History of Refugees

Today I would like to talk about the refugee situation, and put it in historical perspective. I have heard people say that this problem is “unprecedented” and “the largest migration of people in history”. Just like similar statements regarding terrorism and the effect of religious fundamentalism, they show a lack of understanding of even the handful of historical periods people claim to know so well.

There is a difference between refugees and a migration and an invasion. According to the Geneva Convention on Refugees, a refugee is defined 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; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it..” This definition misses what are called “internal refugees”, persons who are displaced within their own nation, but if you think of people moving for the same reasons inside their country you get the idea.

Only around 20% of the Earth’s surface is usable land, and since ancient times peoples have moved to find a better life. A more pleasant climate, arable land, and good water sources make for a thriving community. It is no coincidence that early civilizations built their cities near rivers and lakes.

It is also a truism that if you have something nice, there is usually someone who wants to take it from you.

Various empires, such as the Greek, Roman, Aztec, Chinese, Russian, etc. would invade a land and then often displace some of the native population, moving in a portion of their own population to take much of the best land. This was done to reduce the chances of revolt, hoping that over time the locals would integrate into the empire better. It usually didn’t work, but changed the population mix sometimes until modern times.

Invasion/migrations are a common theme in history. As the Roman Empire collapsed, from 376 to 800 AD that period is called the Migration Period, as entire nations of people fought their way into the richer lands of the south. The modern British people did not even exist before the 6th century, as wave after wave of invaders landed on their shores, intermarrying or bringing their wives and children. Images of masses of Asian horse archers sweeping across the world come to mind. The Balkans are a perfect example of the populations resulting from being the pathway of countless invasions. The conquests of North and South America were just a repeat of a standard historical theme.

In the modern sense, a migration is when large numbers of people more or less willingly move to another location. The development of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the mass movement of blacks to the North after the Civil War, and the population effects of the Dustbowl are local examples. The natural travel of rural populations moving to urban areas to find better jobs in a developing country is a daily example of this.

As the idea of the modern Nation State developed, borders became more fixed. It was no longer entire nations that could be shifted. It became the people.

There have always been refugees in war. But in bygone times, with less knowledge of the world and poor travel conditions, most people never traveled very far. When invaders came, you fled into the fort/castle, the forest, or ran for the hills. If they just passed through you went home and rebuilt. If they stayed, they just became part of the new reality.

It is sometimes hard to imagine the level bigotry that existed in previous generations. Ideas such as Social Darwinism and The White Man’s Burden were coupled with the most common ideas of racial, social, religious, or cultural superiority. Even most of the enlightened writers of the time still used derogatory terms in their everyday speech. The majority of haters today hold ideas that their fore-bearers would have thought unspeakable.

In a way it is understandable. Lack of interaction with other peoples often leads to misunderstandings or stereotypes. And the limited contacts often reinforced these ideas.

Modern knowledge and modern weapons lead to epic refugee situations. WWI resulted in millions of refugees fleeing the fighting for safer lands on all of the major fronts. The fictional detective, Hercule Poirot, was based on the over half a million Belgian refugees who fled to England for safety.

As often happens, many of these people found new lives, new jobs, and new loves, and decided to stay where they were. Most tried to return home after the fighting to rebuild.

After the war, as new countries emerged or were taken over by new masters, attempts were made to displace “undesirable” people from the lands. I have written about the ethnic cleansing done by the Turks during the war. People were made to leave in their millions; it didn’t matter where you went, as long as you left. As one example, 1.8 million German colonists from their former possessions were forced back to Germany or Austria. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of workers were invited to the regions to rebuild the war torn areas. Many stayed permanently.

But WWII was the height of the human refugee crisis.

The German idea of “Lebensraum” (living space) was to have been a new eastern empire in which 45 to 70 million people were to have been exterminated for their land. Italy looked for a new “Impero Italiano”, or Italian Empire, which would rule the Mediterranean and Africa. While at the same time, “Dai Nippon Teikoku”, the Greater Japanese Empire, would rule all of Asia and the Pacific. These ideas clashed with the already existing empires, and war was inevitable.

German early war strategy actually incorporated refugees into their planning. They would attack a city/town from selected directions, knowing that the civilians would flee in the opposite direction. blocking the roads for enemy reinforcements. Also, hungry and injured civilians would take up valuable resources and manpower from the enemy armies. Refugees made the Blitzkrieg even more effective.

Entire populations fled or were forced out. As the war turned against the Axis, even more populations were forced to flee, with people heading sometimes in opposite directions. At the end of the war, there were 40 million refugees in Europe alone. The number in Asia will never be known. How many died will also never be known.

The German Reich had relied on forced labor, and millions tried to find their way home. 5-6 Russian laborers and POWs were an example.

12 million “Volksdeutsche” or ethnic Germans, were expelled from various European countries, despite the fact that many had lived there for generations. Between 0.5 and 2 million of them died. Almost 2 million Japanese colonists were sent back to the home islands. Italians were forced home, some of them still being expelled in the 1970s.

Borders were redrawn, and more people were forced to leave. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of forced laborers were deported to the Soviet Union.

Some of the saddest cases were the so called Wolf Children, orphans wandering the land in search of food, shelter, or a family. A great deal of them were German. All knew hardship; many found starvation, abuse, rape, and death. Others found new families, often in Lithuania or Russia.

The European refugee crisis was still an issue in the 1950s, and was not properly resolved until the 1960s. Organizations existed to help displaced persons find relatives and to try to find a new life.

Refugees are such a common part of life today, that the United Nations has an entire office devoted to it; United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They never have enough staff or enough funds, and they get lots of assistance from like minded organizations.

The situation of refugees in nothing new today, nor are the support nor resentment of them. Every hater is a hypocrite, because sometime in the past their own ancestors were refugees or migrants as well. The belief that the world is a static place, frozen in time, is small minded. Things have always been, and always shall be fluid. You cannot stop it.

Take the time to get to know a new person. Try to remember how you might have once felt, when you too were in a new location. Eat a meal with them, or share a cup of coffee. Watch your kids play together. You might discover new ideas, new culture, and new friends. Or even find the love of your life. Your only limits are the ones you place upon yourself.


3 thoughts on “History of Refugees

  1. What you posted, regarding the harsh environment that some have fled, seeking a place more conducive to their lives, reminded me of something I learned about the Neanderthal species.
    With little exception, they seemed to have chosen the harshest, most challenging environs to live in. The coldest, roughest, least accessable places, like frozen mountain clefts, valleys seemingly void of other life and endless deserts. Still some wonder why and how they became as physically powerful as their fossilized remains prove. I’ve enjoyed the wonderful toughening effect of certain jobs upon my body, but never considered living in a hellish, barely liveable environment. I think that one may fairly ask why the Neanderthal chose to physically challenge themselves thusly.
    This comment has little if anything to do with your post, my apologies. It just reminded me of the strange, counter-intuitive things that I learned about some early dead-end branches of hominid evolution.

    Thanks for indulging me,


  2. I know,ncc. I’m sorry that I found in one of your sentences in the post a connection to a fascinating fact I learned about a species of pre-human hominid. I meant no connection between refugees and Neanderthals. I simply remembered an very interesting fact and posted it. I’ve found trouble on blogs before, when my tangential style shifts to a completely unrelated subject. I understand the plight of refugees, even more so after reading your post.
    I know of the many situations and reasons that cause people to flee their native lands.
    Being of Scottish descent, I even know the time when an awful lot of Scots were refugees.
    After the battle of Cullodin, the last notable rebellion of the Scottish highlands, when the English King finally found himself in a position to send an army (mostly uncontested) through the Scottish highlands, he did so giving orders for this army to kill, rape and steal as much as is possible. Scotland and particularly the highlands and isles had been a thorn in the English side for so long, the opportunity was not ignored.
    For years the place was practically stripped of all goods, livestock almost anything that may be worth anything.
    ‘The Highland Clearance’ was the name of this time, when all of the highlands and a lot of the lowlands were torn into by an English leadership treating what they called barbarians with even greater barbarity, loosing absolutely no sleep as they did so.
    The slower Scots were murdered or driven into the sea. The faster managed to gain purchase on a boat to Spain, France, the Americas and some other places.
    Almost forty years after Cullodin, Australia was founded as a penal colony, creating another possible destination for the still terrorized highland Scots.
    Many people of many lands have complained about the horrible treatment dealt them by English invaders/colonists, I say to these people, who have more than enough reason to despise the coming of the English, “try living next to them for a thousand years or so”.
    Again I am off on a tangent, other blog hosts have learned to love me, I hope that you will, too.

    All the best,


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