A great deal of ink—and much blood—has been spilled during the current “refugee crisis.” But what do we mean by that phrase?

It describes what has happened recently when Syrian, Afghan, and other refugees attempted the difficult journey to member states of the European Union in their ongoing search for safety. By extension, it describes the response of governments and the media to the refugees on Europe’s doorstep, a response many call inadequate.

A Syrian boy waiting for assistance in 2014.

The desperation of these refugees and asylum seekers and the challenges they face should not be minimized. But the shorthand of “refugee crisis” (meaning, in effect, “a crisis for European states,” rather than a crisis for refugees) neglects two fundamental issues.

One consideration is that, since 2011, most Syrian refugees either remain in Syria as internally displaced persons outside the scope of international legal conventions, or have found shelter in adjacent states such as Turkey and Lebanon.

Likewise, Afghan refugees are mainly sheltering in Pakistan: only a minority attempt the hazardous journey to Europe.

A map of the top ten countries from which refugees originate (red) and to which they settle (green), 2014.

The second problem with current characterizations of the “refugee crisis” is that there are many other refugees whose circumstances rarely make headlines.

Refugees in the Western Sahara, Rohingya in Bangladesh, and Somali refugees who at the time of writing face an uncertain future in the sprawling Dadaab camp complex in Kenya barely register on the radar of the global North.

In short, the spotlight of public attention only illuminates a small part of the stage, leaving other parts of the world lost in the shadows.

To get to the Dadaab Camp in Kenya, refugees from Somalia must first walk for weeks across a desert and many die along the way or soon after arrival. This mass gravesite for 70 children lies just outside the camp (top). The Taung Paw Camp in Rahkhine State, Myanmar (Burma) housing Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh in 2012. Some have been there since the 1990s (left). Saharawi refugee women from the Western Sahara in 2004 gathering to collect flour in the Dakhla refugee camp in Algeria (right).

One of today’s biggest political and ethical questions concerns the marginalization of millions of refugees who face danger and humiliation daily. To the obvious threat of direct exposure to warfare we should add the risk of being denied sanctuary and continuing uncertainty. Their predicament reflects the fact that in a world of nation states, everyone is supposed to have a state of their own.

But refugees who flee or who are forced from their homes face a long and difficult struggle to demonstrate they should even be recognized as refugees under international law and protected accordingly. To be sure, many people, particularly in the global South, who are not refugees suffer from poverty, malnourishment, and ill health—so-called “structural violence”—but refugees confront a loss of citizenship as well.

Syrian and Iraqi refugees being rescued by Spanish volunteers (in red and yellow) off the coast of Greece after sailing from Turkey in 2015.

It is all too easy to conceive of present-day asylum seekers as figures who form part of a nameless and helpless mass, waiting to be “rescued” from the clutches of people smugglers before being “managed”: in other words, being considered for admission as recognized refugees or returned either to their country of origin or to another country deemed “safe.”

There is, of course, an element of truth in this characterization: asylum seekers are at the mercy of governments that decide who to admit. But this is by no means the whole story.

Refugees are active subjects and not mere flotsam and jetsam on the tide of history. They have usually made a conscious decision to seek a place of relative safety from persecution. They are men and women with aspirations and capabilities, as well as a strong sense of their own history.

After Hungary closed its border with Serbia in 2015, leaving hundreds of refugees stranded at a Budapest railroad station and forced into camps, many Syrian refugees went on a hunger strike in protest.

Unfortunately, much of the mass media in the global North portrays refugees as people who have lost everything, including the capacity to speak or to contribute productively to the host country.

Both issues—the problems faced by refugees and the problem of our attitudes toward refugees—are not exclusively features of the current “refugee crisis.” Rather, they manifested at other times and in other places.

A Century of Forced Migrants, Refugees, and Displaced People

The current refugee crisis is often described as unprecedented. While it is different in many ways, it certainly is not the first time large numbers of people have been forced to leave their homes for any number of reasons. In addition to the two world wars, revolutionary upheavals, decolonization, and civil wars all had the effect of dislocating local populations.

Given the attention the current refugee crisis has received, it is worth reflecting on the fact that the scale of global population displacement after World War II eclipsed by orders of magnitude the numbers we read about today.

Polish refugees sailing to Iran in 1942 (top left). An estimated 120,000 displaced persons were housed on the grounds of the Hamburg Zoo after the British took over the German city in 1945 (top right). Black Sea German refugees fleeing Hungary in 1944 (bottom left). Refugees in 1945 Berlin awaiting transportation (bottom right).

In Europe, some 60 million people were displaced by World War II and its aftermath, including several million ethnic Germans who were unceremoniously evicted from their homes in Poland and Czechoslovakia after the war’s end. But this was only part of the global “refugee problem.”

To this European total we should add at least 15 million in South Asia. One million Palestinians became refugees in 1948 following the creation of the state of Israel. In the Far East as many as 90 million were displaced, partly by the revolution of 1949 that led to the creation of the People’s Republic of China (and the flight of refugees to Hong Kong and Taiwan) but largely as a consequence of the Japanese invasion of China and the prolonged war of occupation between 1938 and 1945.

Chinese refugees returning home in 1944 only to find their homes destroyed (top left). Koreans fleeing south ahead of the advancing Chinese army in 1951 (top right). Palestinian refugees forced to flee after the creation of Israel in 1948 and the ensuing war (bottom).

We will never have an exact count, but World War II and its aftermath may have left 165 million homeless.

This, of course, was the second time that global war led to a refugee crisis. Millions of civilians also became refugees before, during, and after World War I.

Roughly 8 million subjects of the Russian Tsar were forced from their homes during World War I, when the western borderlands of the Russian Empire fell into German and Austrian hands. Some fled for fear of occupation, but Germans, Jews, Poles, Latvians and others were deliberately targeted by the tsarist state as “enemies within.”

Turkish refugees fleeing in 1877 after Russia seized the Kars region from the Ottoman Empire.

Likewise, conflict in the Balkans led to a refugee crisis as Muslims sought sanctuary in the Ottoman Empire, where their encounter with the local Armenian population was to have tragic consequences in 1915 when the Young Turks enlisted them in deporting Armenians en masse, murdering many civilians and condemning the remainder to death or penury in remote parts of Anatolia. This was but one of numerous instances of forced migration.

Some episodes, such as the mass exodus of Serbians in 1915 following the Austrian invasion, were well known to the survivors and their descendants, but not beyond these confines. Other moments faded from historical consciousness once the immediate crisis had passed.

There were two important exceptions.

A refugee camp for Armenians in Aleppo, Syria in 1918 (left). An image widely used to raise funds for the Armenian Relief Committee. The widowed Amenian woman and her children walked across Turkey seeking help from missionaries after the Armenian Massacres of 1894-1896 (right).

The survival of Armenian refugees, many of whom sought refuge in the French mandate territory of Syria and in France itself, became a matter of international concern, partly because of the numbers involved but also because they symbolized a humanitarian preoccupation with the Christian “victims” of Turkish “barbarism.”

A second focus of international humanitarianism concerned those who fled Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and ensuing civil war. Both groups attracted the attention of the new League of Nations, whose member states included countries where many refugees arrived in dire straits.

Mass population displacement can also be laid at the door of politicians who sought to redraw the borders of states and redistribute population in order to achieve what they regarded as a desirable and peaceful remedy to existing political and social tension.


Thought to be the largest migration in human history, overcrowded trains brought Hindus and Sikhs to India and Muslims to Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947 (left). Refugees continued to flee for years after the partition, such as on this special train for refugees leaving India for Pakistan in 1954 (right).

For example, the Partition of India in 1947 following the abrupt end of British rule convinced indigenous political leaders of the need to create two new states, India and Pakistan. Although they never envisaged a mass transfer of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims across the newly drawn frontiers, the consequence was that millions of people moved between the two countries in order to join “their” state and/or to avoid being targeted by those who felt they did not belong. Their future became bound up with the course steered by the new states.

A quarter of a century earlier, European diplomats who gathered at Lausanne, Switzerland, devised a population exchange between Greece and Turkey in order to remove Orthodox Greek Christians from Anatolia and Muslims from Greece. This compulsory exchange of people in the pursuit of ethnic and religious homogeneity was believed to be a price worth paying for future peace. But the net effect was to create a large refugee population in both states.