Refugee Crises, 1945-2000: Political and Societal Responses in International Comparison

April 7-8, 2017
Workshop at the GHI
Conveners: Convener: Jan C. Jansen (GHI Washington), Simone Lässig (GHI Washington)

In the wake of the war in Syria and other conflicts and crises in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, the world is currently experiencing some of the largest refugee movements since the end of World War II. Given political turmoil, economic instability, and the effects of climate change, these movements are likely to continue. Policy-makers, activists, researchers, and the media in Europe and North America have engaged in heated and often polemical debates about how to cope with the “flood” of refugees. Should they be granted asylum? How many should each receiving country accept? Do large numbers of refugees jeopardize the security of citizens in the receiving countries? How can Western societies come to terms with rapidly increasing cultural heterogeneity and unfamiliar expressions of religiosity? Should they try to integrate large numbers of refugees as permanent residents? How is integration to be achieved? These debates have been overtaken by events, as several European countries are facing the arrival of hundreds of thousands refugees crossing the Mediterranean and the Balkans.

Although politicians and the press in Europe and North America tend to stress the singularity of the current “refugee crisis,” the situation is by no means unprecedented, especially in the time since World War II. Over the course of the past seventy years, many countries have experienced the arrival of massive numbers of refugees and other forced migrants within short time spans, in some cases repeatedly. For some countries, the challenge of integrating millions of refugees was a defining experience that was interwoven with the process of state-building in the wake of war or decolonization.

For several decades, forced migration has been a major field in historical research. Building on an ever-growing wealth of case studies, a comparative history of forced migration has taken shape. The comparative approach has shed new light on individual cases, recasting them as chapters in a larger history of “ethnic cleansing” in the twentieth century. Scholars in the field have been mainly concerned with the causes behind forced migration and the forms force migration has taken. The reception and integration of forced migrants and the consequences, both long- and short-term, for receiving countries have, by contrast, been little studied in comparative perspective. Geographically, research has focused primarily on Europe, and major instances of forced migration outside of Europe have by and large not figured in comparative analyses. 

The workshop, discussing the chapters for a book project, tentatively titled Refugee Crises, 1945–2000: Political and Societal Responses in International Comparison, seeks to address these desiderata. It examines and compares responses by states and societies around the world to instances of mass refugee migration. Adopting a decidedly global perspective, it brings together case studies from countries of the global North and South: expellees in Central Europe after the Second World War; forced migrants from partition in Palestine and British India; decolonization-induced migration to Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s; Cold War refugees from Hungary, Vietnam, and El Salvador; and refugee movements from Rwanda and Yugoslavia in the 1990s. These cases cover a broad spectrum of types of migration and of international and domestic contexts. The driving forces and numbers of people involved varied considerably from case to case, and the backgrounds (national, religious, social) of the migrants also differed enormously. The common factor is that in each case the receiving country was confronted with the crucial question of how to deal with the arrival of a large number of people seeking refuge. They could not simply be sent away, but they were also widely seen in the receiving countries as an unpredictable challenge to stability and social cohesion.

Refugee Crises, 1945–2000 analyzes the political and societal responses to different cases of involuntary mass migration. How did state and society react to the refugees? To what extent were refugees integrated—socially, economically, and culturally—into the receiving society? How was integration pursued and achieved? What facilitated—or impeded—successful integration? What were the short-term and long-term consequences for the host countries of accepting the migrants?