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Forced Migration


Prior to the 1920s, international migration was largely unrestricted, and little was done to legally categorize immigrants according to the reason for their movement. Previous centuries had seen large forced population displacements (the Huguenots from France in the seventeenth century being just one example). However, the twentieth century saw massive, forced population movements across international borders, and these gave rise to legal distinctions that have affected all those seeking refuge out-side their country of origin.

It is essential to make a distinction between forced migration (the subject of this article), which involves the movement imposed on large populations (groups of persons counted in the thousands), on the one hand, and individual migrants, who may or may not be part of a larger group but are persecuted in their country and seek asylum and the legal status of refugee as individuals in another country. The need for distinguishing between the two categories became clear as a result of post-World War II developments when political, religious, or ethnic persecution forced large numbers of people to leave their home countries, making the established procedures for individual consideration of applications for refugee status unworkable. The terms forced migration and forced displacement are used inter-changeably in this article. Deportations within states, such as those in the Soviet Union during the 1940s, in which more than 3 million people were deported within the state, are not dealt with here.

Six specific large forced population displacements are briefly referred to below. These are the displacements of Russians, Armenians, German and Austrian Jews, Hungarians, the Indo-Chinese, and the victims of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. These cases are chronologically handled: the League of Nations period, the Cold War period, and the post-Cold War period provide a useful categorization. Worldwide, a great many more people have been forced to flee their homes and cross international borders, as they became the targets of group persecution. However, the six cases highlighted here paint a historical picture of forced migration in the twentieth century.

The League of Nations

The first two cases of forced migration, those of the Russians and the Armenians, can be described as being part of the aftershocks of World War I. The Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed it led to a Bolshevik regime, self-described as a dicta-torship of the proletariat, which placed large population groups, declared to be class enemies, in physical jeopardy. Economic collapse, culminating in a massive famine, exacerbated the fears of persecution on political-ideological grounds. By 1921, it is estimated that some 800,000 to 1.5 million Russians fled the country to seek safety and a better future in other European countries. In February 1921, the League of Nations passed its first resolution on refugees and, later that year, held a conference on the question of Russian refugees and appointed a prominent Norwegian, Fritjof Nansen, as High Commissioner for Refugees. Special arrangements included the creation of the Nansen Passport, a travel document for those deprived of the protections normally granted by a state of citizenship to the bearer of a passport.

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire had disastrous consequences for Armenians, a Christian minority with an ancient and distinct culture living within a Muslim population. Decades of repression in the dying phase of Ottoman rule generated substantial Armenian refugee movements, notably at the end of the Greco-Turkish War (1897). By World War I, the Armenians were essentially a stateless victim group, in the precarious position of being relatively prosperous, middle-class, and urban. In 1915, the Turks had begun what Claudena Skran describes as "a radical method of dealing with the unwanted Armenian minority: genocide" (Skran 1995, p. 44). In addition to massive loss of life, the fledgling Armenian state was besieged by its neighbors, with the Russians and Turkey carving up the territory of the new republic between them. By 1924, more than 200,000 Armenian refugees were spread through Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Many of these eventually settled in the United States. The tragedy of the Armenians was not only that so many fled, but also that so many perished because they did not become refugees.

In Germany, the Nazis's rise to power in early 1933 raised the prospect that a similar situation would eventually develop as to that country's Jewish population: Under Nazi laws, Jews were officially discriminated against on the basis of racial criteria. By October of 1933, the League of Nations had decided that the persecution and exodus of German Jews posed such a problem to other states that a new High Commissioner was appointed specifically for refugees coming out of Germany. By 1938, 150,000 people, mostly Jews, had fled Germany, and 126,000 fled Austria following the Anschluss in that year. (As it later transpired, these numbers represented a small fraction of the persecuted population that eventually perished in concentration camps and forced labor camps during World War II.) To deal with this migrant flow, two new definitions were created–for those fleeing Germany and for those fleeing Austria, as a result of Nazi persecution. Both the new High Commissioner post, and the new definitions, highlighted a difficult international political problem. Creating specific measures for specific groups of refugees and naming the state from which they fled was tantamount to an explicit international legal and political accusation that a state was engaged in persecuting a minority. Such an accusation, it was argued, did not help in finding a diplomatic solution to the problem. The decision was therefore made to work toward a universal definition of a refugee–making asylum, the granting of refuge, a less overtly political act.

The Cold War

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, there were large numbers of displaced persons–persons outside of their country of origin seeking protection from the war's effects, or deportees or former prisoners of war unwilling to return home fearing persecution. An even larger group consisted of German refugees–citizens of Germany and persons of German ethnicity who formerly resided either in territories now outside the redrawn German borders or who formerly resided as members of the German minority in countries East of Germany. They either fled to the West in anticipation of expulsion or were forcibly expelled. The German refugees were given citizenship rights in either West or East Germany and were readily absorbed into the population within Germany's new borders. (Many residents of East Germany in subsequent years fled to West Germany and settled there.) The non-German displaced persons were eventually also resettled, either in various Western European countries (including Germany) or overseas, mostly in North America and Australia. The difficulties experienced in that process led to the adoption, in 1951, of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It defined an individual refugee as someone who is outside his or her country of origin and is unwilling or unable to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country due to a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of that person's religion, nationality, race, or social group. The definition was in principle universal, in that it did not mention any specific group or state(s), but the Convention did allow for reference to specific acts of persecution occurring in Europe.

The 1951 Convention was aimed both at dealing with the remaining numbers of displaced persons as a result of World War II, and with the new Cold War problem of targeted persecution. The first major challenge to the Convention, as a tool for determining the status of individuals, came in 1956. The anti-Soviet and anti-communist Hungarian uprising of 1956 led to some 200,000 persons fleeing to Austria and Yugoslavia. The Convention was not applied to all Hungarians: Most were protected temporarily in Austria and Yugoslavia, on an ad hoc basis, for up to a year, but virtually all of them were soon resettled throughout Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Most of them were simply given legal immigration status in the receiving countries, with employment opportunities readily available in the reconstructing post-World War II economies.

While other forced displacements took place in most world regions in the Cold War years, the next major challenge to the universal system established by the signing of the 1951 Convention and the creation of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees originated in Indo-China. As a result of the war in Vietnam and the related political-ideological conflict and severe economic hard-ship, large numbers of people fled or were, by their own estimation, forcibly expelled from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. From 1975 to mid-1979, some 245,000 Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians arrived in Thailand alone. Large numbers of refugees also entered other states neighboring Indo-China, notably Malaysia and Hong Kong: Between 1979 and 1988, some 500,000 Vietnamese "boat people" landed in these countries of presumed first asylum. Thailand and Malaysia called for solidarity from more distant states, in particular for resettlement of the refugees. In these Asian states in which initial protection was sought, the refugees were routinely denied asylum, reflecting the expectation of the receiving states that permanent solutions for these displaced persons would be found in other countries. Large numbers were indeed permanently resettled in developed countries, notably in the United States. As the Vietnamese conflict was settled, the impetus to resettle diminished and the eventual fate of large remaining numbers of displaced persons was to return, often under duress, to their country of origin. No specific status definitions were made for Indo-Chinese refugees, although principles of first asylum followed by resettlement as a permanent solution, and of global solidarity, were developed as a result of two international conferences held in 1979 and 1989 that were devoted to the problem.

Post-Cold War

As the Cold War drew to an end, the states of Western Europe anticipated, and feared, a massive exodus from Eastern Europe: not a forced migration, but one of people who a short time before would indeed have been considered to be refugees. This exodus did not occur on anything like the anticipated scale. However, as war, sparked by long-standing ethnic and religious conflict, broke out in the Balkans, from 1992 to 1995 an estimated 3.5 to 5 million people fled Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia. Forced migration of whole populations on this scale and within so short a time had not been seen in Europe since World War II. The exodus found the countries of Western Europe both unprepared and with a sharply diminished desire to grant protective status to persons from former communist states. Refusing to grant most of these people the status of refugee, on the ground that they fled generalized violence rather than individually-targeted persecution, European states began to develop a doctrine of temporary protection, based not on the principle of a durable solution ultimately being found in integration, or resettlement, but on voluntary return, or mandatory repatriation as the only acceptable final arrangement. Each state developed its own definition of temporary protection–notwithstanding that this situation arose during a time when the member states of the European Union were seeking harmonization of their asylum policies. In some definitions, the former Yugoslavia was mentioned specifically in new laws and policy documents. The world's management of massive forced displacements seemed to be coming full circle to nationality-based definitions of those who would receive, or be denied as the case might be, protection.

The Kosovo crisis of 1999 evoked a similar response. About half the population of Kosovo, almost a million persons, fled to neighboring Albania and Macedonia. Like Thailand and Malaysia in the 1970s, Macedonia reinforced its appeal to other states for assistance by temporarily closing its border with Kosovo, preventing people from becoming refugees. An evacuation program removed some 90,000 people from Macedonia to Western European states, Turkey, Australia, and the United States during a three-month period, and many more were transferred to Albania. In the summer of 1999, rapid repatriation occurred. As NATO forces and then a United Nations mission took control of the province, the vast majority of the 1 million people who had fled returned, initially from Macedonia and Albania, and over the following months from further afield.


By 2000, virtually all countries of the world had strict control over immigrant entries to their territories, and many were imposing high barriers to entry even for those persons forced to flee their country of origin, whether individually or en masse as described above. Though the moral duty to protect human rights was professed and the legal tools to enact refugee protection worldwide were in place, the actual willingness to grant refuge was clearly absent in most countries–perhaps most obviously in those parts of the world most capable of protecting significant numbers of forced migrants and those farthest away from the countries those migrants would be forced to leave.

See also: Asylum, Right of; Communism, Population Aspects of; Ethnic Cleansing; Refugees, Demography of; Resettlement; War, Demographic Consequences of.


Cohen, Roberta, and Francis M. Deng. 1998. Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Indra, Doreen, ed. 1999. Engendering Forced Migration: Theory and Practice. New York: Berghahn Books.

Jackson, Ivor C. 1999. The Refugee Concept in Group Situations. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Loescher, Gil. 2001. The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Skran, Claudena. 1995. Refugees in Inter-war Europe: The Emergence of a Regime. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2000. The State of the World's Refugees 2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

van Selm-Thorburn, Joanne. 1998. Refugee Protection in Europe: Lessons of the Yugoslav Crisis. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Viviani, Nancy. 1996. The Indochinese in Australia 1975–1995: From Burnt Boats to Barbecues. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

Zolberg, Aristide, Astri Suhrke, and Sergion Aguayo. 1989. Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Joanne VAN Selm

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