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The History of Refugees

This blog post provides a very brief summary of the history of refugees between the early 20th Century and the modern day (a previous blog post from September 2023 covers prior to this).

We are beginning in the 1930s, with the rise of Nazism, as this drastically shaped the history of refugees for the following decades. Many Jews fled Germany when they were stripped of citizenship in 1935. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) Additionally, the 1938 German annexations of Austria (Brittanica) and parts of Czechoslovakia (Horáková) caused displacement in these areas. The following year, in 1939, the right-wing Nationalists defeated the left-wing Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, with Nazi Germany having supported the winning side. This victory for the Nationalists began Francisco Franco’s violent and repressive dictatorship which caused several hundred thousand Republicans to flee. (Caistor)

Just a few months after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the six-year-long Second World War began. Like the First World War, this made refugees of many groups of people from all over the world. The obvious example is of course the Jewish people, as Nazi concentration camps were spread throughout Europe so survivors could end up a long way from home at the end of the conflict. (Durkin) In addition, there were millions of ‘Ostarbeiters’ - people from Central and Eastern Europe who were used as slave labourers in Germany. (Marek) That said, many Jews and Ostarbeiters did not even have a home to return to as strategic bombing had been used by both the Allies and the Axis, and had destroyed a great deal of infrastructure. (International Monetary Fund)

Established during the Second World War, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) began coordinating aid for people who had been made refugees by the conflict. UNRRA then helped displaced people to return home once Nazi Germany had been defeated. However, it did not provide this support to ethnic Germans despite millions having fled or been expelled from areas the Allies secured. (The University of Edinburgh Archives Online)

Also in the immediate postwar period was Operation Keelhaul, which was essentially the refoulement (forced return to dangerous situations in their country of origin) of Russians. (Hummel) In the modern day, this action carried out by the US and the UK would be considered illegal in international humanitarian law. (Epstein, pp.82-90) In addition, millions of Poles (Kochanowski, pp.135-154) and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians (Prusin, p.558) were forced to migrate due to borders being redrawn by the victorious Allied nations. Support was provided by the International Refugee Organization (IRO), which replaced UNRRA. However, like UNRRA, the IRO did not provide this support to ethnic Germans. (Holborn)

Since the 1940s, there have been many other refugee crises due to events such as the Korean War, the Bangladesh Liberation War, the Yugoslav Wars, the War in Afghanistan, the Crisis in Venezuela, and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. A variety of ongoing emergencies have been covered in our ‘A Focus On…’ series, over 2022 and 2023.


Brittanica, ‘Anschluss and World War II’, Brittanica,

Caistor, ‘Spanish Civil War fighters look back’, BBC News,

Epstein, Operation Keelhaul: The Story of Forced Repatriation from 1944 to the Present (United States, 1973)

Holborn, The International Refugee Organization : a specialized agency of the United Nations: its history and work, 1946-1952 (Oxford, 1956)

Horáková, ‘Forced displacement of Czech population under Nazis in 1938 and 1943’, Radio Prague International,

Hummel, ‘Operation Keelhaul’, The Independent Review,

International Monetary Fund, ‘The Post War World: The Most Destructive War in History’, International Monetary Fund,

Kochanowski, Gathering Poles into Poland: Forced Migration from Poland’s Former Eastern Territories (United States, 2001)

Marek, ‘Final Compensation Pending for Former Nazi Forced Laborers’, Deutsche Welle,

Prusin, Nation-building and Moving People (Oxford, 2016)

The University of Edinburgh Archives Online, ‘United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) (1943-1949) (War-time relief administration)’, The University of Edinburgh Archives Online,

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, ‘The Nuremberg Race Laws’, Holocaust Encyclopedia,

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