refugee

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

refugee

refugee, one who leaves one's native land either because of expulsion or to escape persecution. The legal problem of accepting refugees is discussed under asylum; this article considers only mass dislocations and the organizations that help refugees.

The Rise of International Refugee Organizations

Early examples of mass dislocations include the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors from Spain in the 15th cent., the flights from religious persecutions in Europe to the New World in the 16th and 17th cent., and the exodus of the émigrés in the French Revolution. Before the 20th cent. there was little or no systematic attempt to help refugees, although some groups, on a private basis, provided assistance to refugees who were coreligionists.

After World War I, international organizations were created to give assistance. 1.5 million Russians fled the Revolution of 1917; in the 1920s large numbers of Armenian and Greek refugees fled from Turkey, and many Bulgarians left their country. In 1921 the League of Nations appointed Fridtjof Nansen its high commissioner for refugee work; later the International Labor Organization and the Nansen International Office for Refugees took charge. Nansen effected repatriation wherever possible; in other cases he arranged for the issuance of Nansen passports, recognized by 28 countries, which gave the holder the right to move freely across national boundaries.

The refugee problem was revived after Hitler's accession to power in Germany (1933) and his annexation of Austria (1938) and Czechoslovakia (1939) and the persecution of Jews. The Loyalist defeat in Spain (1939) and anti-Semitic legislation in Eastern Europe added to the overall problem. Many asylum governments attempted to return refugees to their country of origin; they were often forbidden to work and sometimes imprisoned. Some progress was achieved with the establishment of a permanent committee for refugees in London after a conference of 32 nations held in France in 1938.

World War II further dislocated civil populations. At the war's end the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had the responsibility of caring for some 8 million displaced persons (persons removed from their native countries as prisoners or slave laborers). Most were eventually repatriated, but about one million in Germany, Austria, and Italy refused to return to their native countries, which were by then under Communist governments. The number of Jewish refugees was in time greatly reduced by emigration to Israel, but uprooting the Arab population of that new state in turn created some one million refugees. With the end of UNRRA, the United Nations created the International Refugee Organization to carry on its work. After much debate the United States in 1948 adopted the Displaced Persons Act, which, despite numerous restrictions, eventually permitted the entrance of about 400,000 immigrants.

The Contemporary Refugee Problem

The world refugee problem has remained acute. When the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947, millions of people were forced to migrate. Steady streams of refugees left China and East Germany, especially in the 1950s. The Korean War produced some 9 million refugees. Other major refugee-creating events of the 1950s include the Hungarian Revolution (1956) and the uprising in Tibet (1958–59). Sub-Saharan Africa's massive refugee problem is rooted in the continent's colonial past. Before colonization, Africans had moved freely within their own tribal areas. However, the boundaries fixed by 19th-century colonial powers often cut across tribal areas, resulting, particularly after independence, in mass movements of refugees across national borders. By the early 1990s there were close to 7 million refugees in Africa, including 4.5 million displaced Sudanese. The Arab-Israeli War of 1967 expanded an already swollen Palestinian refugee population in the Middle East (now estimated at more than 4.7 million), and hundreds of thousands Lebanese also fled (largely to other parts of Lebanon) when Israel invaded in 1982 and 2007. The Vietnam War and Cambodian civil war created large numbers of Southeast Asian refugees; the India-Pakistan War of 1971 produced about 10 million refugees, most repatriated to newly created Bangladesh.

In the 1980s and 90s fighting in Afghanistan created large Afghan refugee populations in Pakistan and Iran, and in the latter decade the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, especially in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo displaced hundreds of thousands within Europe. Conflicts in Uganda, Burundi Rwanda, and Zaïre/Congo, which sometimes spilled from one nation to the other, as well as fighting in Sudan and Somalia disrupted the lives of millions in the late 20th cent. and early 21st cent.

At the end of 2010 the world's international refugee population as tracked by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was about 10.5 million, not including the above-mentioned Palestinians. The largest displacements involved more than 3 million Afghans living in Pakistan, Iran, and other nations; more than 1.6 million Iraqis in Syria, Jordan, and other nations; and about 770,000 Somalis in Kenya, Yemen, and other nations. Large numbers of Congolese, Burmese, Colombians, Sudanese, and Vietnamese were also refugees. In addition, there were an estimated 27.5 million "internally displaced persons," individuals forced from their homes within the boundaries of their own countries. Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, and Pakistan were the nations with the largest numbers of internal refugees. Subsequently, the Syrian civil war that began in 2011 created some 2.5 million international refugees by early 2014, mostly in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey; an additional 4.25 million were displaced within Syria.

In the face of these numbers, and the expense of administering aid, private relief agencies such as CARE and Oxfam fight overwhelming odds; support often rises and falls on media attention. While Southeast Asians, Cuban, and Soviet refugees found political support in the United States, far fewer refugees from Central America, Haiti, and Africa gained entry. Many governments refuse asylum to refugees; meanwhile, long-term refugees suffer various psychological hardships, and the root causes of the problem—war, famine, epidemics—remain unsolved.

Bibliography

See J. Vernant, The Refugee in the Post-War World (1953); J. G. Stoessinger, The Refugee and the World Community (1956); P. Collins, A Mandate to Protect and Assist Refugees (1971); P. Tabori, The Anatomy of Exile (1972); L. Holborn, Refugees, a Problem for Our Time: The Work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1950–1970 (1974); J. Jacobsen, Environmental Refugees (1988); C. Kismaric, Forced Out (1989); E. Haddad, The Refugee in International Society (2009).

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