Across the Iron Curtain: A Cold War Divergence between East and West

During the Cold War, the two parts of Europe took diverging paths regarding population movement and migration.

Western Europe became more religiously and ethnically diverse with the influx of a large number of guest laborers from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, some of them from former colonies. While invited to help rebuild Europe as temporary migrants, many stayed, contributing to the transformation of western European countries into multiethnic societies.

Some of the most visible immigrant communities include the Turks in Germany, the Algerians in France, and the Indians and Pakistanis in Great Britain. Since 2013, the majority of London’s population is people of color.

By contrast, Eastern Europe, especially East-Central Europe, remained ethnically homogeneous in the postwar period. Today, many politicians continue to talk about their countries as homogeneous national spaces with no prior experiences of religious or ethnic diversity. This is simply wrong and ignores the history of the region merely 70 years ago.

There were exceptions, such as Bulgaria and Romania, which continued to have large minorities in their territories. These minorities were periodically subjected to nationalist pressure; some 350,000 Turks fled Bulgaria in the 1980s in what was at the time described as “the largest refugee wave after World War II.”

Nonetheless, the Soviet bloc countries maintained regimes of closed borders and limited travel opportunities for their citizens. Built in 1961, the Berlin Wall became the symbol of this separation between East and West, a potent metaphor of captivity.

It is not coincidental that the end of the Cold War began with the mass exodus of East Germans to the West in the summer of 1989 following the removal by Hungarians of barbed wire fences between Austria and Hungary. In effect, in 1989 Eastern Europeans rebelled, among other things, against the regime of closed borders and travel controls.

It is therefore beyond ironic that the current government of Hungary, the country that started removing fences in 1989, is building a new barbed wire fence in unified Europe today.

But the end of the Cold War did not bring peace and security to Europe. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s saw what was then termed (again) “the largest forced migrations in Europe after World War II” with some 2.7 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees.

Many of these Yugoslav war refugees were offered “temporary humanitarian shelter” elsewhere in Europe under circumstances that resemble today’s plight of the Syrian refugees. Many returned to Bosnia and other formerly Yugoslav areas after the war, but still others permanently resettled to Western Europe and the United States.

In another parallel to today, Germany and Austria accepted the largest number of Yugoslav refugees in the 1990s.

From Past and Present to Future

Given these complex past experiences with migration, what lessons can history teach us about the refugee crisis in Europe today?

In the face of a prolonged and brutal conflict, people will seek to flee. If they don’t flee, conflict may escalate into ethnic cleansing and even genocide. This is particularly so in cases of civil war, such as the Syrian conflict.

After the devastating experience of the Holocaust, it is difficult to deny that we need to help people fleeing persecution and war. The sanctity of human life should come first.

But is the current refugee crisis of unprecedented proportion?

Historical research shows that migrants are always a small part of the overall population. Within the EU, whose population nears 750 million in 2015, the presence of even one million refugees remains a relatively insignificant number.

Furthermore, the UNHCR estimates there are close to 60 million displaced persons globally in 2014. The one million who reach Europe, one of the most prosperous places worldwide, therefore, is just a drop in the global bucket.

But how do we decide who is a refugee and who an immigrant? Some people are both; other people constantly transition between the two categories. This determination should be made in each individual case, but officials should err on the side of caution because the overlap between poverty and conflict in today’s world is rampant.

Would people return to their countries after the end of conflict? Historical evidence suggests that there are always a large number of people who want to return to their places of birth.

Migration waves are usually temporary. The current refugee crisis will most likely level off with the arrival of winter when fewer people will dare to cross the Mediterranean.

While it is difficult to predict what will happen in the Middle East, in the long term the pacification of Syria could trigger a large migration back to it. Unfortunately, in this case, that scenario is not imminently likely.

Gender dynamics are an important factor in migration. Historically, young men seeking to avoid military conscription are the first to depart. Often, they send money home and attempt to reunite their families.

Yet during war, large numbers of women and children travel alone, and these are the most vulnerable migrants.

We need to pay attention to how men and women experience migration differently. Ideally, families should stay together. There should be active policies to prevent sexual violence against women, which is widespread in such fragile situations.

Many Syrian refugees go to Europe because they already have family members in European countries who have settled there and are able to assist them. In effect, these are “chain migrations” of mostly middle-class, educated, and motivated refugees, which could reinvigorate the labor force of Europe.We also need to remember the importance of social class in migration decisions. More affluent individuals are better able to finance their journeys and acquire the needed documents. This is the case with many of the Syrian refugees.

Yet, integration is a long-term process that depends on the willingness of both the newcomers and the host society to live together. The first generation is often grateful to be given the opportunity to start a new life, so the crucial question is how to make sure the second generation is not marginalized.

Based on past experiences, European societies should pursue integration along several lines: immediate language training and civics education, psychological counseling for those who need it, schools for children, employment for adults, housing that does not segregate, and wider debates in society over the meaning of integration.

In this process, Europeans will have to learn to live together with their new neighbors on pluralistic rather than assimilationist principles.