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Commemorating the end of WWII - Europe still struggling to treat refugees humanely

“We actually live in a world in which human beings as such have ceased to exist for quite a while since society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed; since passports or birth certificates, and sometimes even income tax receipts, are no longer formal papers but matters of social distinction.”

These words ring true today but were put to paper in 1943, in the midst of World War 2, by Hannah Arendt as part of her essay We Refugees.

This week we commemorate the end of the Second World War in Europe. Looking back from 2020, joyous images come to mind. Smiling faces, people dancing in the streets, victory parades, etc. The nightmare was over. What is often forgotten is that for millions, the suffering was far from over.

On the 18th of May 1945, The Times reported:

“Europe is on the move. The exiled peoples are going home. The roads are filled with men and women of a score of nations trudging back hundreds of miles. Frequently they pause and rest in the warm sun, for the end of the shooting finds Europe not only injured but very tried.”

The war had displaced between 11 and 20 million people. These were survivors of the concentration camps, victims of forced labour, prisoners of war, refugees who had fled war and persecution, etc. The task to resettle all the Displaced Persons, as they were called, was immense and responsibility for it fell to the victorious Allies. Some DP’s still had homes to go back to, and efforts to repatriate them were swift and successful. But Allied leaders had overlooked about 1 million people who, for various, reasons had no home to return to.

The plight of these “non-repatriables” was documented by an American lawyer, Earl Harrison. If you have experience working or living in the Aegean camps, you will find the following passages from the Harrison Report disturbingly familiar.

Three months after victory in Europe had been declared:

“Many Jewish displaced persons and other possibly non-repatriables are living under guard behind barbed-wire fences, in camps […] including some of the most notorious of the concentration camps, amidst crowded, frequently unsanitary and generally grim conditions”.
“Many of the Jewish displaced persons, late in July, had no clothing other than their concentration camp garb -a rather hideous striped pajama effect- while others, to their chagrin, were obliged to wear German S.S. uniforms. It is questionable which clothing they hate the more.”
“The most absorbing worry of these Nazi and war victims concerns relatives -wives, husbands, parents, children. Most of them have been separated for three, four or five years and they cannot understand why the liberators should not have undertaken immediately the organized effort to re-unite family groups.”
“One must raise the question as to how much longer many of these people, particularly those who have over such a long period felt persecution and near starvation, can survive on a diet composed principally of bread and coffee, irrespective of the caloric content. In many camps, the 2,000 calories included 1,250 calories of a black, wet and extremely unappetizing bread.”
“Many of the buildings in which displaced persons are housed are clearly unfit for winter use and everywhere there is great concern about the prospect of a complete lack of fuel. There is every likelihood that close to a million displaced persons will be in Germany and Austria when winter sets in. The outlook in many areas so far as shelter, food and fuel are concerned is anything but bright.”

Jewish Displaced Persons in Germany in 1947

Harrison somberly concluded that “as matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.” So, what happened next? How did our ancestors respond to this humanitarian crisis? After the Harrison Report was published efforts were made to improve living conditions in the camps. But the repatriation of DPs proceeded slowly. By the end of 1947, Argentina had accepted 5,000 DPs, Belgium nearly 20,000, Brazil 7,000, the UK 17,000, the Netherlands 2,000, Venezuela 4,000 and France 38,000. The creation of Israel in 1948 and the fact that the new nation accepted all Jewish DPs led to the relocation of 650,000 European Jews by 1950. This, as we know to look back from the present, has led to a whole range of new problems and conflicts still unresolved today.

The United States refused to resettle any DPs in its territory until early 1948 when the Displaced Persons Act was passed in Congress. Which allowed for the resettlement of 200,000 DPs to the United States between 1948 and 1950. But the Displaced Persons Act was far from perfect. Eastern-Europeans fleeing Soviet rule faced considerable discrimination. Those who were deported back to Soviet-controlled territories faced forced labour or death. Upon signing the act President Truman was quoted saying: “It is with very great reluctance that I have signed. […] In its present form this bill is flagrantly discriminatory. It mocks the American tradition of fair play.”

The reaction to the humanitarian crisis faced by DPs was slow, often inadequate and attempts to quickly improve the situation of the DPs were met with xenophobia and indifference. Déjà vu much? Well, this is not where the history of DPs ends. The year 1951, six years after Harrison had uncovered the horrendous circumstances wherein DPs were forced to live, saw the creation of the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration. Also in 1951, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees established the legal definition of who refugees are and what the responsibilities of states are regarding asylum seekers. The 1951 Refugee Conventions remains to this day the legal basis upon which refugees can claim their right of asylum, a right that is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 14).

These were major steps forward in ensuring the humane treatment of refugees, but incomplete and imperfect. By 1953 there were still 230,000 DPs left in Europe. The last camp only closed in 1959. Since its creation the UNHCR has often struggled to offer adequate relief when facing new crises, needing revisions of its mandate to maintain effectively. Nonetheless, the birth of the UNHCR, IOM and 1951 Refugee Convention demonstrate that there was a willingness to find long-term structural and humane solutions for the DPs at the highest political level. The crisis faced by DPs had forced nations to recognize that the resettlement of refugees is not a matter that should be left to a single country to solve.

The humanitarian crisis currently taking place on the Aegean islands and elsewhere along Europe’s borders, displays many similarities with the situation of DPs in post-war Europe. People suffer in overcrowded and unsanitary camps, food and other basic necessities are lacking. Governments struggle to find humane solutions or are indifferent to suffering. Xenophobia and discrimination are rife.

But there is one major difference. Anno 2020 European governments are failing at coordinating and committing to efforts to resettle refugees, they show no desire to find humane and structural solutions to the crisis. Instead, EU leaders are betting on the fundamentally flawed EU-Turkey statement to keep refugees out of Europe, no matter the human cost. Countries of the first arrival such as Greece, Malta, Italy and Spain are largely left to their own devices. Meanwhile, 40,000 people suffer in overcrowded camps as others drown in the Mediterranean. Essential legal, medical, educational, logistical and psycho-social services provided by governments or international organizations are grossly inadequate, grassroots initiatives, set up by concerned citizens, are filling the gaps. In return, they are criminalized by the very governments that are failing to take their responsibilities under international law. Solidarity isn’t just gone; it has been outlawed.

The history of Europe’s DPs shows us that it doesn’t have to be like this. Europe today has a choice, it can choose to live up to its values and implement a humane asylum and migration policy that ensures the right of asylum to refugees in decades to come, or it can stumble on from one short-term solution to another, forsaking its own core values in the process. The creation of the UNHCR was preceded by heated debates among UN member states. Initially, UNHCR only had a mandate for 3 years, such as the disagreement among nations. Structural and humane solutions to the current humanitarian crisis along Europe’s borders will not come easy, they will require courage and perseverance from politicians, public figures and concerned citizens.

Let’s end, as we started, with Hannah Arendt:

“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.”

The Polish ghettos of Arendt’s time are the Syrian cities of today. Who knows which place tomorrow?

Further reading

- DPs: Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945–51. By Mark Wyman.

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