A Look Back at Europe’s Worst Refugee Crisis

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Refugees in Budapest (Laszlo Balogh / Reuters)

Europe’s refugee crisis has been described as the worst of its kind since World War II, at the end of which there were more than 40 million refugees in the region.

The crisis led to the creation of international laws and organizations that would become the foundation of the world’s refugee response today.

In 1943, the U.N. established a branch to provide humanitarian aid to refugees liberated by Allied forces. It was soon replaced by the International Refugee Organization, which became the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 1950.

After the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews who survived the Holocaust were living in displaced-persons centers in Allied-occupied parts of Germany, Austria and Italy. They were transported to France, Belgium, and Greece.

In Eastern Europe, Germans either fled or were expelled from their home countries, writes Bernard Wasserstein, a University of Chicago history professor. Yugoslavia removed nearly all of its 500,000 Germans. Romania reduced its pre-war population of 780,000 by more than half. Czechoslovakia expelled 2.2. million Germans.

“At the peak period, in July 1946, 14,400 people a day were being dumped over the frontier” in Germany, Wasserstein writes. By 1950, 11.5 million Germans had left Eastern Europe.

Polish communities were also forced out. The Soviet Union expelled almost 2 million Poles, 500,000 Ukrainians and others from parts of the country it had annexed. Meanwhile, the Allied nations returned more than 2 million Soviet citizens to areas under Soviet control in exchange for citizens of Western countries.

Here’s Wasserstein again, on where the refugees ended up:

By 1959 some 900,000 European refugees had been absorbed by west European countries. In addition, 461,000 had been accepted by the USA, and a further 523,000 by other countries. But many 'hard-core' refugees still remained in camps.

Fast-forward to 2014: 219,000 refugees crossed the Mediterranean into Europe, the U.N. says. So far this year, more than 300,000 people have made that journey, many of them from fleeing Syria and Libya to escape civil wars.

Last June, the U.N. reported that the global number of refugees, people seeking asylum, and people displaced within their own countries had, for the first time since the post-WWII era, exceeded 50 million people.