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READ: A Century of Refugees

Over the course of the twentieth century, millions of people have been forced to flee their homes, becoming refugees. Meanwhile, governments around the world have increased their attempts to control and limit migration.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. According to this article, why did anti-migrant protests happen in Europe after 2015?
  2. What country hosts the most refugees, and what did they receive for limiting illegal refugee migration into the European Union?
  3. How did nationalism shape governments’ approaches to dealing with refugees and migration in general?
  4. How did decolonization lead to an increase in refugees?
  5. According to the author, what are some reasons that refugees migrate and seek refuge?
  6. Why do some nations, in particular wealthy nations, allow migrant workers to come into their countries?
  7. How did wealthy nations react to increasing refugee and labor migration?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. How do you think globalization has changed the ways that people have migrated in the last 100 years?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

A Century of Refugees

Photo of an overcrowded boat holding dozens of people in a body of blue water.
By Bennett Sherry
Over the course of the twentieth century, millions of people have been forced to flee their homes, becoming refugees. Meanwhile, governments around the world have increased their attempts to control and limit migration.

Crisis for who?

In 2015, the news was filled with headlines about a European refugee crisis. The Syrian Civil War had displaced millions of people, and many of these refugees fled to Europe. With other refugees fleeing conflicts in North and East Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Columbia, and Southeast Asia, the world had more displaced people than at any point since the Second World War—over 65 million in 2015. Listening to Western news media, it sounded like all the refugees in the world were flooding into Europe. Charts and images, designed to raise fears of masses of refugees entering Europe, circulated through various news and social media outlets. This reinforced the idea that Europe was about to be overwhelmed. Soon, anti-migrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim protests filled European streets.
But was this really a European crisis? Over a million migrants applied for asylum in Europe in 2015, up from 216,000 in 2014, mostly from Syria. While these are big numbers, very few of the world’s refugees ever make it to Europe. Even during the “crisis” of 2015–2016, European nations accepted only a tiny fraction of the world’s total. Since the Syrian Civil War started, Turkey has consistently hosted the most refugees—with 4 million in 2019. In 2016, ten countries hosted over half of the world’s refugees. These ten countries were among the world’s poorest—together accounting for only 2.5 percent of the global economy. Refugee migrations to wealthy countries draw the most media attention, but it is the poorest nations that carry the majority of the burden.
The European Union (EU) imposes strict border controls, shifting the burden of refugees to neighboring nations like Turkey. Syria’s ongoing conflict has pushed millions of refugees to gather in Turkey as they seek a new home in Europe. Most do not make it. In 2016, the EU signed a deal with Turkey under which the Turkish government promised to prevent illegal refugee migration into the EU. In return, the EU agreed to pay Turkey ¤6 billion.1 How did this situation come to be? Why are there so many refugees in the world today? Why are so few of them in wealthy countries? Nationalism, decolonization, and economic liberalization all played a role. The story begins a century before the 2015 crisis, with the First World War.
Long line of hundreds of migrants.
Migrants arriving in Slovenia, 2015. © Getty.
Crowd of refugees being held back behind a metal fence and razor wire.
Refugees stand behind a fence at the Hungarian border with Serbia, 2015. © Getty.

Nationalism, world wars, and decolonization

People have been fleeing conflict and persecution for millennia, but it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that refugee emerged as an official category. For the first time, governments thought about refugees as a “problem” that needed a solution. Countries created international organizations in efforts to care for refugees and control migration. These efforts were in large part driven by changes in how governments thought about national borders. After the First World War, governments got really interested in regulating migration. Passports became more common, and new laws defined different types of migration.
Nationalism played a large role in creating stricter citizenship and migration laws. The First World War tore apart the Ottoman, Austrian, and Russian empires. The German and Chinese empires shrunk and were replaced by republics. As new nations rose from the ruins of old empires, nationalist leaders focused on building a common national identity. In addition to a common language and culture, many leaders also chose to focus on getting rid of people who, in their vision, did not qualify as citizens. For example, in the 1920s, Turkey expelled 1.5 million people they called “Greeks,” and Greece kicked out 500,000 people they called “Turks.” Their homes were taken away and they were forced from the nation where they had been for generations and moved to the nation where leaders said they “belonged.”
Black and white photo of refugees standing on a dock awaiting departure by three boats.
Greek refugees flee their homes in the city of Smyrna, Turkey following a massacre of the city’s ethnically Greek residents. © Getty.
The Second World War redrew borders and broke apart empires. For example, hundreds of thousands of European Jewish refugees fled persecution before and during the war. Many eventually made their way to the British Mandate of Palestine, where Jewish settlements had been established since the late nineteenth century. From 1947 to 1949, a conflict between Arab Palestinians and Jewish Palestinians led to the establishment of the state of Israel. This conflict displaced over 700,000 Arab Palestinian refugees from their homes.
Decolonization after the Second World War sparked massive refugee migrations. India won its independence from Britain in 1947. As part of independence, British India was divided into two independent nations: India and Pakistan.2 About 12 million people chose or were forced to leave their homes based on their religion. As Muslims in India were forced to relocate to Pakistan, and Hindus in Pakistan were forced to move to India, violence frequently broke out, killing hundreds of thousands. Decolonization conflicts in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Indonesia, and many other nations produced more refugees, as did the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Ethnic, religious, and political groups struggled for control of their new nations, and the winners expelled or killed their enemies.
Black and white photograph of a crowd of refugees standing on a train platform. Many are pictured standing on top of the trains as well.
An overcrowded train transports refugees during the partition of India in 1947. © Getty

Why seek refuge?

By the 1960s, Western European nations had started to recover from the economic devastation of World War II, sparking a demand for cheap labor. Former colonies were left with more people than jobs, giving rise to the migrant worker. People from across Latin America, the Philippines, West Africa, and the Indian subcontinent all migrated to places like the United States, France, and Britain for work. The governments of wealthy nations encouraged labor migration because it was profitable. In the US, migrants from Mexico helped fill agricultural labor shortages. Turkish “guest workers” propelled West Germany’s economic recovery in the 1960s.
Migrant workers moved because they wanted to make more money or build a better life. Others were pushed by major trends you may have already learned about. One cause was the violence that resulted from the Cold War or more recent conflicts. Many also suffered from what is often called structural violence—the long-term, cumulative effects of poverty, climate change, and ineffective government. Beneath all these motivations was the problem of inequality. That is, while people in some regions suffered, others enjoyed a far wealthier and healthier way of life that seemed to offer hope for better opportunities.
Many migrated legally, but many others moved through irregular channels to avoid legal restrictions. As migrant laborers undertook dangerous journeys across deserts and the Mediterranean Sea, their paths crossed with refugees fleeing their homes. In many cases, the line between labor migrants and refugees was blurred, giving rise to the category of economic refugee. In many cases, migrant workers and refugees ended up as indentured servants controlled by human traffickers while they paid back debts. As nations increasingly closed their borders and passed laws regulating migration, more and more migrants found themselves at the mercy of human traffickers.

Building Fortress Europe

As the numbers of labor migrants and refugees increased in the 1980s and 1990s, Western European countries began to implement immigration policies, often described as “Fortress Europe.” These policies opened borders between countries in the European Union, but placed restrictions on immigration from outside the EU, especially from countries in Africa and the Middle East. All around the world, national governments opened their borders to trade and investment. At the same time, they hardened their borders to migrants and refugees. In many cases—such as Mexican immigrants in the US and Muslim immigrants in France and Germany—labor migrants and refugees alike became less welcome.
Map of the European Union indicating areas of free travel without a visa.
Map of the Schengen area and the Schengen States. The Schengen agreement was signed in 1985 and opened borders within the European Union. Citizens of several countries—mostly in the Americas—are permitted to travel in the Schengen area without a visa. Very few countries in Africa and the Middle East are included in these agreements. European Commission, public domain.

The century of the refugee?

The twentieth century has been called “the century of the refugee.” But 20 years into the twenty-first century, it’s apparent that migration—of political refugees, economic migrants, environmental refugees, and many others—will remain a feature of life on Earth. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2019, there were 70.8 million displaced people in the world. That’s larger than the populations of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, combined. Many refugee camps, once intended as temporary havens, have become sprawling cities with their own economies. The United Nations created the UNHCR in 1950. They believed it would be a temporary agency that could “solve the problem of the refugee” within a few years. It started with an annual budget of $300,000 and a staff of 34. In 2019, the agency had a budget of $8.6 billion and employed 16,803 staffers in 134 countries. Refugee migration is not a temporary problem.
Aerial view of a vast refugee camp with roads and thousands of buildings and tents.
The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Opened in 2012, it has become a permanent city, home to tens of thousands. © Getty.
While the global number of refugees and displaced people has increased, asylum applications in Europe have returned to pre-2015 levels. The crisis depicted in those dramatic charts and pictures appears to be over. But European countries have not relaxed the restrictions they put in place in 2015. Governments continue to embrace economic globalization while closing their borders to migrants. Each year, thousands of refugees die on boats crossing the Mediterranean. Many of them drown in sight of EU ships.
Migrants have increasingly been treated as political pawns. Citizens of wealthy nations are happy to welcome migrants when they need their work and accept refugees when it is politically convenient. But as migrant communities have grown and as they have begun to influence culture in their host countries, some people have reacted with fear and anger. We describe these reactions as xenophobic—fear of foreigners. Political parties have used scare tactics to turn public opinion against migrants—especially refugees from Muslim-majority countries.
Anti-migrant platforms have propelled far-right candidates to political office in Hungary, Poland, Greece, Britain, the United States, and other nations. As climate change and economic globalization continue to intensify, refugees will continue to flee environmental and economic conditions as well as political persecution and war. As governments place more restrictions on immigration, more migrants will be forced to cross borders illegally, endangering their lives in the process.
Large, boisterous crowd of protestors waving flags and yelling.
A Polish crowd protests immigration from Muslim countries to Europe in 2015. © Getty.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt’s World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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