for concern about the possibility" of persecution rather than the more difficult to prove "well founded fear." This shift was motivated by political factors rather than anti-Russian fears or fears of communism. Congress extended it until 1994 and eventually 300,000 persons came to America under the Lautenburg amendment.

Immigrants still came from Indochina. Most were Vietnamese; only a few thousand Cambodians and Laotians arrived. Even the Vietnamese numbers were drastically cut by the 1990s, and most simply arrived under the family unification preferences of the immigration system. Indeed, relations improved between the United States and Vietnam in the 1990s, and the U.S. government no longer perceived communism to be a threat in Asia.

Armed conflict against Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991 was hardly a Cold War affair. The United States marshaled military support from several Arab and European nations after Iraq occupied Kuwait. While the struggle was unfolding, persons from Kuwait and Iraq were granted temporary protected status. The U.S. led forces quickly drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait, so a large stream of refugees did not develop. Nonetheless, Iraqis who managed to leave before the war began or after were given refuge in the United States. The INS could hardly do otherwise. More than a thousand per year were admitted as refugees in the last years of the twentieth century.

A sign of the shifting priorities of the postCold War era was the treatment of Cubans trying to reach the United States by boat in 1994. Because the Mariel exodus included mentally ill and criminal passengers, the U.S. and Cuban governments argued about Cuba taking back these persons considered undesirable. Negotiations partly resolved the crisis, with Cuba receiving some Marielitos and the United States agreeing to process Cubans who wanted to emigrate. Roughly 11,000 Cubans managed to come through regular channels between 1985 and 1994. A few also reached Florida by boat after the Mariel exodus ended, but their numbers were not large from 1980 to 1994.

As social and economic conditions deteriorated in Cuba, many more Cubans, using what boats they could find, headed for Florida in the summer of 1994. These "rafters" posed a diplomatic problem for the Clinton administration. Not wishing to see a repeat of the Mariel crisis, when more than 130,000 entered the United States without inspection, the president announced that the "rafters" would not be allowed to reach the United States. Rather, the Coast Guard returned them to Cuba or detained them at the Guantánamo naval base in Cuba. The administration knew that if the Cubans reached Florida, they would be covered by the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. Eventually, Cuba and the United States worked out an agreement for an orderly process to admit eligible Cubans, up to 20,000 annually, and in return Cuba would try to halt the exodus. Those at the Guantánamo base were to be processed through careful screening. Cuban Americans and their friends in the United States claimed that under this arrangement the Cuban Adjustment Act was effectively repealed, but the Clinton administration did succeed in preventing another Mariel exodus. With no support from the Soviet Union, Cuba seemed much less threateninghardly a danger to the noncommunist nations of the Western Hemisphere.

American interest in Africa was considerably less than its interest in Latin America, Europe, and Asia during the Cold War years. As a result, few African refugees entered, and most of them originated in Ethiopia. That country had been an American ally in the Cold War until 1974, when a military and left-wing revolution succeeded in overthrowing the existing government. Washington gave Ethiopians who were in the United States at that time the right to remain temporarily. When it did not appear that the leftwing government would be replaced, the State Department and INS agreed to the admission of a few thousand Ethiopians annually and granted asylum to many who were already in the United States. By the end of the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, about 20,000 Ethiopians had won asylum cases or had been permitted to enter as refugees. These numbers are not large compared to Asian, European, and Cuban refugees, but until the early 1990s, Ethiopians constituted the vast majority of African refugees.

Ethiopians continued to arrive as refugees after 1989, but American policy toward Africa looked to other issues than Marxism or communism. Stability and humanitarian concerns were at the center of the new policy. In 1992 the United States entered a civil war in Somalia. The effort to stabilize Somalia failed, and U.S. troops were ordered home. However, as an aftermath to aid those caught in the war, the door was opened to Somali refugees, numbering nearly 30,000 during the 1990s. In 1997, Somalis accounted for half of all African refugees.

Somalia was by no means the only nation divided by civil war and violence. Other African nations experienced such upheavals, and although U.S. forces were not engaged in a major way, the Clinton administration admitted African refugees from some of these conflicts. When Liberia, a nation that the United States had helped establish in the nineteenth century, experienced violence, Liberians in the United States received temporary protected status and others became refugees. The State Department and INS also admitted several hundred ethnic Nuer from the Sudan. Included were the "Lost Boys of Sudan," part of a group of 10,000 boys who had fled the Sudan's violence in 1992 and had lived in various African refugee camps. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the State Department recommended that 3,600 of these young men be admitted, and the first group of 500 arrived in the United States in 2001. Sudanese, Ethiopians, Liberians, and Somalis arrived from Africa in the largest numbers, but a few hundred others also found a safe haven in the United States during the 1990s. Among these were the sensational cases of several African women who received asylum on the grounds that if they returned to their homeland they would be subject to genital mutilation. The INS announced that it would consider mutilation as a factor in determining what a "well-founded fear" meant for asylum cases. While the United States avoided military intervention in the ethnic bloodshed in Rwanda, it announced that more refugees from that nation would be admitted. However, the numbers were only a few hundred.

While the decisions rested in part on humanitarian considerations, President Clinton was also responding to the pressures of the Black Caucus in Congress and various lobbying groups that wanted to increase the number of refugees arriving from Africa. The Black Caucus also attacked the INS and the State Department for sending Haitian refugees back to Haiti or interning them at the Guantánamo naval base for careful screening. Clinton signaled a shift in foreign policy to give more attention to Africa during two visits he made there toward the end of his second term. After his first trip in 1998, the president announced that the refugee quota from all of Africa would be increased. African quotas were upped to 7,000 in 1997 and 12,000 the next year. After Clinton's second visit in 2000, the State Department said that the African quota would be increased to 20,000. The figure was still only 25 percent of the total, but it marked a major increase in African refugees.

The last area of foreign policy considerations with implications for refugee policy was the Balkans and the bloodshed there in the 1990s. When Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in the 1990s, ethnic violence erupted. The Bosnian parliament declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, but Bosnian ethnic Serbs violently opposed it. Soon a three-way war broke out between Bosnia's Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. Serbs massacred thousands of Muslims and engaged in "ethnic cleansing" to drive Muslims out of Bosnia. The western European powers and the United States condemned Serbs for their killing and raping in Bosnia and finally negotiated a peace in 1995 and put in place an international peacekeeping force. The truce was an uneasy one, and before it and after, tens of thousands of Bosnians fled to western Europe and the United States for refuge. The flow continued even after the peacekeepers arrived. From 1986 to 1999 more than 100,000 Bosnians entered as refugees, with 30,906 recorded in 1998 and 22,697 the next year. In 1991, 1,660 refugees from Croatia were also received as refugees. The INS does not keep religious data, but most Bosnian refugees were Muslims.

When Yugoslavian Serbs expanded the ethnic conflict to Kosovo and killed many ethnic Albanians or sent them across the border to Albania, the West once again witnessed more "ethnic cleansing." This time NATO powers carried out their threat of military force and used airpower to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo and attacked Yugoslavia as well. After a successful air war in 1999, NATO troops occupied Kosovo to try to maintain a truce between those Serbs and ethnic Albanians remaining there. While the "ethnic cleansing" of Albanians was under way and during the war itself, as in so many other cases, the number of refugees increased: 14,280 refugees, who were mainly Kosovars, were received in the United States from Yugoslavia. A few hundred others in the United States won their asylum pleas.


In sum, the United States has always accepted refugees, even though such immigrants were not necessarily defined in the immigration laws. Government officials in Washington, including members of Congress and the president, often responded to overseas crises by linking refugees to foreign policy. A variety of nationality, religious, and ethnic private groups also pressured the government to admit refugees. Most of the admissions, from the arrival of exiles from the French Revolution in the 1790s to World War II, were permitted because the nation wished to inform the world that the United States was an "asylum for mankind."

After World War II, refugee policy underwent change. America's new role in the world prompted political leaders to admit thousands of refugees and displaced persons in Europe. As the Cold War came to dominate American foreign affairs, most refugees were perceived as fleeing communism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism in eastern Europe, America changed the type of refugee it was willing to receive, but that new policy was still heavily influenced by foreign affairs and domestic politics.

From 1789 to the present, refugee policy was often made on an ad hoc basis. Even following the 1965 immigration act's provisions and the Refugee Act of 1980, government officials often responded to political pressure groups in determining which persons were accepted. Cubans were refugees but Haitians were not. Refugee policy differs little from immigration policy in that it is often confused, ad hoc, and constantly changing. For the immediate future it appears that these policies will continue to be the result of foreign affairs and internal pressures.


Catanese, Anthony V. Haitians: Migration and Diaspora. Boulder, Colo., 1999.

Childs, Frances Sergeant. French Refugee Life in the United States, 17901800: An American Chapter of the French Revolution. Baltimore, 1940. Short work on the French refugees to the United States during the 1790s.

Coutin, Susan Bibler. Legalizing Moves: Salvadoran Immigrants' Struggle for U.S. Residency. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2000. Careful study of Salvadoran attempts to win refugee status and asylum in the United States.

DeConde, Alexander. Ethnicity, Race and American Foreign Policy: A History. Boston, 1992. An important book on the connection between American ethnic groups and foreign policy.

Dinnerstein, Leonard. America and the Survivors of the Holocaust. New York, 1982. The definitive work on passage of the Displaced Persons Act after World War II.

Gimpel, James G., and James Edwards, Jr. The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform. Boston, 1999. Detailed study of congressional immigration policy, with a discussion of refugee policy.

Hein, Jeremy. From Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia: A Refugee Experience in the United States. New York, 1995.

Hunt, Alfred N. Haiti's Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean. Baton Rouge, La., 1988. Solid book on how America responded to Haitian attempts to win asylum.

Keely, Charles B., Robert W. Tucker, and Linda Wrigley, eds. Immigration and U.S. Foreign Policy. Boulder, Colo., 1990.

Koehn, Peter H. Refugees from Revolution: U.S. Policy and Third World Migration. Boulder, Colo., 1991. Good summary of postWorld War II immigration policy as it relates to developing nations.

Lerski, Jerzy Jan. A Polish Chapter in Jacksonian America: The United States and the Polish Exiles of 1831. Madison, Wis., 1958.

Loescher, Gil. Beyond Charity: International Cooperation and the Global Refugee Crisis. New York, 1993.

Loescher, Gil, and John A. Scanlan. Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America's Half-Open Door, 1945 to the Present. New York and London, 1986. Excellent account of anticommunism and American refugee policies after 1945.

Masud-Piloto, Felix Roberto. From Welcomed Exiles to Illegal Immigrants: Cuban Migration to the U.S., 19591995. Lanham, Md., 1996. Useful summary of American policy toward Cuba, noting the shifts beginning in 1994.

Miller, Kerby A. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York, 1985.

Poyo, Gerald Eugene. With All, and for the Good of All: The Emergence of Popular Nationalism in the Cuban Communities of the United States, 18481898. Durham, N.C., 1989.

Reimers, David M. Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America. 2d ed. New York, 1992.

Robinson, W. Courtland. Terms of Refuge: The Indochinese Exodus and the International Response. London and New York, 1998. Good summary not only of American but world response to the Indochinese refugees.

Schrag, Philip G. A Well-Founded Fear: The Congressional Battle to Save Political Asylum in America. New York, 2000. Detailed summary of congressional politics and recent refugee policy.

Smith, Tony. Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 2000. Important study of ethnic groups and their role in shaping American foreign policy, with useful material on refugees.

Stepick, Alex. Pride Against Prejudice: Haitians in the United States. Boston, 1998.

Wilson, David A. United Irishmen, United States: Immigrant Radicals in the Early Republic. Ithaca, N.Y., 1998.

Wyman, David S. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 19411945. New York, 1984. Major study of American policy toward the Holocaust during World War II, critical of U.S. policy.

Zucker, Norman L., and Naomi Flink Zucker. The Guarded Gate: The Reality of American Refugee Policy. San Diego, 1987.

See also Asylum; Human Rights; Humanitarian Intervention and Relief; Immigration; Neutrality; Race and Ethnicity.

CARL SCHURZ (18291906)

Carl Schurz participated in the German revolutionary activities of 1848. He joined a failed attempt to seize the arsenal at Siegburg and was forced to flee to the Palatine, also in Germany, where he joined the revolutionary forces there. He quickly became a wanted man by German authorities; rather than face charges of treason, he fled to France. He did return long enough to liberate one of the leaders but was forced to take refuge again in France and also England. Schurz came to the United States in 1852 and began a long career in American politics and government. He eventually became a U.S. senator, fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union, and served as secretary of the interior. He also worked with German groups, encouraging them to fight in the Civil War and become active in politics. Most scholars believe that Schurz was the most prominent German American in the nineteenth century.


Albert Einstein was the most prominent man to take refuge in the United States during the twentieth century. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his work on the photoelectric effect, but is best known for his theories of relativity. When Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party seized power in Germany in 1933, he was in Princeton, New Jersey, at the Institute for Advanced Study. He elected to remain in the United States, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1940. He never returned to Germany. Alarmed by the rising power of Hitler's Germany, he wrote his most famous letter, a plea to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging that the United States fund research into the possibility of the making of an atomic bomb.


views updated Jun 27 2018



Global conflicts, including the Cold War, and the collapse of empires and civil wars were the major impetus for the involuntary displacement of people in the twentieth century. The focus herein is on the key moments of crisis that led to the displacement of civilians in Europe, the role played by states in prompting flight or establishing the terms of resettlement, and the efforts that were made to manage crises and to relieve the conditions in which refugees found themselves.


It was during World War I that the word refugees first became a familiar term in European public life. Following the German invasion of Belgium on 4 August 1914, tens of thousands of Belgian civilians crossed the English Channel to find refuge in the United Kingdom. Their arrival prompted a flurry of private charitable activity, including the War Refugees Committee launched by Flora Lugard (1852–1929), former colonial correspondent for the Times of London. By the time the war ended, in November 1918, 140,000 Belgian refugees were registered in the United Kingdom. Other refugees fled to the Netherlands where they were housed first in government-built camps and later on in cheap bungalows capable of being dismantled and quickly reassembled elsewhere. Camp life emphasized health, hygiene, and hard work making toys and household goods.

British officials acknowledged an obligation toward refugees, whose plight reflected the Allies' inability to stem the enemy onslaught that exposed the devout Catholic inhabitants of Belgium to "pagan" Germany. But in their anxiety about "undesirable aliens," government officials kept close track of the refugee population. Belgians complained, to no avail, about the Aliens Restriction Act (5 August 1914), which required them to notify the police of any journey they made of more than five miles and confined them to specific areas of the country. Plans were drawn up to resettle the refugees in Chile and in South Africa, but the Belgian authorities rebuffed these proposals on the grounds that refugees should contribute to national reconstruction. Most returned to Belgium by 1919. The relief effort was informed by a mixture of condescension and genuine concern for human suffering. The novelist Edith Wharton (1862–1937) wrote a short story titled "The Refugees" lampooning the rush by comfortable British families to adopt a refugee as a social adornment.

The Austrian invasions of Serbia in 1914 and 1915 produced a catastrophic displacement of soldiers and civilians, amounting to one-third of the prewar total. Half a million refugees made their way across the mountains into Albania. Many ended up in Corfu, Corsica, and Tunisia; perhaps 200,000 died en route. Other Serb refugees were incarcerated in Austrian camps and treated as forced labor. The Society of Friends (American and British Quakers) along with the American Red Cross lent their support to the relief of the refugees. The Serbian Relief Fund, created by the historian Robert Seton-Watson (1879–1951), brought some refugee children to the United Kingdom.

Events elsewhere also generated large numbers of refugees. In Austria-Hungary Jewish civilians, fearful of tsarist troops, fled from the empire's eastern territories of Galicia and Bukovina to the relative safety of Vienna where they came under the care of middle-class Jews. In the Ottoman Empire, Armenians were targeted by the Young Turks as "disloyal" and "subversive" elements. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were disarmed, arrested, and sent east. Many were simply killed. A minority escaped to safety, either to Syria or to the Russian controlled Transcaucasus. By the beginning of 1916 more than 100,000 ex-Ottoman Armenians sought refuge in Erivan (now Yerevan), then a small town. Philanthropic efforts mobilized Armenian society in the Russian Empire, where relief agencies supplied food and medicine, looked after orphans, and provided basic schooling.

The Russian Empire itself was another site of population displacement. Civilians fled to the interior to escape the German and Austrian invasion. The Russian high command deported German, Jewish, Polish, and other subjects of the tsar. By the beginning of 1917 there were six million refugees and forced migrants, roughly equivalent to 5 percent of the total population. The war generated extensive voluntary as well as governmental intervention. Municipal authorities, diocesan committees, and private charities established schools and orphanages. Peasant communities and rural cooperatives harnessed their established mechanisms of self-help to the task of assisting the newcomers. Overall the war brought about an impressive relief effort. Humanitarian initiatives provided evidence of a newly emerging professional ethos in late imperial Russia, giving social workers, doctors, psychiatrists, statisticians, and lawyers practice in scrutinizing and managing the tsar's subjects.

Crucially, because resources were thinly stretched, the tsarist state also devolved some of the responsibility for refugee relief onto newly formed "national committees" (Polish, Jewish, Latvian, and Armenian—although not Russian or Ukrainian). These committees mobilized "national" opinion at home and abroad. Within an emerging patriotic intelligentsia, this aspect of refugeedom inspired a sense of calamity that gave rise to a vision of national solidarity. Deliberate action was needed, as one Latvian activist put it, to ensure that Latvians avoid "the lot of the Jews, to be scattered across the entire globe." Polish activists spoke of "preserving the refugee on behalf of the motherland." These patriotic elites engaged in a new national politics, instructing the refugee population in their rights and responsibilities.

World War I was thus significant in various senses. It created or legitimated a broad range of relief agencies and professional expertise. It trained patriotic leaders in the practice of government. The political scientist Hannah Arendt (1906–1971) famously suggested that the successor nation-states in eastern Europe were associated with a refugee-generating process. This is only part of the story. By giving patriotic elites direct access to a nascent national community and training them in the art of government, refugeedom played a more fundamental role, helping to crystallize the new nation-state.


The Russian Revolution unleashed a bitter civil war between those who supported and those who opposed the Bolsheviks. Having failed to overthrow the new regime, anti-Bolshevik elements fled Russia. Most never returned, settling instead in "temporary" refugee camps in Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Greece. By 1922 more than 27 percent of the total Russian refugee population had settled in Germany; some estimates put their number in Berlin alone at 360,000. A further 20 percent settled in Poland, 16 percent in the Balkan states, and 10 percent in France. Around 17 percent settled in the Far East, where conditions remained deplorable throughout the 1920s and 1930s, with the remaining 10 percent scattered elsewhere. Welfare organizations such as Zemgor (the Union of Towns and Cities, formed in 1915) provided basic material support. A handful returned to Soviet Russia under an amnesty issued in September 1920.

What of those displaced earlier within the former Russian Empire? Many non-Russians were motivated to return by a desire to participate in the reconstruction of their newly independent "homeland." Between 1918 and 1924 around 130,000 people were repatriated to Latvia, and a further 215,000 to Lithuania. By 1925 the total number of Polish citizens who had been repatriated from the Soviet Union stood at 1.3 million. They endured appalling conditions; typhus was a major health hazard. Relief workers, such as the British Quaker Ruth Fry (1878–1962), encouraged these returnees to get back on their feet by lending seed, timber, and petty credit. Matters were not helped by the tendency of Polish, Latvian, and Lithuanian officials to portray the returnees as potential subversives. Border guards barred or delayed the return of nonnational refugees. Jews, in particular, suffered discrimination.

One legacy of the war was thus the promotion of a sense of exclusion that had pernicious consequences as new nation-states emerged from the wreckage of multinational empires. This was often accompanied by downward social mobility, as with Hungarian refugees who, under the terms of the Treaty of Trianon (4 June 1920), found themselves a beleaguered minority in newly independent Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia. Having forfeited the privileged position they enjoyed as landed gentry in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, they fled to a truncated Hungarian state, forming the backbone of a reactionary and revanchist politics.


Another legacy of war was the exchange of population between Greece and Turkey as provided in the Lausanne Convention (30 January 1923) and endorsed by the Treaty of Lausanne (24 July 1923), whose purpose was "to bring to a final close the state of war which has existed in the East since 1914." The treaty followed the defeat of the Greek army in Anatolia and the sacking of Smyrna in the autumn of 1922, following which 900,000 Turkish nationals of the Greek Orthodox faith fled for Greece. Their hope of a speedy return at the end of hostilities was quickly dashed. Under the Lausanne Convention, 350,000 Muslims were uprooted from Greece and moved to Turkey. Some estimates suggest that up to half a million displaced persons remained unaccounted for following this exchange. The League of Nations established a Refugee Settlement Commission in Greece, but resources were badly stretched and most refugees lived in makeshift barracks.

The Mikrasiates (Asia Minor refugees) prided themselves on being more cosmopolitan and devout than their new neighbors. Local Greeks were portrayed as unsophisticated "shepherds"; they in turn poked fun at refugees as "stupid" and "baptized in yogurt." But the newcomers made a significant contribution to the Greek economy by developing new industries such as carpet weaving and tobacco production. (They also introduced the bouzouki, a stringed instrument, and rebetika, a type of urban folk music, to mainland Greece.) Politically the poorer refugees initially supported the Liberal Party led by Eleutherios Venizelos (1864–1936) but subsequently switched allegiance to the Greek Communist Party, which, until it was banned in 1936, campaigned on behalf of "workers, peasants and refugees." Meanwhile the displaced Muslim refugees fared little better in Turkish society.


The international refugee regime has its origins in the aftermath of World War I. In August 1921 the League of Nations created a High Commission for Refugees (HCR), led by the renowned Norwegian Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930). This was an initiative to support Russian and Armenian refugees. Many members of the league originally hoped that the refugee problem would be solved by repatriation. These hopes were soon dashed. Nansen supplied refugees with identity documents in order that they not be returned involuntarily to Soviet Russia. By 1923 thirty-nine governments recognized the right of holders of the "Nansen passport" to cross international boundaries, provided that they did not thereby adopt another nationality.

The League of Nations had no funds of its own to spend on the relief and resettlement of refugees; its agencies played a supporting and coordinating role instead, relying where possible on financial assistance from national governments and voluntary bodies. Armenian refugees settled in France, encouraged by the authorities who wished to address the shortage of labor following World War I. Many were housed in refugee camps such as Camp Oddo in Marseille, where they remained until 1927. Nansen wanted to settle others in South America, a destination later favored by the U.S. delegates to the Evian Conference on Refugees in July 1938.

In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938, the Nansen International Office for Refugees spoke of the "material benefits" that the prize would bring to the refugees under its care. It went on to "rejoice above all in the moral effect that the Nobel Committee's decision cannot fail to exert on world opinion by emphasizing the enormous importance of the refugee problem." The following years brought little evidence of such "moral effect" and multiplied the "refugee problem" many times over.


The Spanish civil war (1936–1939) produced massive internal and external displacement. As early as June 1936 some sixty thousand refugees entered France; by October 1937 five times that number had settled there, in the relatively friendly environment created by Léon Blum's Popular Front government. The mood did not last. Following General Francisco Franco's march on Barcelona, which fell to Nationalist forces in January 1939, an estimated 300,000 refugees gathered at the French border. Border officials turned them back. Conditions in the French refugee camps were rudimentary and refugees faced much local hostility, but they stayed put. Following the international recognition granted the Franco regime after World War II, they abandoned hope of returning to Spain.

Others ended up in the United Kingdom, having been sponsored by local fundraising groups and the Trades Union Congress. Some assistance was orchestrated by Katharine, Duchess of Atholl (1874–1960), known as the "Red Duchess," who achieved brief notoriety. The Basque Children's Committee subsequently published a journal that enabled refugees to keep in touch and to publish their memoirs; significantly, it was titled Amistad. Meanwhile the French arranged for around five thousand Spanish refugee orphans to be resettled in the Soviet Union. (Adult refugees were often deported to the gulag.)

In response to the growing numbers of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and Poland, the French government contemplated settling them in Madagascar, thereby avoiding the need to locate them in Palestine. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee supported this proposal, but it foundered because of colonial opposition. In a familiar refrain, the French government accused German refugees of being "spies and subversives" and accordingly imposed tough restrictions on entry.

In 1938 (the year of Kristallnacht) the situation worsened dramatically in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Italy. Édouard Daladier (1884–1970), restored to power as French prime minister in April 1938 and resolutely opposed to the Popular Front, hurriedly introduced a decree on French residence, distinguishing the "new" from the "old" (i.e., Russian and Armenian) refugees and affirming that France had reached a "saturation point." Other distinctions were also drawn, notably between the "authentic" political refugees and the "undesirable" economic migrant, although this wholly arbitrary dividing line did not stop some politicians from advocating the import of cheap refugee labor.

The Geneva Convention on Refugees (4 July 1936 and 10 February 1938) provided relief to refugees from Nazi Germany. A key advocate was the British lawyer Norman Bentwich (1883–1971). The HCR, however, had no mandate to address the needs of refugees from Nazi-occupied Austria and elsewhere in Europe. The U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt convened the Evian Conference to attempt to resolve their plight, but it achieved little. French ministers reiterated their concerns that an "influx" of refugees would undermine domestic security. British delegates refused to allow any discussion of Palestine as a potential destination. The desperate refugees already in France found it increasingly difficult to secure even temporary residence permits.


Population displacement in World War II, including compulsory deportation, was eerily reminiscent of World War I. The chief theater of displacement was Europe. One million Poles and Polish Jews left western Poland following the German invasion. From 1939 to 1941 Ukrainians fled westward to Germany from Soviet-occupied western Ukraine. The Soviet premier Joseph Stalin deported German settlers from the Volga region in 1941. Poles were expelled from Ukraine by nationalist forces in 1942. There were numerous involuntary movements of population elsewhere. Existing refugee groups were exposed to great risk. In France, for example, interned Spanish civil war refugees were exposed to the German onslaught in 1940.

As the tide of war turned, the retreat of the German army from the territories it occupied since 1938 was accompanied by a mass flight of five million ethnic Germans, who feared reprisals from partisans and the Soviet Red Army. Others were expelled "spontaneously" by local communities in Poland and Czechoslovakia. The Potsdam Conference (17 July–2 August 1945) sanctioned these "transfers." By mid-1947 the Allies counted 10.5 million ethnic German refugees in the occupation zones. The settled population regarded these Vertriebene (exiles) with alarm, believing that they threatened the health and integrity of the German Volk. Meanwhile dedicated Landsmannschaften (homeland societies) gave the expellees a degree of collective identity and political leverage. The additional burden that they placed on resources was subsequently alleviated by the West German "economic miracle," which provided them with greater security without extinguishing hopes of a return to their former homes in Eastern Europe.

In May 1944, 200,000 Crimean Tatars, irrespective of occupation and Communist Party membership, were summarily transported to Uzbekistan on grounds of collective ethnic disloyalty. Little is known of the lives they lived or of the ways in which they may have sought to maintain a sense of collective identity. The Stalinist state also inflicted enormous harm on the so-called kulak-bandit population of the Baltic states and western Belorussia during the postwar collectivization drive. Between 1948 and 1952 farming households were forcibly transferred from the Baltic states to the Urals and Siberia. The impact of these deportations too remains virtually uncharted territory.

At the end of the war displaced persons (DP) camps sprang up throughout liberated Germany, Austria, and Italy, initially under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and then the International Refugee Organization, which was responsible for resettling refugees. Over five hundred such camps were still in existence in 1948, housing 800,000 refugees. The DP camp was by definition a place of incarceration, but it nevertheless provided an opportunity for a degree of self-administration. Camp authorities sponsored cooperative businesses, educational ventures, music and theater companies, and scout troops. DP camps also became a training ground for future political activists. Officials repatriated reluctant Ukrainian and other refugees to the Soviet Union. Relief workers spoke up for DPs who wished to move to North America and Australia, formulating their appeals with a "human interest" angle rather than concentrating on legal formulas. Around 400,000 DPs traveled to the United States under the Displaced Persons Act (25 June 1948).

Inevitably the schemes for resettling the DPs tended to favor the young and able-bodied workers. Under the European Voluntary Worker (EVW) program, the British government dispatched officials to the DP camps to identify "quality" workers, in order to satisfy the demand for labor in key occupations such as textiles and agriculture. Other EVWs were assigned to jobs in hospitals and sanatoria. The elderly or sick became known as the "hard core," stranded in the camps until they died or were rescued by charitable government officials. Thus the program to resettle refugees was governed primarily by economic considerations, not by the wish to save Baltic, Polish, or Ukrainian DPs from Soviet retribution.

Other episodes of displacement are less well known. The Italian-Yugoslav peace treaty in 1947 required defeated Italy to renounce Istria. Some 300,000 profughi (refugees), fearing retribution by Yugoslav partisans, left Istria between 1947 and 1954, settling first in refugee camps and then in shelters built by the Italian government in Trieste, itself a contested city. (Some camps survived until the 1960s.) Styling themselves esuli (exiles) rather than refugees, they recounted these momentous events in terms of "national" suffering, martyrdom, and (more recently) "ethnic cleansing," thereby sustaining contemporary irredentist claims and demands for compensation. Thus population displacement continues to reverberate in political and social life.

The aftermath of World War II witnessed the creation of a new international refugee regime in which the focus shifted from the group (as with Russian refugees) to the individual. Signatories to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees acknowledged as a general principle that refugees could claim protection if they were subject as individuals to a "well-founded fear of persecution, on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." Crucially, the convention applied only to refugees who had been displaced by events prior to 1 January 1951, and signatories could confine their obligations to refugees from events occurring in Europe alone. It also enshrined the principle that refugees could not be returned to the country that persecuted them. The convention came into force on 22 April 1954, by which time the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had been in existence for three years. Given its limited budget, the UNHCR could do little more than resettle small numbers of displaced persons in conjunction with voluntary agencies.


Echoes of World War II—as a consequence of the Sovietization of Eastern Europe—can be detected in the displacement that followed the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination. Hungarian refugees were embraced by the UNHCR, notwithstanding the 1951 convention, on the grounds that their "persecution" could be directly attributed to the postwar turmoil and the Sovietization of Eastern Europe. In the space of a few months around 200,000 Hungarian refugees, mostly from Budapest, crossed the border into Austria and Yugoslavia. Western governments addressed the refugee crisis at once, lest displaced Hungarians contribute to the "destabilization" of Austria, which had only recently said farewell to Soviet occupation forces. Hungarian refugees were welcomed in the United States, Canada, and Britain on the grounds that they were the living embodiment of communist persecution. They offered firsthand accounts of life behind the Iron Curtain to Western social scientists and intelligence agencies. Other Hungarian dissidents were simply deported to Soviet prison camps.

The UNHCR became the main agency responsible for assisting Hungarian refugees. Various nongovernmental organizations and private agencies also intervened, including the Red Cross. The situation in Hungary was important for other reasons. It was the first occasion in which a refugee crisis reached a wider public audience through television coverage.


In 1974 Turks and Greeks once again experienced population displacement, this time as a consequence of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, which took place against the background of deteriorating relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Displaced Greek villagers resented being labeled refugees, a term that implied that they would not soon return to their homes. In response to refugee activists, the Cyprus government set aside houses abandoned by Turkish Cypriots or made affordable housing available to the refugees, and the UNHCR provided emergency funding to assist with resettlement programs. Women played the key role in maintaining refugee households. Some refugees demonstrated resourcefulness in establishing new businesses that traded on their status: hence, "Refugee Kebabs" and "Refugee Taxis."

Twenty years later, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe contributed to civil war in the rapidly fracturing state of Yugoslavia. In Bosnia and Herzegovina around 2.5 million people were displaced in the early 1990s, representing more than half the total prewar population. Most of them were Bosnian Muslims. Some 1.3 million were internally displaced, with the remainder split more or less equally between adjacent regions such as Croatia and Western Europe (especially Germany and Austria), where they had faced considerable obstacles to entry. Private initiatives, prompted in part by the constant media attention to the conflict, enabled many refugees to seek asylum in the West or at least to deal with unsympathetic government officials. In Bosnia itself relief operations were coordinated by the UNHCR, but its officials ultimately lacked the wherewithal to prevent attacks on Muslim enclaves in the so-called safe havens. One result was the massacre of Bosnian Muslim refugees in Srebrenica. Following the Dayton Accords (December 1995), the process of repatriation commenced. According to the United Nations, more than a million people displaced by the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s returned home from elsewhere in former Yugoslavia or from abroad. Half went back to areas where they remained ethnically in a minority. Their return posed enormous problems in restoring infrastructure, education, and health care; rebuilding homes; and simply finding jobs. Others remained in Western Europe (where they frequently faced an uncertain future) or traveled farther afield.

Intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the conflict in Kosovo during 1999 contributed to the murder or deportation of tens of thousands of Kosovar Albanians, who were trapped by the closure of the border with Macedonia. NATO's program of "military-humanitarian cooperation," designed to move people to a place of safety, ultimately created pockets of ethnically homogeneous populations. When Kosovar Albanians returned to their homes, they faced enormous difficulties in rebuilding their lives. Albanian militias wreaked revenge upon the Serb population of Kosovo by expelling them in turn.

The collapse of the Soviet Union prompted ethnic Russians to leave their homes in Central Asia where they had settled, in some cases for two or three generations. Many Russian families left what is termed the "near abroad" either under duress or because of fears of future disadvantage or violence. They have since become an important subgroup in post-Soviet society, whose relentless economic decline has put a great strain on the provision of dedicated welfare programs. Russia's displaced persons (most of whom reject the designation "refugee," unless they encounter direct persecution or violence) live in poor accommodations and have experienced downward social mobility, alleviated somewhat by various self-help strategies. The outbreak of conflicts, whether between newly independent states (such as Armenia and Azerbaijan) or within the Russian Federation (in particular, Chechnya), produced further displacement and hardship. Contemporary opinion makes much of earlier episodes of forced migration, an issue discussed in the final section.


The memory of displacement survives in cultural practices and in political activity. Anthropologists trace the persistence of a refugee identity among Greeks who were displaced from Anatolia in 1923 and who settled in Piraeus. Well into the 1970s their descendants readily referred to one another as prosfiges (refugees), affirming a sense of separate identity from "the locals" and underpinning claims for compensation from the Greek government. Italian exiles in Trieste continue to depict Istria and the surrounding region as a "pure" Italian land appropriated by Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, the formation of "collective memory" is invariably contentious and uneven. For some individuals, displacement and resettlement evoke more positive memories rather than corresponding to a sense of trauma.

Many of the displacements of population associated with World War II and its aftermath—the Stalinist deportations of national minorities and "class enemies," the expulsion of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia, the displacement of ethnic Italians from the Julian March—continued to reverberate in the later twentieth century and beyond. With the liberalization and final collapse of Soviet communism, deported nationalities such as the Crimean Tatars made their way back from Central Asia to the "homeland" they had been forced to abandon. Second- and third-generation activists have asserted their right to be heard and compensated.


Discussions of refugees typically center around two categories. The first category is that of the refugees, whose experience has often been depicted in terms of loss and victimization. While these characterizations correspond to aspects of reality, they by no means encompass the entirety of experience. Younger Italians from Istria spoke of the refugee camp as a place offering adventure and even liberation. For others, such as some refugees from the Spanish civil war, the camp was a springboard to avenging past suffering by conducting acts of terror. This is neither to romanticize the refugee experience nor to exaggerate its transformative potential, but it does suggest that the experience was not one-dimensional or uniform.

The second category is that of the relief workers, typically belonging to nongovernmental organizations and with careers to make and budgets to manage. Many of the descriptions of refugee life that have become public have been generated not by refugees but by professional or semiprofessional relief workers who are normally bound by the conventions of the sponsoring agency. Relief workers and relief agencies have not simply responded to disasters, as represented in the modern mass media. They are actors in their own right, usually speaking on behalf of refugees rather than bringing them into the conversation.

Another conclusion is that the history of Europe's refugee population during the twentieth century was related to broader political changes. These include the replacement of multinational polities by nation-states as well as other changes of regime associated with revolutionary upheavals and civil conflict. The Bolshevik Revolution transformed the terms of the debate for generations to come, enabling unsympathetic states to label refugees as potential communist subversives, as happened in central Europe during the 1920s and France in the later 1930s. Hungarian refugees from communism served as ideological fodder during the Cold War. More broadly, Europe witnessed ruthless state practices, targeting populations for exclusion or excision. In the early twenty-first century such practices have called forth international action and thus eroded state sovereignty. Humanitarian intervention has undoubtedly saved the lives of many refugees, but whether or not this seismic political shift has improved the longer-term prospects of displaced persons is less certain.

See alsoEthnic Cleansing; Immigration and Internal Migration.


Ballinger, Pamela. History in Exile: Memory and Identity at the Borders of the Balkans. Princeton, N.J., 2002. Anthropological study of the Istrian peninsula in past and present.

Baron, Nick, and Peter Gatrell, eds. Homelands: War, Population, and Statehood in Eastern Europe and Russia, 1918–1924. London, 2004.

Cahalan, Peter. Belgian Refugee Relief in England during the Great War. New York, 1982. Now somewhat outdated, but the only full study available.

Caron, Vicki. Uneasy Asylum: France and the Jewish Refugee Crisis, 1933–1942. Stanford, Calif., 1999. Comprehensive account of policy and public opinion.

Gatrell, Peter. A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia during World War I. Bloomington, Ind., 1999.

Hirschon, Renée. Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: The Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus. Oxford, U.K., 1989. Sensitively traces the legacy of the 1923 Greek-Turkish population exchange, based on fieldwork conducted in 1972.

Holborn, Louise W. Refugees, a Problem of Our Time: The Work of the United Nations High Commissioner forRefugees, 1951–1972. 2 vols. Metuchen, N.J., 1975. Massive study of the UNHCR during its first quarter century.

Kulischer, Eugene M. Europe on the Move: War and Population Changes, 1917–1947. New York, 1948. Brilliant and pioneering study based on reading in a dozen languages.

Kushner, Tony, and Katharine Knox. Refugees in an Age of Genocide: Global, National, and Local Perspectives during the Twentieth Century. London, 1999. Informative study that focuses on the United Kingdom, using oral testimony where appropriate.

Loizos, Peter. The Heart Grown Bitter: A Chronicle of Cypriot War Refugees. Cambridge, U.K., 1981. Sensitive and personal account by a social anthropologist.

Marrus, Michael R. The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century. New York, 1985. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, 2002. Standard modern overview and a useful starting point for further research.

Pilkington, Hilary. Migration, Displacement, and Identity in Post-Soviet Russia. London, 1998.

Proudfoot, Malcolm. European Refugees, 1939–1952: A Study of Forced Population Movements. Evanston, Ill., 1956.

Simpson, John Hope. The Refugee Problem: Report of a Survey. London, 1939. Classic in-depth study of the interwar period.

Skran, Claudena M. Refugees in Inter-war Europe: The Emergence of a Regime. Oxford, U.K., 1995. Sober account based on the League of Nations archives.

Wyman, Mark. DPs: Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945–1951. Ithaca, N.Y., 1998.

Peter Gatrell


views updated May 29 2018


REFUGEES (1933–1949) . When the Nazis came to power, many Jews believed that this chapter in German history would soon pass, that Germany would come to its senses, and that Hitler could not last long. Over time, however, the ranks of the pessimists swelled. After *Kristallnacht (the November 1938 pogroms) for most German Jews the question was not whether to leave but where to go. Could a place of refuge be found? Would some country – any country – be willing to receive Jews? By the beginning of the war, the quest for refuge became a matter of life and death.

The first wave of German Jews seeking refuge began in 1933 when according to Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden records, 52,000 Jews left and 37,000 who were abroad remained there. In 1934 the pace of emigration slowed down as conditions stabilized and after the Nuremberg laws of 1935, it once again intensified. Most Jews went to neighboring countries presuming that they were leaving Germany for a time and not for good and never imagining that Germany would conquer the lands in which they had found refuge. By 1938 approximately one in four Jews had left. Some countries were willing to receive some Jews but never in the numbers that would resolve the problem; Turkey imported professors, architects, musicians, physicians, and lawyers to Westernize their country.

The quest for refuge was related to the perception of the viability of Jewish life in Germany. The calmer things remained the more Jews stayed and after periods of turmoil the pace of Jewish emigration quickened. By early 1938 the process of Aryanization had impoverished many Jews, making their lives within Germany ever more difficult and making them even less desirable to potential countries of refuge. In March, Germany entered Austria and as 200,000 more Jews became part of the expanded Reich, the Anschluss reversed, seemingly overnight, the "progress" that Germany had made during the previous years to be rid of its Jews. Efforts were made to speed up the emigration of Jews and Adolf *Eichmann was dispatched to Vienna to organize the departure of its Jews. His success there propelled his career. The *Evian Conference of July 1938, convened ostensibly to solve the refugee crisis, proved that countries were unwilling to receive the Jews, at least not in sufficient numbers to handle the crisis. Only the Dominican Republic was willing to receive a large number of refugees, the comfortable euphemism for Jews.

In October 1938, things went from bad to worse. Jews of Polish origin living in Germany were expelled, and in November Kristallnacht made matters all the more urgent.

At the beginning of the Jewish quest for refuge, Jews could leave with their possessions and could dispose of what they had in an orderly fashion. Year after year, this became less possible. Economic restrictions on the Jews undermined their basic ability to earn a living and Aryanization deprived them of businesses and resources. By the late 1930s many were impoverished and appeared desperate. The *Haavara agreement of 1933, which permitted Jews to dispose of their property in Germany and receive a percentage of their capital in Palestine, was not augmented by any other agreements.

[Aryeh Tartakower /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]

High Commissioner for Refugees from Germany

When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, thousands of Jews, together with many non-Jewish anti-Nazis, were compelled to take refuge in adjacent countries. Democratic governments and large Jewish organizations exerted pressure on the League of Nations to deal with the refugee problem. On Oct. 26, 1933, the League appointed James G. *McDonald as high commissioner for refugees from Germany, with the task of negotiating for international collaboration for solving the economic, financial, and social problems of the refugees. In order to avoid offense to Germany, at that time still a member of the League, the high commissioner worked independently and did not report to the League Council but to its own governing body. Its budget was mainly provided by Jewish organizations. The high commissioner achieved little except for conventions on political and legal protection (in 1933 and 1938), and, convinced that without the authority of the League his efforts were useless, he resigned on Dec. 27, 1935. In February 1936, after Germany left the League, Sir Neill Malcolm (1869–1953) succeeded McDonald as high commissioner, this time with direct responsibility to the League. In May 1938 his office was extended to help refugees from Austria, but it was limited to legal and political protection for refugees and intervention with the governments of the countries of asylum in order to provide residence and work permits. On Sept. 30, 1938, the Assembly of the League decided to merge the existing Nansen Office for Refugees of the League with the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees from Germany and on Jan. 1, 1939, it appointed Sir Herbert Emerson (1881–1962) as high commissioner for all refugees for a period of five years. Despite the League's efforts to ease the situation of the refugees, the practical results were not encouraging. However, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees from Germany was marginally useful both in securing legal status for stateless refugees and in coordinating the work of the numerous Jewish voluntary and philanthropic organizations.

In 1939 the situation became ever more desperate. Jews were willing to go anywhere. Seventeen thousand Jews arrived in Shanghai. Jews from Eastern Europe were later to join them in Japanese-occupied China. But there were few places to go. The United States operated on a quota system. A British White Paper limited the number of Jews immigrating to Palestine. Cuba and the United States turned away the ship *St. Louis carrying affluent Jewish refugees. With nowhere to go, they were forced to return to Europe.

When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, some Polish Jews faced a critical decision. History had taught them that refuge was in the West. During World War i, the Germans had been relatively benign during occupation. Did one go west or east to the land of Czar and of the pogroms, a land from which Jews had been fleeing for decades? Those who went against the grain of history and of collective wisdom suffered but were not killed. It is estimated that about half a million Jews left for the Soviet Union in the wake of the German advance. Many of these people were later engulfed by the German conquest of the Soviet-held territories, as were their counterparts, Jews who had left for France and Denmark, Belgium and Holland and other West European countries.

Neutral countries were reluctant to be overrun by Jews. Switzerland received 21,500 but thousands more were turned away. And in the fall of 1938, the Swiss Foreign Ministry requested that the Germans stamp Jewish passports with the letter J so that non-Jewish Germans could enter Switzerland freely. Spain received some Jews. Those who made it over the Pyrenees were not turned back; they were sent on to Portugal, from where many managed to leave for the United States. Some German allies, notably Italy and Hungary, received some Jews. Sweden provided a sanctuary for Scandinavian Jews fleeing Denmark, but that was in 1943 when it was understood that Germany would lose the war.

Clandestine passage to Palestine remained an option but the sinking of a stricken ship, the Struma, just outside Turkish waters in 1941 by a Soviet submarine, killing all but one of its passengers, underscored the difficulties of such dangerous routes. The Emergency Rescue Committee had a program for the cultural elite of Central Europe, but that was of little use to others. Among the great figures who fled were Jean Arp, Andre Breton, Marc *Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max *Ernst, Jacques *Lipshitz, Andre Masson, and Henri Matisse. Eminent musicians included George *Szell and Bruno *Walter. Many established writers came to the United States, among them Franz *Werfel, the novelist whose work, Forty Days At Musa Dagh, conveyed the tragedy of the Armenians and was invoked by Jewish resistance fighters in Bialystok and Warsaw. Lion *Feuchtwanger and Max *Brod, the friend and biographer of Franz *Kafka, were forced to flee. Feuchtwanger came to the United States and Brod reached Palestine. Sigmund *Freud dispatched his disciples around the globe before he left Vienna for London.

The Jewish refugee movement during the 12 years of Nazi rule (1933–45) differed in its structure from the usual population migrations, including Jewish migrations in previous generations. Among the German-Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the years 1933–37, practically all of whom were refugees, 52.2% were males and 47% females (0.8% were not recorded). The Jewish immigration to the U.S. in 1939–43, all of whom were refugees, showed a ratio of 46.3% males as against 53.7% females. The percentage of women refugees was much higher in comparison with general migration figures (in 1899–1914, out of every 100 immigrants to the U.S., 68.29% were males and 31.71% females), and even compared with general Jewish migration figures, where the percentage of women was always much higher (55.97% males as against 44.03% females). The refugee movement was thus mostly a family migration. This is also confirmed by the age structure of the movement and particularly by the considerable number of children (21% of the refugee migration to the U.S. in 1939–43; in the German-Jewish migration to Palestine in 1933–39, the age group of 1–20 was 32.5% – considerably more than within the Jewish population in Germany itself (21.5%) due to the fact that children were often sent out alone while the parents stayed behind in Germany) and old people, whereas people of working age were considerably less represented.

There were also differences in the occupational structure. Jewish mass migrations in the 19th and 20th centuries had consisted mostly of artisans and small traders, with no means of their own, who went abroad in search of a living. However, figures relating to German Jews coming to Palestine in 1933–39 showed 25.6% in the liberal professions and 27.7% as merchants, while industrialists and artisans accounted for 24.1%. Figures on Jewish immigration to the U.S. in 1932–43 showed nearly one-fifth (19.8%) in the liberal professions and 41.9% merchants. They brought with them rather considerable amounts of money, when some property could still be taken out of Germany. The estimate of such transfers to the U.S. up to the outbreak of World War ii reached $650,000,000 while for Great Britain up to mid-1938 the figure was £12,000,000 (prewar parity $48,000,000). The *Haavara transferred the equivalent of £p 8,000,000 ($32,000,000) in the first years of Nazi rule into Palestine, while capital imported into the country in 1937–41 reached about £14,000,000. These possibilities of transfer gradually disappeared, until the refugees were forbidden to take with them any funds whatsoever and those who departed had less money because of years of economic harassment. Then the family character of the refugee movement and its occupational structure added to the difficulties of admission and absorption. Large numbers of people with commercial or free professions could not easily find employment in the prospective countries of immigration. The few refugees admitted as immigrants not infrequently had to switch over to other, mostly manual, work. For many refugees the abandonment of their occupation or profession and the changeover to physical work meant extreme hardship or even degradation. Only in Palestine was labor, and especially farming, socially favored, as part of the Zionist pioneer effort.

The Nansen Office, established in the early 1920s, when millions fled revolutionary Russia without any travel documents, continued to function up to the end of 1938 and assisted "stateless" Jewish refugees from Germany by issuing them the so-called "Nansen passports," which established their identity and enabled them to travel. Among the German-Jewish refugees (after 1933) only those from the territory of the Saar took advantage of its assistance. For the rest a special agency was created by the Assembly of the League of Nations, in October 1933, called the High Commissioner for Refugees (Jewish and Other) coming from Germany (see below). The intergovernmental *Evian Conference convened by President Roosevelt in July 1938, in which 32 governments and representatives of 39 private organizations, among them 21 Jewish bodies, participated, set up a permanent Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees with headquarters in London. In February 1939 it merged with the office of the High Commissioner for German Refugees, but it hardly fulfilled the aims for which it was established. Apart from a few unsuccessful attempts at negotiations with the German authorities, very little was done before and during the war to help the refugees and deportees. The failure was due to the general atmosphere of helplessness during those years and a lack of real understanding for the tragedy of the refugees. Even later, when the German policy of the total extermination of European Jewry was known all over the world, the *Bermuda Conference of Great Britain and the U.S. in April 1943 proved completely fruitless. Its task was to manage a domestic problem, not to solve a refugee problem. Only in January 1944, an election year, after facing enormous pressure from his Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. did President Roosevelt establish the War Refugee Board and open a temporary asylum in the United States.

A great deal more was accomplished by private, especially Jewish, relief agencies, which tried to mobilize public opinion, find countries willing to admit refugees, and rescue victims in the occupied territories. But even the accomplishments of bodies like the *Jewish Agency for Palestine, the American Jewish *Joint Distribution Committee, the *World Jewish Congress, and the Rescue Committee (Va'ad Haẓẓalah) of Orthodox Jewry were also pitifully small compared with the proportions of the disaster. In 1944, under considerable pressure of public opinion, the U.S. government established a special agency, the *War Refugee Board, which succeeded in saving small groups of Jews from German-occupied countries. The only intergovernmental body whose activities proved of some significance was the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (*unrra), set up by 44 Allied countries in November 1943. unrra took care of the *Displaced Persons after the end of the war in the countries of their temporary residence as well as aiding them to return to their countries of origin. However, all attempts to induce unrra to extend the scope of its activities to include resettlement of non-repatriable Displaced Persons – as, e.g., the overwhelming majority of the Jews among them who refused to go back to Poland, the U.S.S.R., Hungary, etc. – failed. In this field much more was done in the following years by the International Refugee Organization (iro), established in 1946 (see below).

[Shalom Adler-Rudel /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]

The Refugee Movement and its Proportions

An exact evaluation of the size of the Jewish refugee movement in the Nazi period and immediately after World War ii presents considerable difficulties due to a lack of reliable statistics, especially during the last years of the war. An additional difficulty is how to define who is a refugee. Two attempts to produce accurate statistics were made at the end of 1943, one by the Institute of Jewish Affairs of the World Jewish Congress in New York and the other by the International Labor Organization (ilo). The Institute estimated the number of Jewish refugees at 2,391,000, the number of people deported from one country to another at 665,000, and those displaced within the same country at 2,205,000. These figures totaled over 5,000,000 – more than half of European Jewry. The ilo in a study of the war period proper estimated the number of Jewish war refugees at 2,200,000 and the number of deportees outside their country at 1,080,000, while Displaced Persons within their own country were estimated at 1,000,000. The total of this study was 4,150,000 and including Jewish refugees before 1939, the estimate comes to about 4,500,000. A deduction from the overall number of refugees of persons who found temporary admission in the interior of the U.S.S.R. during the war brings the figure to more than 800,000 distributed as seen in Table 1: Countries of Reception for Jewish Refugees 1933–1943. (For emigration of Jews from Germany in the period April 1933 to May 1939, including areas occupied by Germany by May 1939, see Table 2.)

Compared with the overall figure of 5,000,000 Jewish refugees and deportees in this period, those admitted to different countries (most of whom survived), came to no more than one-sixth. The number was everywhere severely limited; only the U.S., Palestine, and to a certain degree England admitted larger numbers than the others. The overall figures of refugees and deportees rose considerably in the remaining years of the war, as the Hungarian Jews were included in deportation in 1944 and the remnants of Jews in several countries of occupied Europe were rounded up and transported to other areas. The grand total may therefore have reached 7,000,000 and perhaps even more, but the great majority of them perished, some during the process of deportation itself (German official sources estimated that 30% of those deported died on the way), and the others in ghettos and in labor and extermination camps. No more than one-fourth survived the war period.

As to the definition of a refugee, two attempts deserve mention. In 1936 the Institute of International Law defined refugees as persons who have left or been forced to leave their country for political reasons, who have been deprived of its diplomatic protection, and who have not acquired the nationality or diplomatic protection of any other state (Summaire de l'Institut du Droit International, vol. 1 (1936), 294). The second definition, in 1951, went much further, considering as a refugee any person forced to leave his place of residence for reasons independent of his will (The Refugee in the Post-War World. Preliminary Report of a Survey of the Refugee Problem. Published by the United Nations, Geneva, 1951. Part One, Chapter One. The Concept of "Refugee," pp. 3ff.). From the point of view of Jewish experiences, both definitions are unsatisfactory. The first neglects to take into consideration persons displaced within their own country whose number

CountryNumber admitted (thousands)Percent
United States19023.5
Other European countries708.8
Other Latin American countries202.4
South Africa81.0
Other countries404.9
Country of ReceptionNo. of German immigrants
1 Estimated figures.
United States63,000
Great Britain40,000
South Africa5,500
Other European countries25,000
Other South American countries20,000
Far Eastern countries15,000

grew into the millions during the years of mass deportations, whereas the second definition is too broad because it includes victims of natural catastrophes, and only man-made events should be taken into consideration. A general definition, based mainly but not exclusively on Jewish experience in the 1930s and 1940s, would consider as refugees persons forced to leave their places of residence because of political or other man-made reasons, independent of their will or their individual character, mostly because of their race, religion, nationality, or political convictions.

[Aryeh Tartakower /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]

International Refugee Organization (iro)

The iro was created by the General Assembly of the United Nations on Feb. 12, 1946, as a specialized agency for refugees and stateless persons to assist in the repatriation, protection, and resettlement of refugees and Displaced Persons after World War ii. A special Committee on Refugees and Displaced Persons was then set up to work out a draft constitution for a nonpermanent organization to replace existing refugee organizations (such as unrra and the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees (igcr)). The Economic and Social Council ratified the draft constitution on Sept. 30, 1946, and the General Assembly gave its final approval on December 15 that year. The iro constitution determined the criterion for "eligibility" of a refugee or Displaced Person. The signatures of 15 member states who would contribute 75% of the operational budget were required before the organization could function effectively. By Dec. 31, 1946, eight governments had signed the constitution, thereby making it possible to establish a preparatory commission for the iro (pciro) which would immediately assume certain functions and become fully operative. On June 30, 1947, this commission went into effect and the responsibilities of unrra and igcr were transferred to it; but the organization did not formally come into existence until Aug. 20, 1948, when the 15th member ratified the constitution. When the pciro began operations there were over 1,000,000 refugees, 20% of whom were Jews, in the liberated countries of Europe. At the peak of its operations in 1948, the iro was working in about 30 countries and employed an international staff of 2,800. Between 1947 and 1951, it maintained about 1,500,000 refugees, repatriated 75,000, and resettled 1,040,000. These results were achieved at a cost of $430,000,000 which was contributed by 18 countries. About 20 countries offered to resettle refugees. Three of these countries accepted nearly two-thirds of all the refugees for resettlement: the United States, 330,000; Australia, 182,000; Israel, 132,000. The iro was helped by many governments and 25 voluntary societies which included six Jewish organizations, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (jdc), the Jewish Agency for Palestine, *United hias Service, *ort, *oze, and the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad.

The government of Israel in cooperation with the jdc and the Jewish Agency for Palestine undertook final responsibility for the resettlement and care of 8,700 hard-core cases toward which the iro provided assistance amounting to $6,500,000. It contributed over $10,000,000 for transportation costs toward resettling refugees in Israel. The iro succeeded the igcr as trustee for international reparations (amounting to $25,000,000) for the resettlement of Jewish refugees. The iro was dissolved in February 1952 when some of its functions were taken over by governments and voluntary agencies; others were handed over to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and to the Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe.

[Shalom Adler-Rudel]


A. Tartakower and K.R. Grossmann, Jewish Refugee (1944); J.H. Simpson, The Refugee Problem (1939); Z. Warhaftig, Uprooted: Jewish Refugees and Displaced Persons After Liberation (1946); M. Wischnitzer, To Dwell in Safety (1948); J. Vernant, The Refugee in the Post-War World (1951); E.M. Kulischer, The Displacement of Population in Europe (1943); E. Dekel, Bi-Netivei ha-"Berihah," 2 vols. (1958); Bauer, in: Yalkut Moreshet, 2, no. 4 (1965), 93–117; P. Frings, Das internationale Fluechtlingsproblem 19191950 (1952). international refugee organization (iro): L.W. Holborn, International Refugee Organization (1956), incl. bibl. high commissioner for refugees from germany: A.D. Morse, While Six Million Died (1968), index; J.G. Macdonald, Letter of Resignation (1935); J.H. Simpson, Refugee Problem (1939), 214–18. add. bibliography: D. Wyman, Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis 19381941 (1968), idem, The Abandonment of the Jews (1985); M. Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century (1985).


views updated May 21 2018


Refugees have always existed, but the establishment of the international community's responsibility to provide protection to and solutions for refugees only dates back to the League of Nations. After the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the Russian Revolution of 1917, refugees became, for the first time in modern history, an issue for the world community. In 1921 the League of Nations created the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, headed by Fridtjof Nansen. He established the "Nansen passport," which provided refugees with an official identity and recognizable status, and enabled them to start afresh. Nansen's mandate was subsequently extended to other groups of refugees, including the Armenians in 1924, and Assyrian, Assyro-Chaldean, and Turkish refugees in 1928. Nansen's successor, the American James McDonald, resigned late in 1935: He believed that a large-scale human tragedy was unfolding in Nazi Germany, one that the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees was ill-equipped to stop because the international community remained unwilling to help fleeing Jews. Despite international conferences (in Evian, Switzerland, in 1938 and Bermuda in 1943) and the creation of an Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees to address the growing problem, only limited numbers of Jews were saved from the Holocaust. The fact of thirty million persons uprooted by war and the world community's comprehension of the full scale of Nazi atrocities did, however, lead to the development of institutions with more authority to deal with the plight of refugees (Kushner and Knox, 1999).

The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), founded in 1943 to provide relief to areas liberated from Axis powers, returned some seven million displaced persons to their countries of origin and provided camps for approximately one million refugees unwilling to be repatriated. UNRRA was replaced by the International Refugee Organization (IRO) in 1946. Conceived as a temporary agency, the IRO attempted to find permanent solutions for the 1.5 million refugees remaining on the European continent, but was quickly hampered by the cold war, unable to operate in the Soviet-occupied zone in Germany. IRO terminated its work in 1952 and was succeeded by another temporary organization to aid the remaining refugees in Europe, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR was created in January 1951 and has remained in existence ever since, with its mandate renewed every five years.

Evolution of the Definition of Refugee

In the period between World War I and World War II the League of Nations defined refugees according to group affiliation, specifically in relation to their country of origin. For instance, the definition of a Russian refugee adopted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in May 1926 included "any person of Russian origin who does not enjoy, or who no longer enjoys the protection of the government of the Soviet Union and who has not acquired another nationality" (Kushner and Knox, 1999). This group definition inspired much dissension over which refugee groups should be assisted. Germany opposed the notion of aid to Jews and dissidents fleeing the Third Reich and deliberately hindered responses to their exodus in the 1930s. After World War II pressure for a universal definition of refugee gathered momentum, leading to the definition included in the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the so-called Refugee Convention), which emphasized the causes of flight. The Refugee Convention, still the standard benchmark for establishing refugee status, defines a refugee as "a person who, . . . owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country" (Article 1A[2]). The defining event is one's physical presence in a foreign land in order to secure protection from persecution in another country.

The Refugee Convention was modified by the 1967 Bellagio Protocol that removed the limitations that restricted the scope of the refugees in time and geography (in Europe who had fled as a result of events occurring before 1951). The Refugee Convention delineates the content and conditions of refugee rights that must be respected by a host state. The cornerstone of refugee protection is the principle of "nonrefoulement," stating that "no Contracting State shall expel or return ('refouler') a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." This principle applies to all refugees, whether or not they have been recognized as such by a host state, and, indeed, many historians have concluded that Article 33 has achieved the status of customary international law in that it is a reflection of state practice and recognized by states as legally binding.

Challenges to the Definition of Refugee

The Refugee Convention has not gone unchallenged since its adoption. First, it has often been regarded as irrelevant. For example, falling outside the mandate of the UNHCR are "internally displaced persons" (IDPs), people who flee for the same reasons as refugees, but do not cross an international border. By not actually leaving their country of origin and therefore remaining at the mercy of their persecutors, IDPs are generally more vulnerable than refugees outside their homelands who are the beneficiaries of international protection and assistance. The principle of territorial sovereignty prevents "humanitarian interventions" to assist and protect them.

Second, the word persecution is not a precise legal term and many countries have tried to evade their international obligations by narrowly interpreting the definition of refugee. It should be noted that the Refugee Convention does not prescribe any obligation with respect to the means for determining refugee status. In practical terms a state that refuses to determine the status of refugees will be in breach of its obligations to protect refugees under international agreements concerning refugees, but it remains free to decide, on a discretionary basis, how it will fulfill its substantive obligations (although international human rights law also limits a state's freedom of action in certain areas; see Goodwin-Gill, 1989). This has resulted, on the one hand, in some European states excluding individuals who flee situations of generalized violence and civil war, such as in Sri Lanka, or persecution by nonstate actors, such as guerrilla groups in Colombia, or situations of state breakdown, such as in Somalia or Afghanistan.

During the 1990s, Germany, for example, refused to recognize as refugees the almost 400,000 Bosnians living there, in spite of their clear need for protection, as they were deemed to be victims of civil war, not of persecution per se. The UNHCR did not officially protest, as Germany was providing the Bosnians with a measure of protection. At the same time France refused to recognize as refugees the numerous Algerians who fled the civil war in their homeland, declaring that persecution meant victims of government-sponsored violence. The Algerians were, in fact, mainly victims of violence committed by Islamist fundamentalists against whom the government was fighting. French authorities very often provided them with no protection whatsoever, save not returning them to Algeria.

On the other hand, some countries, such as Canada, have recognized this new climate and suggested a teleological interpretation of the refugee definition, by focusing on not only individualized persecution by the infrastructure of state authorities, but also situations of generalized violence and persecution by nonstate actors. As such, they follow the lead of two important regional legal instruments that updated the international definition of refugee by expressly extending it to victims of generalized conflict and violence, when the state is unwilling or unable to protect them: the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (the so-called OAU Convention) and the 1984 Latin American Cartegena Declaration on Refugees (the socalled Cartagena Declaration). The OAU Convention notes that "the term refugee shall also apply to every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality." The Cartegena Declaration includes "persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order."

Third, in spite of its numbers, the persecution of women has often been viewed as falling outside the purview of international protection. The UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations agree that 80 percent of refugees and displaced persons are women and children, many of whom have experienced rape and sexual violence in their countries of origin before fleeing. In spite of the high levels of abuse, persecution, and vulnerability for women and children, according to Nahla more than 75 percent of the refugees seeking asylum in industrialized countries are men. Indeed until recently, a woman's ability to seek protection from her own state was tenuous. One writer has characterized the use of violence against women in developing states as a "global holocaust," a situation tantamount to "the systematic genocide of Third World women" (Wali, 1995, p. 339). In international criminal case law and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), systematic rape gained the status of a war crime and crime against humanity. This should help justify refugee status for women victims of violence, as Canada has already recognized (Immigration and Refugee Board, 1993).

The debate surrounding the complexity of determining refugee status has to be understood in light of the overall objective of all modern-day industrialized states to reduce the number of asylum claims to be processed by any refugee determination system. Several mechanisms aimed at better controlling and preventing migratory flows now coalesce to achieve a clear cumulative effect. Either they aim at the return as soon as possible of the maximum number of persons who have entered the territory and made a claim of asylum (maximization of removal mechanisms, accelerated procedures in the refugee status determination system, alternative national protection regimes of more limited duration and scope than that of the Refugee Convention, reduction of lawyers' assistance, suppression of appeal procedures, safe third-country agreements, readmission and asylum-sharing agreements, etc.), or they attempt to prevent asylum-seekers from even reaching a state's borders (visa requirements, reinforced border controls, carrier sanctions, training of carrier and airport personnel, short-stop operations, police cooperation, readmission agreements, immigration intelligence gathering, etc.).

A concrete example of this phenomenon is the Bosnian refugee crisis brought on by that country's civil war and Germany's protection of the Bosnians residing there through the establishment of an alternate protection regime. The 1995 Bosnia peace plan turned the spotlight on the Bosnians living in Germany in identifying them as geduldet ("tolerated" foreigners) allowed to remain in Germany at least until March 1996. The German government granted these Bosnians only temporary protection status and expressly disallowed their application for refugee status: The purpose of this policy decision was for Germany to avoid the restrictions of any international obligations and secure the freedom to treat the Bosnians as it saw fit. This precarious status, in turn, facilitates their return to Bosnia as soon as materially possible and spares Germany the somewhat permanent nature of refugee status generally associated with the Refugee Convention. It results in unequal levels of protection: Several years after fleeing Bosnia, on the expiration of their temporary protected status (decided by the host country's authorities at will), it will be difficult for individuals to provide evidence of their well-founded fear of persecution were they to return, and to demonstrate that they should be awarded refugee status. Most Bosnians would therefore be returned quickly (forcibly if necessary), and this was the ultimate objective of German policy.

Refugees are to be protected even if they have committed certain crimes in their country of origin. However, some crimes are so horrendous that they justify the exclusion of the perpetrators from the benefits of refugee status, as stated in Article 1F(a) of the Refugee Convention: genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. In this sense the perpetrators are considered "undeserving of refugee protection" (Lisbon Expert Roundtable, 2001, p. 1). Other reasons for exclusion clauses include the need to ensure that fugitives from justice do not avoid prosecution by resorting to the protection provided by the Refugee Convention, and to protect the host community from serious criminals. The purpose of exclusion clauses is therefore to deny refugee protection to certain individuals, while leaving law enforcement to other legal processes. The tension between the need to avoid impunity and the need for protection has been sometimes questioned: The refugee crisis following the Rwandan genocide dramatically illustrated the international community's lack of preparedness in establishing procedures to deal with refugees who had committed international crimes in their country and later taken control of refugee camps abroad through intimidation and access to international assistance.

Conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the late 1990s sparked another exodus of civilians. Failure to implement exclusion again compromised the civilian nature of refugee camps, put refugees at risk, and fostered impunity. The crisis in West Africa confirmed the findings from Rwanda and revealed tensions between the rights of refugees and security of countries at war. It was clear, in all these situations, that if the refugees were to be protected effectively in instances of mass influx, exclusion of war criminals and perpretrators of massive human rights violations or crimes against humanity would have to be approached in a consistent manner. At the same time, at the other end of the spectrum, the rights of refugees in other parts of the world were also being threatened by the way in which exclusion was applied within individualized refugee determination procedures. In those contexts an overly broad interpretation of exclusion constituted a convenient "one-size fits-all" approach to unwanted applications.

An urgent need exists for benchmarks to steer decision makers between these two extremes, as well as a growing recognition of the need to interpret Article 1F(a) within the context of different, rapidly evolving sources of international criminal law (the Rome Statute, the statutes of the two ad hoc international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and other instruments of international humanitarian law), refugee law, and human rights law. Specific avenues and complementary security strategies for refugees, from camp size and location to military intervention, must be taken into account.

The search for solutions, such as excluding some people from refugee camps, is a clear sign of the overwhelming complexity of the modern world. Given the new emphasis placed on civilian populations as instruments in warfare and the flow of displaced persons generated by contemporary conflicts, the definition of refugee within the Refugee Convention remains continuously challenged. The experience in the Great Lakesregion of Central Africa (Burundi, Congo, Uganda, Rwanda) also raised a host of questions related to the role of humanitarian actors in complex emergencies, in particular those having to do with the relationship between humanitarian action and political/security interests. For example, can humanitarian action increase insecurity? How do humanitarian actors reconcile the different parts of their mandate that may come into conflict?

Controversial Role of the UNHCR during the Rwanda Genocide

The mass movements of population linked to widespread human rights abuse are not a new phenomenon in the Great Lakes region, but they have reached unprecedented proportions since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which claimed as many as one million lives. In its aftermath two million Rwandese fled their country for Zaire, Tanzania, and Burundi, and set up refugee camps. These, however, were the scene of widespread violence, which provoked fear and instability in host countries and compromised humanitarian assistance efforts. In the worst moments of the Rwandan genocide, thousands of refugees were slaughtered, settlements were destroyed, and refugees were again compelled to flee, into the Zairian forests or toward Rwanda. The presence in the refugee camps of soldiers who had actively participated in the genocide, and who were in a position of authority over the population, was one of the main obstacles preventing the safe and voluntary return of refugees to Rwanda. Indeed, those who wished to return home were often threatened by camp leaders and pressured into changing their minds.

Faced with this terrible situation, the UNHCR organized, in 1996, forced repatriations and the dismantling of camp facilities. A key issue was the applicability of the principle of nonrefoulement: Refugees were frequently sent back to their country of origin against their will and were, for a number of reasons, unable to actually make a decision whether to return or not. Furthermore, there were no reliable mechanisms to ensure that human rights were protected in the event of a mass return. The role played by the UNHCR has come under great criticism by humanitarian organizations that contend it was not appropriate for a protection agency to provide a political solution to the crisis. Others still believe that it was the best course of action, given the exceedingly complex and insecure situation and the international community's overall lack of support.

SEE ALSO Humanitarian Law; War Crimes


Crépeau, François (1998). "International Cooperation on Interdiction of Asylum Seekers: A Global Perspective." In Interdicting Refugees, ed. Canadian Council for Refugees. Montreal: Canadian Council for Refugees. May 1998. pp. 7-20.

Goodwin-Gill, G. S (1989). "International Law and Human Rights: Trends Concerning International Migrants and Refugees." International Migration Review 23:526–546.

Helton, Arthur C. (1996). "The Legal Dimensions of Preventing Forced Migration." In Cooperation and Conflict in the Former Soviet Union: Implications for Migration, ed. J. R. Azrael, E. A. Payin, K. F. McCarthy, and G. Vernez. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corporation.

Immigration and Refugee Board (1993). Women Refugee Claimants Fearing Gender-Related Persecution. Guidelines Issued by the Chairperson Pursuant to Section 65(3) of the Immigration Act. Ottawa, Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board.

Immigration and Refugee Board (1996). Civilian Non-Combatants Fearing Persecution in Civil War Situations. Guidelines Issued by the Chairperson Pursuant to Section 65(3) of the Immigration Act. Ottawa, Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board.

Kushner, Tony, and Katharine Knox (1999). Refugees in an Age of Genocide: Global, National and Local Perspectives during the Twentieth Century. London: F. Cass.

Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (2002). Refugees, Rebels and The Quest for Justice. New York: The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

Lisbon Expert Roundtable (2001). Exclusion from Refugee Status. Global Consultations on International Protection. UN Document EC/GC/01/2Track/130.

Médecins du Monde (1999). "A Case by Case Study Analysis of Recent Crises Assessing 20 Years of Humanitarian Action: Iraq, Somalia, the Former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Burundi, the Former Zaire, Chechnya and Kosovo." In Proceedings of Protecting People in Times of War International Conference. Paris: Arche de la Défense

Mills, Kurt (2003). "Refugee Return from Zaire to Rwanda: The Role of UNHCR." In Analyzing and Evaluating Intervention in Zaire, 1996–97, ed. Howard Adelman. Lawrencevill, N.J.: Africa World Press/The Red Sea Press.

Nahla, Valji (2001). "Women and the 1951 Refugee Convention: 50 Years of Seeking Visibility." Available from

Wali, Sima (1995). "Women in Conditions of War and Peace." In From Basic Needs to Basic Rights: Women's Claim to Human Rights, ed. M. Schuler. Washington, D.C.: Women, Law and Development International.

François Crépeau
Delphine Nakache


views updated May 21 2018


The American Civil War, during which large sections of the nation became literal battlegrounds for the armies of the North and South, resulted in a massive displacement of citizenry that remains a singular event in U.S. history. The states whose populations endured the greatest upheaval were those in the secessionist South, followed by border states whose citizens were divided in their sympathies, such as Missouri and Tennessee. The refugees largely fell into three groups: white Southerners who fled their homes as Union troops advanced; white Southern refugees driven from their homes by secessionists; and slaves. Of the third category, some were captured as contraband by victorious Union troops, while other blacks in bondage seized the opportunity presented by the chaos of war and their suddenly absentee owners, and escaped to the North and freedom—where many then joined the Union Army and the fight to vanquish the Confederacy. There were also a number of Native Americans uprooted by the war, some of whom chose to fight for the Union or Confederate cause.

White Southerners

Few reliable figures exist that provide a concrete total for the number of Americans displaced by war between 1861 and 1865. Some of the wealthiest Southern families were able to book passage on vessels bound for Europe, Honduras, and Brazil, but many other members of the Confederate elite remained at home, where the situation was perilous. The wife of Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee was part of the first wave of internal refugees in May 1861, when she fled her home in Arlington, Virginia, to which she was never able to return. Another woman, Virginia Clay-Clopton, despite being married to a prominent politician and being close to the family of Confederate States of America (CSA) president Jefferson Davis, was forced to spend most of the war years in transit. She stayed in hotels or with members of her extended family, and paid Confederate soldiers to serve as escorts for her and her sister on routes that were dangerous for unaccompanied women, or indeed for any noncombatant.

Born in North Carolina, Clay-Clopton settled in Huntsville, Alabama, after her 1843 marriage to Clement Claiborne Clay, and lived part of the year in Washington after her husband was elected to the U.S. Senate in the 1850s. She was in her mid-thirties when war broke out, and spent four years staying with various friends and family members in the South, often accompanied only by her sister; the two passed the time sewing and knitting garments for their husbands, because warm clothing was at a premium due to wartime shortages. Clay-Clopton initially headed to Richmond, the Confederate capital, like many residents of Southern states who had been forced to flee their homes at the war's onset. In 1860 Richmond's population was 40,000, but it swelled to 100,000 during the war (Gallagher 2001, p. 95). Overcrowded conditions bred disease, and epidemics of smallpox and scarlet fever periodically swept though the city, forcing those who had the means, such as Clay-Clopton, to flee once again.

In her 1905 memoir, A Belle of the Fifties, Clay-Clopton recalled making her way to Georgia by train with her sister. The two "rode from Stevenson to Chattanooga on the freight train, the baggage-cars on the passenger-train being unable to receive a single trunk. Arriving at Chattanooga, we would have been forced to go to the small-pox hotel or remain in the streets but for the gallantry of an acquaintance of ours, an army officer of Washington memory, who gave up his room to us" (p. 192). Clay-Clopton later returned to Richmond, but conditions there were now abysmal:

Patients in the hospitals suffered, even for necessary medicines. Sugar was sold at fifty Confederate dollars a pound. Vegetables and small fruits were exceedingly scarce. My visits to the hospital wards were by no means so constant as those of many of my friends, yet I remember one poor little Arkansas boy in whom I became interested, and went frequently to see, wending my way to his cot through endless wards, where an army of sick men lay, minus an arm, or leg, or with bandaged heads that told of fearful encounters. The drip-drip of the water upon their wounds to prevent the development of a greater evil is one of the most horrible remembrances I carry of those days. (p. 201)

Pro-Union Refugees

Life during wartime presented even greater perils for Union sympathizers caught behind enemy lines. A young woman named Cora Mitchel was the daughter of a wealthy Connecticut cotton merchant who had, with other Northern entrepreneurs, helped to make the city of Apalachicola, Florida, the third busiest port on the Gulf of Mexico, after New Orleans and Mobile. The Apalachicola River had two tributaries, the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers, each of which went deep into Georgia almost to the border of South Carolina. In the years before the war, New England traders with ties to Europe made Apalachicola into an important way station for cotton shipments between the plantations and lucrative foreign markets.

At the outbreak of war, Mitchel and her brother first went to Columbus, Georgia, where her married sister was living, and attended school there. Her brother was soon conscripted by force into the Confederate Army—despite the fact that he was underage—and became ill from one of the fevers that regularly swept through Army camps on both sides due to poor sanitary conditions. When he returned home on leave, Mitchel's father fled north with him. The fact that her brother was a deserter became well known in Apalachicola, and Mitch-el's mother, Sophia, began to fear for her safety as well as that of her younger children. Sophia Mitchel then decided to travel to Columbus to retrieve Cora, in preparation for the family's final flight north.

The 300-mile trip up the Chattahoochee River the Mitchels planned to make was a perilous one, as part of the waterway had been blockaded by Confederate forces. On the journey back to Apalachicola, Mitchel and her mother had to pick up CSA passports, recently required for travel to Gulf Coast ports in order to prevent further Confederate army desertions. "Immediately on our arrival at Fort Gaines mother went to the arsenal for the passport," Mitchel wrote. "She was met by a very agreeable young adjutant, who said he had not the power to give us one, but he was expecting the major back at any moment and he would give it." Over the next two days, Sophia Mitchel repeated the four-mile round-trip walk, with no success. On the fourth day, Cora asked her mother if she might try instead; when she returned, she had the travel documents in hand. "My youth probably appealed to the young man, and he could not help feeling that I ought not to be detained," she wrote in her memoir. "We did not know it then, but found out afterwards that he had orders to detain us till the major came, as we were not to be allowed to go on" (1916, pp. 18–19).

Because of the blockade, part of Mitchel's journey had to be made through the bayou, which

had been widened and deepened by the force of the strong current, but as the stream carried off the banks the trees would fall in, making it much more dangerous, and the utmost care and skill were necessary to bring us through in safety. Mother and I lay in the bottom of the boat with strict orders not to move, while the little boat was tossed about by the swift current. If we had hit one of the projecting trees, we would have sunk immediately. (1916, pp. 20–21)

At night, after getting back on the river itself, they went ashore to rest. Mitchel remembered feeling "excited by the novelty and beauty of the scene":

The moon was full, and though just before Christmas, the weather was mild. The air was heavy with the scents of the forest behind us, from which could be heard, from time to time, the calls of owls, panthers and wildcats. We saw none, but there was always the expectation that one would appear. We roasted peanuts in the coals and toasted bacon and corn pones. These were our only food during the entire journey. The river water, muddy though it was, satisfied our thirst. Supplies of all kinds had long been very scarce, and we had learned to be very thankful for little, and that of the simplest. (1916, p. 22)

At Apalachicola, Mitchel and her mother gathered the remaining children and managed to get aboard a ship bound for Key West, at the tip of Florida—no easy feat. There, "another problem presented itself," Mitchel wrote. "The town was full of refugees. The one hotel was crowded to its fullest capacity, and no boat from New Orleans [was] in sight" because of a yellow fever outbreak in Key West (1916, p. 36). Finally, one appeared, and Mitchel's mother was able to convince the captain to let her family of six have the only available stateroom, which had no natural light and flooded every morning when the decks were washed. "We were only one group among many forlorn refugees. We were shabby and neglected. Part of the time we were seasick, and always [we were] uncomfortable in our cramped quarters," she wrote, but they arrived safely in New York and then headed to Rhode Island, where they reunited with her father and brother (1916, p. 41).

A Lutheran Pastor in Tennessee

Border states such as Kentucky and Tennessee, where loyalties were divided, also produced a torrent of refugees. It was in the towns and villages of these states that the divisiveness of the war was felt most immediately, as once-cordial neighbors turned bitter toward one another. Hermann Bokum, a German immigrant who had settled in the Cumberland Mountains region as a pastor, provided one account of the war in his 1863 book, The Testimony of a Refugee from East Tennessee. He described how local men eager to aid Confederate forces joined regiments that were beginning to form at the war's onset. Union loyalists in the area, however, set fire to some of the bridges that these regiments would need to pass over to reach Virginia; in reprisal, state officials sympathetic to the Confederate cause meted out harsh punishments to ordinary civilians. "A man named Haun had been taken to prison, because he had taken part in the burning of the bridges," Bokum recounted. "The names of the persons who tried him have never been made public….Others beside him were hung, still others were shot down or otherwise murdered" (p. 8).

Bokum had traveled to Washington to plead the case of Union sympathizers in Tennessee, but when he returned home he was troubled by rumors his friends reported back to him—that he, too, might be hanged without a trial. In June 1861 Tennessee became the last of the border states to secede from the Union, and a conscription law then went into effect. Bokum failed to report to the mustering site, after which he received word that a party of five were heading to his home to arrest him:

I had made up my mind to go to prison. I could not bear the thought of leaving the atmosphere where my wife and my children were breathing, but my wife prevailed on me to go to our friends in the North. Her last words were: "Fear not for me, I trust in God"; I begged her to kiss our children, and I turned into the mountains. Never I trust, shall I cease to be thankful for the gracious manner in which I was shielded from harm in that perilous journey. Six months later my wife and my children arrived in Cincinnati, having crossed the Cumberland Mountains in the rear of the two contending armies, and having made more than 300 miles in an open buggy." (1863, p. 10)

They eventually relocated to Philadelphia, where Bokum became chaplain at Turner's Lane Hospital.

An Ozark Ballad's Tale

There were also significant numbers of men who joined the Union Army after fleeing home states that had seceded. One of them was Daniel Martin, an Arkansas man whose story survives in a well-known Ozark Mountains folk song, "The Battle of Elkhorn Tavern," which cultural historians believe Martin likely wrote himself and passed on to his descendants. A farmer who was probably in his early twenties when the war broke out, Martin left the Confederate state to join the pro-Union Missouri Infantry volunteers at Rolla, Missouri. The ballad, which recounts Martin's two years of service, begins with the stanza, "My name is Daniel Martin, I was born in Arkansas / I fled from those bad rebels who fear not God nor law / I left my aged parents. I left my loving wife / I was forced to go to Rolla to try and save my life." The song goes on to recount the events of the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern, as well as those of the March 1862 Battle of Pea Ridge, which finally gave the Union side firm control of Missouri. The lyrics conclude with the observation, "And if ever I get through this war you may call me roasted done / I'll never go to fight again for money, love or fun."

The Plight of Slaves

Untold numbers of blacks were caught up in the Civil War, and while many were too fearful of reprisals to strike out on their own once chaos descended on the South, others fled north to freedom. Many sought shelter and protection at Union Army camps, and the federal government found itself struggling to care for thousands of displaced persons who had neither homes nor income to provide for their families. When Union forces captured the strategic North Carolina city of New Bern in March 1862, General Ambrose Burnside appointed a superintendent of the poor to oversee relief efforts. Fifteen months later, government officials sent to investigate conditions in the area filed a report stating that "7,500 colored persons and 1,800 white persons received relief" through the efforts of the superintendent, but that

the average proportion dealt out in each of the staple articles of food—as flour, beef, bacon, bread, &c.—was about as one for each colored person relieved to sixteen for each white person to whom such relief was granted. At the time this occurred work was offered to both blacks and whites; to the whites at the rate of $12 a month, and to the blacks at the rate of $8 a month. (Owen, McKaye, and Howe 1863, n.p.)

A horrific incident at Camp Nelson, a Union Army camp in Kentucky, captured the plight of former slaves in newly mustered black regiments after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863 and separate army units for black soldiers were created. The wives and children of these former slaves, having no place else to go, came with them to Camp Nelson and other sites, despite vehement local opposition. Camp Nelson's commanding officer, Brigadier General Speed S. Fry, referred to the problem as "the [Expletive] Woman Question," and feared that food rations would run out, diseases would kill soldiers before they even got to battle, and the presence of families nearby would lead to a quick breakdown of military discipline (Wilson 2002, p. 187). After several attempts to get rid of them, on November 23, 1864, Fry succeeded in expelling 400 women and children. They had nowhere to go, almost no possessions, and were driven out into cold weather. The African American soldier Joseph Miller recounted the details of that day: "[M]orning was bitter cold. It was freezing hard. I was certain it would kill my sick child to take him out in the cold. I told the man in charge that it would be the death of my boy. I told him my wife and children had no place to go and I told him that I was a soldier of the United States. He told me that it did not make any difference" (quoted in Wilson 2002, p. 187). Miller's family was ejected, and when he finally found them they were "shivering with cold and famished with hunger. They had not received a morsel of food during the whole day" (p. 187), and his child was indeed among the scores of casualties that resulted from Fry's decision.

The Camp Nelson incident was widely reported in the Northern papers and stirred outrage. To make amends for the atrocity, federal officials established formal refugee housing at the camp, called the Home for Colored Refugees. Nearly a hundred duplex cottages housed families, and there was also a school, mess hall, and hospital. The site was taken over after the war ended in 1865 by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, a federal agency usually referred to in shortened form as the Freedmen's Bureau. A sympathetic West Point graduate, civil rights supporter, and Union general named Oliver O. Howard (1830-1909) was installed as director of the Freedmen's Bureau. Howard's field agents, however, were notoriously corrupt in their duties, which included monitoring the newly defeated Southern areas for incidents of abuse that appeared to be continuations of bondage, and overseeing the creation of a free labor market.

Once freed from slavery, many of the South's blacks became refugees, and many were desperate for any kind of work, even if it entailed returning to plantations. The Preliminary Report of the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission included the account of one young Confederate sympathizer, Frederick A. Eustis, who had returned home to take over the family's South Carolina plantation. He was met by former slaves eager to work for wages:

I never knew during forty years of plantation life so little sickness. Formerly every man had a fever of some kind, and now the veriest old cripple, who did nothing under secesh [Confederate] rule, will row a boat three nights in succession to Edisto, or will pick up the corn about the corn-house. There are twenty people whom I know were considered worn out and too old to work under the slave system, who are now working cotton, as well as their two acres of provisions; and their crops look very well. (Owen, McKaye, and Howe 1863, n.p.)


"The Battle of Elkhorn Tavern." Available from

Bokum, Hermann. The Testimony of a Refugee from East Tennessee. Philadelphia, 1863.

Clay-Clopton, Virginia. A Belle of the Fifties: Memoirs of Mrs. Clay, of Alabama, Covering Social and Political Life in Washington and the South, 1853-66. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1905.

Gallagher, Gary W. The American Civil War: The War in the East 1861–May 1863. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2001.

Massey, Mary Elizabeth. Refugee Life in the Confederacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964. Reprint, 2001.

Mitchel, Cora. Reminiscences of the Civil War. Providence, RI: Snow & Farnham, 1916.

Owen, Robert Dale, James McKaye, and Samuel. G. Howe. Preliminary Report of the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission to the Secretary of War. New York: 1863.

Wilson, Keith P. Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers during the Civil War. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2002.

Carol Brennan


views updated May 18 2018



Refugees are a subset of immigrants often termed political migrants. They are pushed out of their homelands, typically by war or government persecution due to religion, ethnicity, or political activism. For example, Albert Einstein (1879-1955), often considered the most influential scientist of the twentieth century, was among the Jews who left Germany during the 1930s due to Nazi anti-Semitism. The Buddhist monk His Holiness the Dalai Lama is an internationally recognized advocate of human rights for Tibetans; he fled Tibet in 1959 following the brutal crackdown by China against Tibetans opposing Chinese rule.

In contrast to refugees, most immigrants are pulled from their homes by the prospects of better jobs in other countries, or to join family members who already reside abroad. These economic and social forms of international migration allow time for a considerable amount of planning and preparation. Such immigrants often believe they will return to their homelands at some point in the future. Refugee migrations, however, are unanticipated and forced, and will keep the émigrés away from home for a very long time, possibly for the rest of their lives.

Since the mid-1990s the world has averaged between 11 million and 15 million refugees per year. The majority are women and children. The United Nations (UN) first defined a refugee in 1951 as a person who owing to a well founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of that country. This definition is contained in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which was developed in the aftermath of World War II (1939-1945) and only pertained to people in Europe. The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees broadened the policy to include people in the rest of the world. Today there are five refugee populations numbering 500,000 people or more: those from the former Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar (Burma), and Sudan.

The 1951 convention and the 1967 protocol establish the rights of refugees in exile, including the rights to protection, movement, and work. They specifically prohibit refoulement the forced return of refugees to a country where they would be persecuted. One hundred forty-five countries have signed the convention and/or the protocol, but forty-four countries, including India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, have not. Some governments use the UN definition of refugee in their national laws, as the United States did when it passed the landmark Refugee Act of 1980. Nonetheless, foreign-policy interests often determine to what degree signatories of the convention and protocol actually abide by them. The U.S. government historically has given a very favorable reception to political migrants from Cuba, but uses the U.S. Coast Guard to interdict those leaving Haiti.

There have been several global trends in refugee migrations since World War II. European decolonization produced intense ethnic conflict in newly independent states in Africa and Asia (e.g., the 1947 partition of India), and it was a major cause of refugee crises from the late 1940s through the 1960s. The cold war between the United States, the former Soviet Union, and the client states of each superpower was the main cause of refugee crises from the 1960s through the 1980s. In the United States the best known cold-war refugees are the Cubans and the Vietnamese.

Since the 1990s a new cause of refugees has been the total collapse of national institutions in some countries (termed failed states ), leading to perpetual social conflict and disorder. This occurred in Somalia during the early 1990s, and other countries in Africa have followed this same pattern. In the western hemisphere, Haiti shows many signs of being a failed state and Colombia has some symptoms as well. Two catastrophic ethnic conflicts occurred almost simultaneously in the mid-1990s: More than 1 million Bosnian refugees fled Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and about 2 million Hutus fled Rwanda when Tutsi forces regained power following the genocide of some 800,000 Tutsis at the hands of Hutu militias.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, created in 1950, is the primary international body charged with advocating for refugees and providing them with assistance. Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also assist refugees, such as the U.S. Committee for Refugees, U.S. Catholic Conference, and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). NGOs lobby states for more favorable policies, provide services in refugee camps, and facilitate adaptation when refugees resettle in host countries or repatriate to their homelands. But refugees often endure years of waiting in impoverished, segregated camps, a situation termed warehousing. If the root political problems remain unresolved for a long time, warehousing creates multigenerational refugee populations. Nearly 2 million Afghani refugees reside in Iran and Pakistan, a legacy of the Soviet invasion in 1979 and subsequent wars. About 2.5 million Palestinians throughout the Middle East receive assistance from the UN Relief and Works Administration for Palestine Refugees. The Palestinians were originally displaced by the wars that followed the creation of Israel in 1948.

An important legal distinction for political migrants is whether they seek refugee status before or after arriving in a host country where they hope to permanently reside. The United States, Canada, Australia, and the countries of the European Union allow people with a well-founded fear of persecution to apply for entry while still living in their homelands or in adjacent countries to which they have fled. Since passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 the United States has accepted more than 2.5 million refugees in this way. Congress and the president establish an annual refugee admissions quota, and refugees who arrive are eligible for social welfare programs operated by the federal government, state governments, and NGOs. Since 2000 the former Soviet Union, Somalia, and Iran have been the leading source countries of refugee admissions to the United States.

Actual or imminent persecution can be so dire that people flee without waiting for permission to resettle in a host country. When political migrants cross into another country without legal authorization and then apply for refugee status they are called asylum seekers. China, Haiti, El Salvador, and Guatemala are the sources of about 45 percent of all asylum seekers who have entered the United States since 1989. In western Europe most asylum seekers come from Turkey, Africa, and the Middle East. The United States and other western countries use legal proceedings, which often are hasty and haphazard, to determine whether asylum seekers have credible reasons to fear persecution if deported to their homelands. U.S. asylum officers approve fewer than half of all asylum requests. U.S. immigration judges adjudicate claims initially denied, but the success rate of these appeals is even lower.

People who flee persecution but stay within their native country rather than crossing an international border share many of the same experiences as refugees. They are termed internally displaced persons (IDPs). The term displaced persons gained prominence in Europe after World War II, when it was used to describe Poles, Germans, and other people who were outside their homelands due to the war; in some cases they did not wish to return home. IDPs now is used to refer to people who have fled persecution or war but who cannot avail themselves of the 1951 convention or the 1967 protocol because they are still within the jurisdiction of the state which regulates their citizenship.

There are more IDPs in the world than refugees: about 25 million compared to 11.5 million. Five countries have more than 1 million IDPs: Sudan, Colombia, Uganda, Congo-Kinshasa, and Iraq. International protection and aid for IDPs conflicts with national sovereignty and requires asserting that a state is unwilling or incapable of protecting its own citizens. For a brief period during the 1990s the UN undertook such humanitarian intervention in northern Iraq, Bosnia, and Somalia. Unfortunately, the humanitarian crisis that began in 2003 in the Darfur region of Sudan did not produce a similar response from the international community. In 2005 the UN adopted guidelines for assisting internally displaced persons by creating a division of labor among its various agencies. Social scientists are divided over whether or not to extend the concept of IDPs to the survivors of catastrophic natural disasters, such as the South Asian tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005. Many of the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina were offended when the media described them as refugees, believing that the label equated them with foreigners who did not merit the protections granted to citizens. Whether to use the term environmental refugees to describe people who flee the environmental problems caused by deforestation and global warming is also a matter of debate.

There are two solutions to a refugee crisis. Voluntary repatriation occurs when homeland conditions have improved and the refugees return from abroad. They require economic development assistance similar to that provided for other projects in the developing world. Resettlement in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the European Union is a second though less frequent outcome for refugees. Resettled refugees share with other immigrants many of the same adaptation challenges, such as acculturation and finding employment. But refugees have some distinct adaptation concerns, including mental health problems and often a particularly intense interest in homeland politics. Given the trauma of forced migration, it is not surprising that refugees carry lifelong vestiges of their experiences.

SEE ALSO Refugee Camps


Hein, Jeremy. 1993. Refugees, Immigrants, and the State. Annual Review of Sociology 19: 43-59.

Immigration and Refugee Services of America. 2004. 2004 Statistical Issue. Refugee Reports 25 (9): 1-13.

Massey, Douglas S., Joaquín Arango, Graeme Hugo, et al. 1998. Worlds in Motion: Understanding International Migration at the End of the Millennium. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2000. The State of the Worlds Refugees: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

U.S. Committee for Refugees. 2006. World Refugee Survey 2006. Washington, DC: Author.

Yin, Sandra. 2005. The Plight of Internally Displaced Persons. Population Reference Bureau Web site.

Zolberg, Aristide R., Astri Suhrke, and Sergio Aguayo. 1989. Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jeremy Hein


views updated May 17 2018


REFUGEES. The idea of a refugee as a person who, for various possible reasons, can no longer live safely in a particular country and is therefore due special care has ancient religious roots. The humanitarian concept of special care owed to refugees has evolved substantially, however, to the point where it has anchored a fundamental shift in accepted notions of human rights under international law.

The problem of refugees is one of the most important public policy issues in the world today. It is estimated that more than 12 million refugees meet the currently accepted legal definition. However, tens of millions more are "internally displaced" refugees within their own countries. Millions more may be displaced for reasons that are not strictly within the current legal definition. Thus, to speak of refugees is to speak of an evolving set of extremely compelling moral and legal problems.

Refugees and World War II

The modern legal concept of a refugee may be most specifically traced back to 1921, when the League of Nations created a high commissioner for Russian refugees, which led to the development of a specific travel document. This sort of provision, however, proved woefully inadequate to deal with the massive persecutions and displacements of World War II. Part of the reason for this was a lack of public consciousness of and support for the plight of refugees. During the 1930s, the United States government resisted the strenuous efforts of various groups to permit Jewish refugees to flee Nazi persecution in Europe and seek safety in the United States. Although the reasons for this failure were complex, one legal aspect of the debate at the time involved the lack of a specific provision in U.S. immigration law to exempt refugees from generally applicable immigration quotas. During the war years, however, from 1941 to 1945, a series of ad hoc measures permitted more than 200,000 refugees to enter the United States.

After the war, it became clear that the problem of millions of "displaced persons" across Europe was a humanitarian crisis. At the Yalta conference, measures were agreed upon by the Allies that, by the end of 1948, resulted in the repatriation of millions to their native countries. Large numbers of people from Eastern Europe, however, opposed repatriation to their countries of origin because they feared persecution by new governments. Populations in displaced persons' camps grew at an unsustainable pace. At the same time, millions of ethnic Germans were forcibly transferred from various countries to Germany. It became clear that the newly developing West Germany could not and would not accommodate nearly a million displaced persons of various nationalities and ethnic groups. Thus, in 1947, the United Nations established the International Refugee Organization to facilitate the resettlement of the displaced persons in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe.

The U.S. government began to take the refugee problem more seriously as a matter of law and policy at this time. In 1948, the Displaced Persons Act was enacted, which authorized some 200,000 persons to enter the United States over a two-year period. The law, however, was limited to those who had registered as displaced persons on 22 December 1945, which excluded tens of thousands of people, primarily Jews, who had registered in 1946 and 1947. By 1950, a new law permitted 400,000 more refugees to enter, as it moved the cutoff date to 1 January 1949.

The Refugee Convention

Important developments also took place in international law in the early 1950s. In 1950, the United Nations formally established the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The mandate of the UNHCR included "providing international protection" for refugees. In addition, permanent solutions were sought in a nonpolitical and humanitarian manner. In 1951, the United Nations adopted the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the Refugee Convention). Article 1 of the Refugee Convention specifically defined the term "refugee" to include any person who, "as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside of the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." The definition also included those who had been considered refugees under certain prior laws and protected certain persons who had no nationality or had multiple nationalities.

The convention included provisions for civil rights for refugees in contracting states and protections against the expulsion of refugees lawfully in their territory "save on grounds of national security or public order." Article 33 specifically prohibited the expulsion or return ("refoulement") of a refugee "in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened" on account of one of the grounds listed above. Article 34 provided that the contracting states "shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees." Protections under the convention, however, were denied to persons who had committed various types of crimes, especially war crimes, or who had been "guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations." Over time, strong sentiment developed to eliminate the 1951 dateline of the convention. Therefore, in 1967, a protocol entered into force that extended the provisions of the 1951 convention without the 1951 dateline.

U.S. Law

The United States did not become a party to the convention until 1968, when it acceded to the 1967 protocol as well. Thus, through the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. actions for refugees were largely ad hoc. Similarly, in the 1970s, though it had ratified the protocol, the United States had no specific statutory mechanism to implement its obligations under the Refugee Convention and Protocol. In 1965, amendments to the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act had allocated 10,200 visas each year to refugees. However, the definition of refugee was limited to those who had fled "from any Communist or Communist dominated country or area," from "any country within the general area of the Middle East," or those who were "uprooted by catastrophic natural calamity." As a result, throughout the 1970s, refugee admissions to the United States were highly ideologically biased in favor of those fleeing the Soviet Union and other communist regimes. Special laws continued to be passed for certain groups, such as Hungarians and Cubans. Indeed, to date, more than 500,000 Cubans have become lawful permanent residents as a result of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.

The ostensible goal of the Refugee Act of 1980 was to bring U.S. law into compliance with the requirements of international law. For example, it removed the ideological requirement of flight from a communist country. The Refugee Act sought to prohibit the use of so-called "parole" power to admit groups of refugees as it prescribed a formula and procedures for refugee admissions that involve both the president and the Congress. The act contains a definition of the term "refugee" that is derived from that of the 1951 convention. It excludes those who have "ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated in [such] persecution." Since the passage of the act, some 70,000 to 100,000 refugees have been authorized for admission each year. Since its passage, more than a million refugees have obtained permanent resident status.

Such status can be obtained in two basic ways. In addition to overseas application, the law of the United States now permits individuals within the territory and at the border to apply for "asylum" or "restriction on removal" (formerly known as "with holding of deportation"). Both refugees and those granted asylum may apply for lawful permanent residence status after they have been physically present in the United States for at least one year. Asylum seekers must, among other statutory and discretionary requirements, qualify under the statutory refugee definition. Applicants for restriction on removal, a form of relief derived from Article 33 of the Refugee Convention ("non-refoulement"), must prove a threat to life or freedom.

In the decades since its passage, the Refugee Act has been subject to elaborate regulatory explication and extensive judicial interpretation. Among the most important issues in the 1980s were the relationship between the "well-founded fear" standard of proof in the refugee definition and the standard of former section 243(h) of the Immigration and Nationality Act that a person's life or freedom "would be threatened." In INS v. Stevic (1984) the Supreme Court held that a noncitizen seeking "with holding of deportation" under the latter standard had to prove a threat was "a clear probability," meaning "more likely than not." As applied to asylum-seekers this holding seemed to contradict accepted understandings about the burden of proof for a refugee claiming a "well-founded fear." The issue was resolved by the Supreme Court in INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca (1987). The Court made clear that a well-founded fear meant something less than "more likely than not." As the Court put it, "One can certainly have a well-founded fear of an event happening when there is less than a 50 percent chance of the occurrence taking place."

Since the passage of the Refugee Act the United States and other Western nations have confronted serious theoretical and practical problems in the development of refuge and asylum law. Throughout the 1980s, for example, according to many refugee rights advocates, considerable ideological bias remained in the supposedly objective refugee and asylum process of the United States. On the other hand, increasingly large numbers of asylum applicants caused political backlash, which was often accompanied by charges that the refugee/asylum system was being abused. One of the first major governmental responses to this allegation was an "interdiction" program, started during the Reagan administration, that authorized U.S. officials to board Haitian vessels on the high seas and forcibly return the vessel to Haiti. Although the United States agreed that it would not return any refugee to Haiti, human rights organizations and others criticized the program as a violation of basic principles of human rights. The Supreme Court, however, ultimately upheld the interdiction program in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council (1993), holding that neither section 243(h) of the Immigration and Nationality Act nor Article 33 of the U.N. protocol apply to actions taken by the Coast Guard on the high seas. The program, however, was eventually discontinued by the Clinton administration.

In the mid-1990s, continuing criticism of asylum practices in the United States spawned further special measures such as increased authority to border personnel, known in the United States as "expedited removal," and time limits on filing claims. Such measures were designed to distinguish legitimate from fraudulent or frivolous claims and to discourage the latter. Another such measure, applied in Europe but not the United States as of 2002, is the development of lists of "safe" countries from which asylum claimants may be presumed ineligible. A variant on this theme is an agreement whereby states may agree on which country will adjudicate a claim made by a person who has traveled through signatory states en route to the place where asylum is finally claimed. The United States has authorized such agreements by statute but to date has concluded no such bilateral arrangement with another country.

Certain substantive issues have also generated great controversy. In 1996, for example, after years of debate and litigation over asylum claims arising out of China's so-called "one-couple, one-child" policy, the U.S. Congress amended the statutory definition of a refugee. The new definition includes "a person who has been forced to abort a pregnancy or to undergo involuntary sterilization, or who has been persecuted for failure or refusal to undergo such a procedure or for other resistance to a coercive population control program." The question whether neutrality can constitute a political opinion spawned years of complex litigation, though the Supreme Court's decision in INS v. Elias-Zacarias (1992) established some guidelines. In the 1990s powerful arguments were also made, with considerable success, to expand the protections of refugee and asylum law to women who face harsh or inhuman treatment due to their gender, women who suffer more specific physical and mental abuse by men in societies where legal protection may be unavailable, women who flee the practice of female genital mutilation, and people who fear persecution on account of their sexual orientation.

Among the more interesting recent legislative trends in the United States has been the ratification of the Convention Against Torture (CAT), which protects the removal or extradition of any person to a state "where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture." The United States passed implementing legislation in 1998 and CAT claims in the United States are now an important source of protection. Finally, special temporary protection laws, such as so-called "Temporary Protected Status" in the United States, have aided many persons fleeing natural disasters and others with compelling claims that do not fit within the refugee law parameters.


Aleinkoff, T. Alexander, David A. Martin, and Hiroshi Motomura. Immigration and Citizenship Process and Policy. 4th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group, 1998.

Goodwin-Gill, Guy S. The Refugee in International Law. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Legomsky, Stephen H. Immigration and Refugee Law and Policy. 3d ed. New York: Foundation Press, 2002.

Musalo, Karen, Jennifer Moore, and Richard Boswell. Refugee Law and Policy. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1997.


See alsoUnited Nations ; andvol. 9:Excerpt from Maya in Exile: Guatemalans in Florida .


views updated Jun 08 2018


Individuals who leave their native country for social, political, or religious reasons, or who are forced to leave as a result of any type of disaster, including war, political upheaval, and famine.

Often refugees are unwilling to return to their country of citizenship because they fear political, social, or cultural persecution. The refugees turn to other countries for protection and support. A related problem is statelessness, which occurs when one's country of citizenship has been absorbed by another nation through war or political change. The United States has promulgated policies to aid refugees and stateless persons both internationally, through various international organizations and treaties, and domestically, through national immigration policies.

International Refugee Policies

There have always been refugees, but their plight was first recognized as a major international problem after world war i when the number of refugees in Europe and Asia Minor totaled in the millions. The first world institution to come to the aid of refugees was the league of nations Office of High Commissioner for Refugees, established in 1921. Although U.S. president woodrow wilson was a principal founder of the League of Nations, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty on which it was based, and the United States never joined the League. This office was later called the Nansen Office in honor of the Norwegian scholar who first headed it. The Nansen Office provided assistance to 500,000 Greeks who were resettling from Asia Minor to Greece and to 500,000 Turks resettling from Greece to Turkey.

The rise of Nazi Germany led to another flood of international refugees in 1933. Because Germany would not permit the Nansen Office to assist those individuals, the League of Nations created the Office of the High Commissioner for the Refugees from Germany. By 1938 the office was expanded to help Austrian refugees fleeing the Nazis as well. The two League of Nations offices were later combined into the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. In 1938, 32 countries met to establish the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees, at the urging of U.S. president franklin d. roosevelt. This time the United States was a member of the organization. These organizations helped European political and social refugees in a variety of ways, for example by giving them identity and travel documents.

By 1944 all of the functions of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees and the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees were assumed by the united nations (UN) in an office that was later called the International Refugees Organization (IRO). The United States was a member of the United Nations and participated in this international front as well. The IRO helped 1.5 million European and Asian refugees. It was dismantled in 1951, and its duties were taken over by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UNHCR is responsible for protecting international refugees and assisting with the problems created by mass movements of people resulting from civil disturbance or military conflict. The high commissioner follows policy directives handed down by the UN General Assembly. The United Nations encourages countries to admit refugees and stateless persons and provide resettlement opportunities for them. The UN also seeks to help refugees achieve self-sufficiency and family security in their new homes. Members of the United Nations agree to help refugees and stateless persons by giving them the same civil liberties afforded their nationals and the same economic rights afforded other foreign nationals.

In 1948 the United Nations also addressed the Palestinian refugee situation in the Middle East by creating a new organization, the United Nations Relief for Palestinian Refugees, later called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The UNRWA assisted more than 1.5 million Palestinian refugees through the early 1970s.

In 1982 the UNHCR turned its attention to the 1.2 million African refugees in Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, and the horn of Africa. The majority of refugees were escaping conditions of famine in the underdeveloped African countries. Also in the early 1980s, the UNHCR assisted more than 36,000 Vietnamese boat people in the South China Sea. During the 1980s, the UNHCR helped 2.9 million refugees leave Afghanistan and resettle in Pakistan.

The United Nations also helps refugees by assisting in their voluntary repatriation, or return to their home country. By 1988 the UNHCR helped at least 150,000 refugees return to their countries of origin, mostly in Africa and Central America. The UN General Assembly declared in 1988 that voluntary repatriation is the ideal solution to the problems faced by refugees.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the UNHCR began to study the particular problems faced by women and children refugees and called for further efforts to protect these special groups.

In addition to the United Nations and the League of Nations, various international charitable organizations, such as amnesty international,

strive to aid refugees and stateless persons. Religious relief organizations also have aided refugees by providing food, clothing, shelter, and resettlement assistance.

Domestic Refugee Policies

In the early years of the United States, the states were responsible for the naturalization of aliens, and the only requirement for being naturalized was taking a pledge of loyalty. Now the federal government closely regulates the entry of all aliens, including refugees, through the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS), formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The standards for naturalization have become more demanding and exacting, especially after terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Before the twentieth century, the U.S. approach to admitting refugees was no different than the admission of general immigrants, which was based on quotas for each country. During world war ii, the insensitivity of this policy became evident as the United States turned away Jewish refugees because its quota for German immigrants had been met, and the refugees were forced to return to Nazi Germany.

In 1945 President harry s. truman signed an executive order that gave displaced persons, or refugees, priority over other immigrants. Congress passed the War Brides Act, 59 Stat. 659, in 1945 and the Displaced Persons Act, 62 Stat. 1009, in 1948 to make the United States more responsive to international immigration and refugee situations. The War Brides Act permitted the immigration of 120,000 alien wives and children of U.S. soldiers. The Displaced Persons Act allowed for more than the previously established quotas of refugees from Poland, Germany, Latvia, Russia, and Yugoslavia to be admitted.

The Refugee Relief Act of 1953, 67 Stat. 400, allowed for the entry of 214,000 refugees during a limited period on a non-quota basis. Many Hungarian "freedom fighters" were admitted under the act in 1956. President dwight d. eisenhower invited another 30,000 Hungarian refugees to the United States following their country's revolution. This invitation was on a "parole" status, meaning these refugees were not granted immigrant visas.

The Fair-Share Refugee Act of 1960, 74 Stat. 504, permitted the justice department to admit even more refugees under parole status. Under this act, many refugees from Communist and Middle Eastern countries resettled in the United States.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a flood of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos came to the United States. In 1975, 200,000 Indo-Chinese refugees arrived, and by 1985 nearly 400,000 Southeast Asians came to the United States. Throughout this period, Jewish refugees from Russia continued to be admitted to the United States.

The Refugee Act of 1980, 8 U.S.C.A. § 1525, raised the number of annual immigrants permitted from 290,000 to 320,000, of which 50,000 could be refugees. Mass admittance of refugees pursuant to the president's parole authority was not permitted, but the president was allowed to admit refugees over the 50,000 annual limit with congressional consultation.

Cuban and Haitian refugees in the early 1980s tested the ability of the United States to accommodate and assimilate refugees. The Cubans were seen as fleeing from the Communist regime of Fidel Castro and therefore were permitted entry into the United States. Flight from a Communist country was a long-standing accepted qualifying basis for refugee status. The sheer numbers of Cuban refugees who came to the United States by boat, however, made their entry difficult, but not impossible, to process.

Unlike the Cubans, the Haitian refugees claimed that they were fleeing poverty, a condition not recognized by the United States as qualifying individuals for refugee status. However, the Haitians asserted that once they left Haiti they could not return or else they would face political persecution for having left. The U.S. government did not accept the Haitians' fear of persecution as sufficient to admit them as refugees and concluded that they were economic immigrants. The Haitians were detained in large relocation camps and then deported. In 1981 President ronald reagan signed an executive order authorizing the U.S. Coast Guard to stop boats leaving Haiti and turn them around if they were transporting economic immigrants.

further readings

Fritz, Mark. 1999. Lost on Earth: Nomads of the New World. New York: Little, Brown.

Helton, Arthur C., and Dessie P. Zaborcheva. 2002. "Globalization, Terror, and the Movements of People." International Lawyer 36 (spring).

Holbrook, Dane. 2003. "Protecting Immigrant Child Victims of Domestic Violence Through U.S. Asylum Law." Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy 12 (winter).

Janosik, Robert J., ed. 1987. Encyclopedia of the American Judicial System. Vol. III. New York: Scribner.

Lawson, Edward. 1996. Encyclopedia of Human Rights. 2d ed. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Osmanczyk, Edmund Jan. 2002. Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Agreements. 3d ed. New York: Routledge.

Santoli, Al. 1990. New Americans: Immigrants and Refugees in the U.S. Today. New York: Ballantine.

Von Sternberg, Mark R. 2002. The Grounds of Refugee Protection in the Context of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law: Canadian and United States Case Law Compared. New York: M. Nijhoff.


Human Rights; Immigration and Naturalization; International Law.


views updated May 17 2018


According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a "refugee" is an individual who

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country….

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that in 2003 there were approximately 10.6 million refugees in the world, broken down as follows: Asia (4 million), Africa (3.3 million), Europe (2 million), North America (600,000), Oceania (65,000), and Latin America (41,000). The largest refugee-producing countries were Afghanistan (2.4 million), Burundi (574,000), the Sudan (505,200), Angola (433,000), and Somalia (429,000). Those countries hosting the largest number of refugees were Iran (1.3 million), Pakistan (1.2 million), Germany (980,000), Tanzania (690,000), and the United States (485,000).

The definition of refugee has several components. The first requirement for refugee status is that a claimant must be outside of his or her country of origin. This, of course, severely restricts the class of those able to obtain refugee protection, and in fact, the population of those termed internally displaced persons—essentially refugees who have not left their country of origin—is now considerably larger than the world's refugee population. As an aside, the U.S. definition of refugee does not mandate that a claimant be outside his or her country of origin, and as of 2004 upwards of 80 percent of those admitted as refugees to the United States had never previously left their country of origin.

The second requirement for refugee status is that the claimant must have a "well-founded fear" of persecution. This "fear" component has traditionally had both an objective and a subjective element to it. Because the insufficiency of state protection is the basis for recognizing an individual as a refugee, the appropriate starting point for determining the conditions within the refugee claimant's state of origin is an examination of that country's general human rights record.

How much fear rises to the level of a well-founded fear? Certainly, one can have a well-founded fear of an event happening when there is less than a 50 percent chance of it taking place. According to the standard enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca (1987):

Let us … presume that it is known that in the applicant's country of origin every tenth adult male person is either put to death or sent to some remote labor camp…. In such a case it would be only too apparent that anyone who has managed to escape from the country in question would have "wellfounded fear of being persecuted" upon his eventual return.

The key to the refugee determination process is a careful consideration of the claimant's own evidence. In that way, how the claimant has been treated in the past is a vital consideration in determining refugee status. In addition, even if the claimant cannot substantiate his or her past persecution, it is enough to show evidence of harm to persons similarly situated. Despite this legal standard, some adjudicatory bodies have shown a great reluctance to recognize as refugees persons whose fear is shared by large numbers of fellow citizens, the apparent concern being that no limiting principle exists when generalized oppression or persecution is present. Thus, rather than helping the claimant, there often has been a "perverse-inverse" relationship between levels of human rights abuse and the granting of refugee protection.

The third requirement for refugee status is the notion of persecution, left undefined by the Convention's drafters. As a general rule, refugee protection is premised on the need to safeguard an individual from serious harm, although this harm does not have to be of life-and-death proportions. Essentially, refugee protection consists of an international response to disenfranchisement from the usual benefits of nationality. States are split on who the agents of this persecution must be. The European approach has been to limit refugee protection to those instances where state agents are responsible for persecution, whereas the

U.S. approach has been a willingness to recognize persecution at the hands of nonstate actors.

The final requirement for refugee status under international law is that the claimant must also establish that the persecution he or she faces is based on one of five factors: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The rationale for this limitation was not that other persons were less at risk, but rather, that persons affected by these forms of fundamental sociopolitical disenfranchisement were less likely to seek effective redress within the state.

In terms of actual state practice, despite the repeated cries in Western states of "compassion fatigue," or the feeling on the part of Western governments and Western peoples that they are overwhelmed by human suffering in other parts of the world and they are tired of dealing with these issues, nearly all refugee protection takes place in developing states. The number of refugee claims in Europe continues to decline mainly because of visa requirements in states experiencing gross human rights abuses as well as the institution of "safe" third country programs, whereby claimants who have passed through a safe country (even fleetingly) are denied the ability to file a refugee claim.

U.S. refugee policy has two important aspects. The first is an overseas quota program under which the United States admits on the order of 70,000 refugees—although these numbers have been severely slashed since September 11, 2001. The second is that individuals who are within the United States can apply for refugee status. However, the government's Haitian interdiction program indicates some of the lengths to which the U.S. government will go in order to prevent claimants from arriving in the United States. This policy was upheld in Sale v. Haitians Centers Council (1993) when the Supreme Court found that the legal duty not to return an individual to a country where his or her life would be threatened (so-called nonrefoulement) only arises after that person has arrived in this country.

See also: Immigration and Immigrants; United Nations.


Aleinikoff, T. Alexander, David Martin, and Hiroshi Motomura. Immigration and Citizenship: Process and Policy, 5th ed. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 2003.

Gibney, Mark. "A 'Well-Founded Fear' of Persecution." Human Rights Quarterly 10 (1988):109–121.

Goodwin-Gill, Guy. The Refugee in International Law. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Hathaway, James. The Law of Refugee Status. Toronto, Canada: Butterworths, 1991.

INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca 480 U.S. 421 (1987).

Loescher, Gil, and John Scanlan. Calculated Kindness and America's Half-Open Door: 1945 to Present. New York: The Free Press, 1986.

Raufer, Susan. "In Country Processing of Refugees." Georgetown Immigration Law Journal 9 (1995):233–262.

Sale v. Haitians Centers Council 509 U.S. 155 (1993).

Shacknove, Andrew. "Who Is a Refugee?" Ethics 95 (1985):274–284.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Refugees by Numbers: 2003 Edition.<>.

Mark Gibney,

Linda Cornett