Refugee Crises: Then and Now

We are in the midst of a refugee crisis. Images of desperate people, many of them making almost unimaginably precarious journeys, fill our newspapers and stare out at us from our screens. The scale of this human drama is immense, both in the numbers involved and the notion that such a thing can still occur in the 21st century. 

The world-historical nature of such events has been noted frequently; the Mediterranean migrant crisis is routinely compared to the biblical exodus, such is the emotive power of this story. Another common point of reference is the mass movement of people in the aftermath of the Second World War, when national borders shifted and entire populations moved through the shattered continent of Europe. But how apt, in reality, is such a comparison?

One of the primary driving factors at the heart of postwar migration was the shifting of national borders. Countries which had been subsumed into the Nazi Reich were suddenly restored and their exact locations were a matter of controversy and strife. Millions of Germans, some of whom had moved eastwards as the Wehrmacht drove into the Soviet Union, found themselves fleeing – often on foot – from the advancing Red Army.

They feared the wrath of the Soviet soldiers and with good reason: angered by the crimes of the invading Germans, many in the Red Army retaliated in their own way, not least through the use of rape as an extension of the fighting. Anthony Beevor in his 2002 book Berlin: The Downfall 1945 wrote graphically of the rapes committed by Soviet troops in Germany’s capital. Though his headline figure of ‘two million German women thought to have been raped’ has met with some criticism, there is no denying the fact of these crimes, nor their visceral impact. Beevor relates the story of one woman who was raped by ‘23 soldiers one after the other’.

Such events represent a strong parallel between the postwar mass movement of people and the contemporary refugee crisis. Though there has been little change in the borders of nation-states, despite the claims of the Islamic State (ISIS) to the contrary, the rapidly fluctuating nature of control of territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya between various groups has forced people to flee en masse. Likewise, the terror caused by the sectarian nature of the Syrian civil war has fed the crisis.

Both ISIS and the Assad regime in particular are accused by the United Nations of using rape as a weapon of war, with the appalling treatment of Yezidi women by Islamic State fighters raising particular international outcry. The fear – visceral and in many ways justified – of both the black-clad ‘army of terror’ and the regime’s Shabbiha militias represents an important factor in many Syrians (and Iraqis and others) deciding to flee.

Though the comparison between the Mediterranean refugee crisis and the mass migration following the Second World War may initially seem superficial, it is an analogy that stands up in the face of scrutiny. Both in their immediate causes – the backdrop of a long-standing and increasingly brutal conflict, with sectarian ‘revenge attacks’ added to the formula – and in the nature of the ensuing crisis, the two events exhibit strong parallels.

This piece was originally published in History Today.