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Exploring Europe's Responses to the 2015 and post-WWII Refugee Crises

Posted by Yehia Nasr, Thursday 17th November, 2016

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Photograph showing group of Jewish refugee children in Holland awaiting departure to England on a Kindertransport, December 1938

Jewish refugee children in Holland on their way to England, December 1938

I wrote my first blog piece for The Wiener Library in May 2016, briefly exploring the concept of collective guilt and moral responsibility in inaction as related to the German civilians during the Second World War. With UK Parliament Week upon us (14th - 20th November), I wanted to have a look into the recent refugee crisis, while drawing parallels to the 1930s/40s European population movements. The Wiener Library is also hosting an exhibition entitled ‘A Bitter Road: Britain and the Refugee Crisis of the 1930s and 1940s’ which is running until 17 February 2017.

Exploring Europe’s Responses to the 2015 and post-WWII Refugee Crises

Since it is not feasible nor objective to assess the reactions of general populations to refugee crises, I will be instead be briefly discussing the responses of governments both in the immediate post-WWII era and today. Examining these situations from a purely humanitarian point of view, I do not believe that Europe as a collective entity has been entirely convincing in its responses to the mass movements of people seeking refuge from war, on both occasions, more than 60 years apart.

There have been countless critics (including incumbent UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon) who have been vocal about Europe not doing enough to help the refugees of war-torn Syria. From politicians to celebrity figures, almost every day we either hear or read about the UK’s lack of meaningful action and intervention. On the other hand however, possibly just as many people feel that Europe is doing too much or is too lenient; opening up its doors when it is not obligated to do so. While I disagree with this point about moral obligation, I think by looking at some quantitative data it helps us to put some misconceptions to rest and secondly, to view the current refugee crisis in an appropriate context.

European Refugee Crisis of 2015

Firstly, it is worth stating that this refugee crisis is not actually as overblown or exaggerated by the tabloid media as some would argue; the UN has reported that the number of people living as refugees has indeed surpassed 50 million for the first time since WWII in 2013. By the end of 2015, this number reached 65.3 million (source: UNHCR), which means that a staggering one out of every 113 people on Earth is a refugee, i.e. has been forced to leave their home due to persecution or war.

In 2015, Europe had the second highest number of refugees of all the regions (behind only sub-Saharan Africa), with more than 4 million refugees residing in the continent (UNHCR). The North African and Middle East region had almost half that number, which is shockingly low considering that traditional models of emigration dictate that most refugees seek asylum in neighbouring countries. Europe’s refugee population of 4,391,400 million is undoubtedly a large number, but is perhaps made less impressive when we situate it within the greater  context.

Of the countries to host the largest number of refugees in relation to their national population, Lebanon topped the list, with no less than 183 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants (UNHCR). Jordan and Nauru followed with 87 and 50 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants respectively. In fact, it’s been reported that from 2012-15, low and middle-income countries have hosted an average of 86 percent of all refugees under the UNHCR mandate. An overwhelming and disproportionate number of refugees are relocated in these developing regions. The only high-income nations to appear among the top 10 countries with the highest number of refugees in proportion to the country’s population are Sweden and Malta (UNHCR).

While it would be wrong to disregard the efforts of some European countries, such as Germany (which hosts 316,100 refugees) and Sweden (169,500) (UNHCR), it would still seem that Europe isn’t doing enough. Two European countries that have been particularly explicit in their reluctance to take in refugees are Hungary and Slovakia. The Slovakian government has cited cultural incompatibility, pointing to the country’s lack of mosques in an effort to limit the number of Muslims it will accept. Hungary also began construction on a 175km fence in June 2015 along its border, while Austria has just announced plans to build its own 100km border fence as a response to the refugee crisis. While the UK has not been so controversial in its approach to the rising numbers of refugees in Europe- potentially because the geography of the UK and its surrounding seas deters some refugees-  it has shared sentiments with many of its neighbouring countries, reflecting hostility towards those seeking refuge.

From this, it’s not outlandish to suggest that some of Europe’s hesitancy and open hostility towards accepting or even supporting refugees resonates with how the UK (and USA) responded to the rise of refugees following WWII. I certainly wouldn’t be the first to point to the similarities.

Does History Repeat Itself?

The first parallel we can draw is in the number of refugees. With some estimates claiming that approximately 60 million Europeans became refugees during the WWII period (Harris and Wülker, 10), the numbers are certainly comparable. By the end of WWII, millions of German civilians had fled, hundreds of thousands of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust sought refuge, and many attempted to escape the newly established Communist regimes. Countries throughout Europe, Africa and Asia set up camps and programmes in order to provide asylum for these victims of war. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) thus became involved in setting up camps for displaced persons, or refugees, and returning more than seven million refugees to their country of origin (J. R., 373).

Numerous countries and newly-established organisations like the UNRRA were active in responding to this crisis, whilst many of these same countries were similarly were engrossed with their own tasks of reconstruction and redevelopment. It couldn’t have been easy to incorporate the millions of refugees needing help; and indeed the UN estimates that a million people had not yet found a place to settle by 1951. While this may initially seem like a small number in comparison to the 60 million total refugees, look closer and it becomes clear that many high-income countries were reluctant to do more, much like today.

The Evian Conference held in 1938 in Evian, France, reflected the increasing need to deal with the growing number of refugees escaping Nazi Germany. Delegates from 32 countries met but to the disappointment of many, both the UK and USA declined to accommodate more refugees. The Wiener Library holds records of this conference in its Collection. Five years later, another conference was held, this time in Bermuda, to discuss the crisis once again. Also once again, neither country changed its policy or was willing to adapt to the serious issue. It was clear there was a rising and persistent issue of displaced persons that needed a resolution, but a number of high-income nations failed to respond to the demand.  

Drawing parallel to these two conferences, the House of Commons in April 2016 defeated an immigration bill that would have allowed the placing of 3,000 child refugees in the UK. We have already seen how minute a proportion 3,000 compared to the total number of displaced persons today. The rejection of the bill is made even more shocking by the fact that 95,000 unaccompanied children claimed asylum in Europe in 2015. Certainly, questions are to be asked of the UK’s response to today’s refugee crisis, especially when we have seen this weak response before in the 1930s and 40s.

The UNRRA and other such organisations functioning with the aim of relocating and supporting refugees were established in the post WWII-era to ensure that a refugee crisis on that scale could never happen again, but it seems like not much has changed today between the responses of European governments from 60 years ago. Of course, Europe doesn’t have a legal obligation to help, and it probably doesn’t even have an absolute, or complete, duty in the moral sense. However that doesn’t mean that we should recreate the mistakes and responses that took place after WWII. It’s important to remember that even if our governments fail us, awareness-raising dates such as UK Parliament Week and The Wiener Library’s current exhibition on the refugee crisis of the 1930s and 1940s give us a platform to educate and be educated, with the hope that we learn from our previous mistakes.

Works Cited:

Harris,  Chauncy D.and Gabriele Wülker. “The Refugee Problem of Germany.” Economic Geography, vol. 29, no. 1, 1953, pp. 10-25.

R, J. “U.N.R.R.A. 1945-1947: The End of a Chapter.” The World Today, vol. 3, no. 8, 1947, pp.370-374.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Worldwide Displacement Hits All-Time High as War and Persecution Increase, 18 June 2015.

Suggested Further Reading:

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: refugees; Kindertransport; immigration; personal narratives; domestic politics; Evian Conference; Bermuda Conference; foreign policy.

The Wiener Library’s current exhibition, A Bitter Road: Britain and the Refugee Crisis of the 1930s and 1940s focuses on this same topic and runs until 17 February 2016. To accompany this exhibition, we are hosting a series of events around the theme of refugees which will provide an opportunity to reflect upon both historic refugee situations and the experiences of present-day refugees. Events in the Refugees Then and Now Series include:

Photo Credit: Wiener Library Photo Archive WL47 - view photo record to see additional photos from this photo album

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