Europe, the ‘Dark Continent,’ Is the Stage for Another Great Migration
Europe, the ‘Dark Continent,’ Is the Stage for Another Great Migration
Another great migration is underway.
At least two and a half million Ukrainians have fled Russia’s merciless bombardment to countries across Europe, while roughly another two million have been internally displaced within Ukraine. It is a tragic upheaval: families have been split apart, homes abandoned, lives upended. What’s happening is a horror, a human travesty.
Yet the situation, however bleak, is not without precedents. At the height of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, one million people fled their homes. By the time the war ended in late 1995, half of the population had been displaced, many of them internally. Over the course of the 20th century, Europe — the “dark continent” in Mark Mazower’s memorable phrase — was the stage for numerous refugee crises.
To the people seeking shelter and security amid a brutal war, that’s of little comfort. But there’s something significant in the fact that Europe — and the world — has risen to the challenge of accommodating and protecting great numbers of refugees before. What’s more, large movements of refugees have spurred the development of more humane and just approaches to refugee settlement.
In an imperfect world, where at least 82.4 million people were forcibly displaced by the end of 2020, it’s worth remembering these efforts. In the past, calamity has often been the crucible of change. And today, in the welcome extended to Ukrainians across the continent, we might see the glimmers of a better future.
“The word ‘refugee,’” wrote the renowned journalist and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, “is drenched in memories.” In Europe, those memories cast a long shadow, none more so than World War II. And with good reason: In the war’s aftermath around 10 million ethnic Germans — men, women and children — were expelled from East-Central Europe. And more than half a million Ukrainians and at least one million Poles were displaced when the border between Poland and the Soviet Union was redrawn.
World War I caused similar upheaval. Before, during and after the war, refugees moved in great numbers across the continent, maybe as many as 15 million during the war itself. The rapid flight of civilians from the enemy invasion of Belgium in 1914 and Serbia in 1915, for example, bears comparison with the situation in today’s Ukraine. The population loss was staggering: Between one-fifth and one-tenth of their respective populations sought refuge abroad until it was safe to return.
Nor should we forget the scale and pace of displacement beyond Europe. In South Asia, the numbers beggar belief. Between 14 and 18 million people were displaced by the Partition of India. The situation in Punjab was particularly intense: Eight million refugees fled across the new border separating West Pakistan from India in the space of three months in late 1947. A couple of decades later, the war that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 displaced around three million refugees within a matter of weeks.
These historical episodes help us to understand the present. But the numbers tell only half the story. Alongside some of the great upheavals in the past have come collective, international responses. In many cases, as with the refugees fleeing Franco’s Spain during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, these have been, first and foremost, the provision of emergency humanitarian aid in the form of food, shelter and temporary settlement. Countries around the world, including Russia, have contributed to such efforts.
But refugee crises have also led to more durable, institutional solutions. In fact, it was events in Russia and East-Central Europe that first led politicians and diplomats to hammer out some formal protections for refugees. The Russian Revolution and the ensuing civil war prompted the League of Nations to create the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in 1921, the first international institution to support refugees.
The arrangements were not universal — they did little or nothing for the victims of interwar fascism, or for non-European refugees such as Ethiopians who suffered at the hands of Italy’s occupation in 1935 — but they did represent a new departure. In interwar Europe, nearly two million Russian and Armenian refugees were provided with travel documents and an organization to which they could appeal for recognition and protection of their basic rights.
The aftermath of World War II prompted another institutional innovation, mainly to support the victims of Nazism who had been forcibly recruited from occupied Eastern Europe during the war. When in 1946 significant numbers — including numerous Ukrainians, Poles and Balts — refused to return to their original homes now firmly under Communist control, the United States, Britain and France created an International Refugee Organization to protect and assist individuals who claimed a “well-founded fear of persecution.” Five years later it was replaced by the U.N.H.C.R. Together with the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which obliges signatory states not to return refugees to their country of origin against their will, this remains the cornerstone of international refugee protection.
It’s far from perfect, of course. For one thing, the convention applies only to people who have crossed an international frontier, effectively barring the internally displaced or those who can’t leave their homes from international legal protection. What’s more, the emphasis on persecution has led to a prohibitively narrow interpretation of who constitutes a refugee, especially when compared to the broader provisions of the convention adopted by the Organization of African Unity in 1969.
In recent years, the architecture of refugee protection has been found severely wanting. The nearly seven million Syrians fleeing the country’s civil war, together with close to three million Afghan refugees — not to mention Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, refugees in Yemen, South Sudan and elsewhere — face enormous hardship and threats to life. Not only are these people cast adrift from any substantive institutional help but they also often disappear from the world’s media, as if they are irredeemably remote.
This time the response has been different. Europe has been overwhelmingly hospitable to the Ukrainians escaping the war. European Union member states have agreed to provide them with the right to live and work within the bloc, as well as access to social welfare and education. This instant recognition is, of course, deeply welcome. But it’s strikingly more generous protection than is available to Syrian and other asylum seekers incarcerated in squalid camps in Greece. Likewise, the warmth extended to Ukrainian refugees contrasts starkly with the racist hostility experienced at Ukraine’s western borders by Africans and Asians trying to escape violence.
Yet it’s possible to spy in the outpouring of sympathy for Ukrainians an opportunity to push for better treatment for all refugees. Can Europe’s leaders, so long at odds over the question of migration, be persuaded to enlarge their responsibility to safeguard the lives of people who flee violence, no matter where they come from? Could the current crisis in Ukraine actually be a catalyst for substantially improving the rights of refugees around the world?
These might seem like utopian, even naïve, questions. But the history of Europe suggests otherwise. In dire circumstances, bold and creative thinking has produced a better, more humane world. It can happen again. Will anyone rise to the challenge?
The New York Times