War in its Worst Manifestation

Manifestations of War

Throughout history war has been one of the chief triggers for human migration. During armed conflicts some people are forced to leave their homes to escape physical violence, political persecution, or regime change. Migration during wartime affects the people who are forced to leave their home country, the countries they travel through or temporarily settle in, and the country they ultimately move or return to.

Wars are generally classified as ethnic, civil, or social struggles, and they can be national or international. However, as Anastasia Bermúdez Torres notes in a 2005 article for Forced Migration Online, the nature of war has undergone a change in the 20th and 21st centuries, with the majority now being internal rather than interstate conflicts. Internal conflicts have complex causes, usually last a long time, and have a disproportionately high number of civilian deaths than interstate ones.

Whereas military casualties accounted for 90 percent of total war casualties at the beginning of the 20th century, according to Bermúdez Torres, civilian deaths in the early 21st century constituted 75 to 90 percent of all war casualties, with civilians frequently being deliberate targets of violence.


A nonviolent conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that was defined by economic, political, ideological, and military tension that took place from the end of World War II in 1945 until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The systematic, forced removal or killing of members of a religious or ethnic group for the purpose of making an area ethnically homogeneous.
The purposeful killing and destruction of a group of people, often based on ethnicity, religion, or nationality.
The basic principle on which the United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention rests, requiring asylum nations not to return or expel refugees to countries in which their lives are in danger, their freedoms might be or have been threatened, or they might be or have been physically harmed.
A planned massacre of a group of people of a specific race or religion.
To send someone back to his or her country of origin.
The multipart process of housing and helping refugees in an asylum country, often by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations acting in cooperation with the host country.
The experience of being without legal citizenship in any country.

As civilians escape armed conflict, social strife, and political turmoil in their home countries, forced migrations of displaced persons, refugees, and asylum seekers worldwide have increased. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a program mandated to protect and support refugees, reported that in 2015 there were approximately 65 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.

That figure included about 21 million refugees, some 50 percent of whom were younger than 18. In addition, there were 10 million people who were stateless, with out nationality and therefore without the protections afforded to state citizens. The UNHCR estimates that every day about 34,000 people are forcibly displaced.


Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) is remembered for his work helping people displaced by war get a new start in life. Born near Oslo, Norway, Nansen began his career as a researcher. He studied zoology at the University of Oslo and combined a career in science with his love of the outdoors, sports, and exploration. He participated in grueling, exploratory scientific expeditions to Greenland in 1882 and 1888, as well as one to the North Pole in 1893–1896. Nansen took a position at the Zootomical Institute at the University of Oslo, where he served as a curator. In 1908 he was appointed professor of oceanography at the university.

At the outbreak of World War I (1914–1918), Nansen became increasingly invested in international politics. In 1920 he was named a Norwegian delegate of the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations. He served in this role for the remainder of his life. As part of this work, he was responsible for orchestrating aid to displaced people. This work included efforts to repatriate prisoners of war in 1920 and assist victims of the Russian famine of 1921–1922.

In addition to his work to make sure that medical help, food, and clothing reached them, in the years between World War I and World War II (1939–1945), refugees were substantially assisted by Nansen's invention of so-called Nansen passports. Ultimately recognized by 52 nations, they were issued to refugees and people made stateless after the war who needed official travel documents but did not qualify to receive a passport from any one nation.

For his ongoing efforts to help people displaced by war, Nansen received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.

Historical Background

Although wars have often resulted in migrations, mass migration in the modern sense became a phenomenon in the 20th century aided by new forms of transportation and communication.

World War I

Political changes brought on by World War I (1914–1918) in Europe and by the 1917 Russian Revolution created some 5 million refugees in the first decades of the 20th century. As Colin Bundy writes in a 2016 essay for the Forced Migration Review, the forced population exchange that ended the Greco-Turkish War (1921–1922) created an additional 1.7 million denaturalized refugees (people who lost their citizenship) in 1923. According to Peter Gatrell's discussion on World War I for the British Library, Russia's occupation of East Prussia (portions of modern-day Lithuania, Poland, and Russia) in 1914 was responsible for the forcible displacement of approximately 1 million Germans. Meanwhile, the German occupation of Belgium, parts of France, Lithuania, and Poland also resulted in a large human displacement.

After military defeat by Austrian forces in 1915, half a million Serbian civilians and soldiers fled to Albania seeking safety. Approximately 200,000 died on the way. Many of the Armenian refugees who fled the 1915 Turkish massacres relocated to Russia and the Middle East, later immigrating to Western Europe, as well as Canada and the United States. International nonprofit organizations played crucial roles in providing food and shelter to World War I refugees.

World War II

As Bundy notes, the World War I refugee problem paled compared to the humanitarian crisis created by World War II (1939–1945). Some 30 million people were uprooted by German and Russian forces between 1939 and 1944. In 1945 there were some 40 million refugees residing in Europe. They included millions of Germans who were ethnically cleansed from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia; about 250,000 Jewish people who had managed to live through the Holocaust; and people seeking to escape the newly installed communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

When Jews returned to their home countries after the war, they often found that they were no longer welcome and that their residences were occupied by tenants who refused to leave. Violent pogroms broke out in states such as Poland and Slovakia. Many Jews applied to immigrate to Palestine, but its British mandatory government granted permission to only a handful, so the majority remained in the displaced person (DP) camps that operated between 1946 and 1950. Typically located in former army barracks near small towns in Germany, DP camps became lively centers of Jewish cultural and religious life. Many published their own newspapers and maintained their own schools and cultural organizations such as theaters and concert venues. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, after the United States and Soviet Union recognized the State of Israel in 1948, some 136,000 Jewish DPs immigrated to Israel, about 80,000 to the United States, and another 20,000 to other nations, including Canada and South Africa.

According to a 2011 report for the BBC by Bernard Wasserstein, even though the international response to the World War II refugee crisis was sometimes ruled by isolationist policies, it was remarkably well coordinated. Together the newly established United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the Allies administered almost 800 resettlement camps. The camps were home to about 7 million people in 1947. Four years later, in 1951, the camps were home to a much smaller group of displaced people. (The UNRRA was ultimately converted into the UNHCR in 1950.) The main legal documents outlining the international treatment of refugees, the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and a subsequent protocol to the convention in 1967, outline who qualifies as a refugee, what are a refugee's legal rights, and what are the obligations of countries to provide asylum to refugees. According to the convention's core principle of non-refoulement, a refugee should never be returned to a country where he or she faces a serious threat to life or liberty.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteed refugees the right to seek asylum and forbade the arbitrary deprivation of nationality. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 relaxed immigration policies to allow more people to enter the United States, and the Escapee Program, also established in 1948, offered help to people fleeing communist regimes.

Partition of India

In 1947 the partition of India divided British India (the Raj) into two independent states—Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan—sparking extraordinary civil violence. The brutal communal riots that accompanied the partition resulted in mass killing, ethnic cleansing, and vast numbers of people becoming geographically and culturally displaced. According to Syed Sikander Mehdi in a 2007 article for asteriskos: Journal of International and Peace Studies, about 1.3 million people were killed, and 15 million were forced to relocate. Millions of Muslims were forced to migrate to Pakistan, and millions of Hindus and Sikhs were forced to migrate to India.

Traveling in trucks, trains, and buses, the refugees were butchered along the way, with many of the women and children raped and mutilated. People who had lived side by side for generations perpetuated genocide on each other, with the entire Punjab erupting in civil war and wholesale ethnic cleansing. Political discord between the two states continued for decades after the partition. Three wars between India and Pakistan followed, in 1948, 1965, and 1971, involving the secession of East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) and the disputed territory of Kashmir (the only Muslim-majority territory left in India), triggering yet more refugees.

Korean War

The Korean War (1950–1953) began when North Korea, a communist nation backed by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea, a nation supported by Western powers such as the United States. The Korean War was the first military engagement of the decades-long Cold War. The United Nations, with principal help from the United States, intervened to assist South Korea, but, before the war ended, there were an estimated 4 million to 6 million refugees.

By 1951 Busan, South Korea, had become home to approximately 500,000 refugees desperately seeking to escape the hostilities. The arrival of such a large refugee population created an enormous housing and resource problem for a city whose population before the war was 882,000. Refugees were housed in all available buildings and also in makeshift structures constructed from any available materials. Supplying water to refugees emerged as a key problem because the city's ancient water supply was built to accommodate some 300,000 residents. As Andrei Lankov reports in a 2010 article in the Korea Times, refugee children attended open-air provisional schools, and a family of five to seven members typically lived in quarters that were 100 square feet in size.

Vietnamese Boat People

The second major conflict of the Cold War occurred in Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War, which began in 1954 and ended more than 20 years later, was waged between North Vietnam, a communist nation supported by the Soviet Union and China, and South Vietnam, backed by Western powers including the United States. US involvement in Vietnam ended in 1975 when North and South Vietnam were reunited into one communist nation. On April 29, 1975, the day before North Vietnamese forces captured the city of Saigon and the North and South were reunited, the United States hurriedly helped about 7,000 Vietnamese allies and others who were likely to be persecuted by the communist regime to leave the country.

After the United States left Vietnam, continued conflict, political unrest, and violent ethnic conflicts in Southeast Asia led to a refugee crisis that would last 20 years and cause almost 3 million people to be forcibly displaced. The Sino-Vietnamese War (1979), a short war between Vietnam and China, caused Vietnamese to flee the country on makeshift boats. Refugees who escaped via boat were termed boat people. Because there were about 25,000 refugees leaving by sea each month at the height of the crisis in 1979, the UNHCR and the government of Vietnam worked together to create the Orderly Departure Program (ODP). The ODP helped manage and resettle refugees. Several Southeast Asian nations, including Malaysia and Indonesia, also established refugee camps for boat people. By 1989 countries were growing increasingly resistant to accepting more boat people. In response, that year the UNHCR introduced the Comprehensive Plan of Action that worked to deter potential refugees and repatriate refugees, in addition to resettling them in other countries. According to UNHCR estimates, about 400,000 boat people died during their journey.

Rwanda's Civil War

The Rwandan Civil War (1990–1993), an armed conflict between the Hutu government and a Tutsi rebel group was followed by a 1994 genocide that led to the mass exodus of about 2 million people, with another 1.5 million internally displaced, according to figures from ThoughtCo. in 2017.

Over the course of 90 days, between 500,000 and 1 million ethnic Tutsis and Hutu moderates were massacred by members of the Hutu majority. During this period government officials and local radio stations fanned ethnic hatred, urging Hutus to murder their Tutsi neighbors. In the aftermath many Rwandans fled to camps in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, and Burundi. There they lived in crowded, unsanitary conditions that frequently contributed to outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) operation, which had been in Rwanda since 1993 but had failed to prevent the genocide, was given additional resources and remained in the country until 1996 to help the refugees displaced by the civil war. As noted in the ThoughtCo. report, it was one of the largest humanitarian relief efforts in history, with UNAMIR and numerous other international nongovernmental organizations teaming up to care for the traumatized refugees.

Impacts and Issues of Wars

In the first decades of the 21st century, violent conflicts in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Mali, and Eritrea created spiraling global instability, as well a refugee crisis on par with the mass migrations triggered by World War II. According to Tara Siegel Bernard, reporting for the New York Times, nearly 65 million people across the globe were displaced because of war, conflict, or persecution in 2015, with Syrians representing approximately 11 million.

Syrian Refugee Crisis

Fleeing the dangers and ravages of the Syrian Civil War (2011–), refugees often first travel by boat to Turkey or Greece, then attempt to proceed on foot toward Western Europe. But accepting refugees has become an increasingly divisive political issue in many countries. Worldwide popular protests both in favor of and against taking in Syrian refugees have multiplied. Opponents to helping the refugees cite the incredibly high cost of resettling families at a time of economic instability.

Children are often caught up in war. Here, a five-year-old Syrian boy, wounded during an airstrike that destroyed his family's apartment in Aleppo,

Children are often caught up in war. Here, a five-year-old Syrian boy, wounded during an airstrike that destroyed his family's apartment in Aleppo, sits bloodied and alone in the back of an ambulance in August 2016. He was but one of more than a dozen children taken to the hospital that day. Doctors said treating that many children was a common occurrence although many do not survive their injuries. The image of the bloodied boy went viral and touched many people around the world, raising awareness of the plight of people in Syria and those who become internally displaced or refugees due to war.

Signaling a concern for homeland security, the United States and some European nations have initiated extremely thorough evaluation procedures for refugees and other travelers from nonfunctioning or failed states and from countries with known ties to terrorist organizations. In early 2017 US President Donald J. Trump (1946–) issued a controversial executive order banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, for 90 days. The order also suspended the country's refugee program for 120 days. Critics of the travel ban noted its violation of international human rights laws, in particular the 1967 UN Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or national origin. The executive order was halted by federal courts until the US Supreme Court allowed parts of the ban to be implemented in June 2017.

Camp Life

In a 2016 article for Forbes, Doug Bandow writes that Syria's neighbors, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, have taken on a disproportionately large burden in caring for refugees. Whereas many Syrians have become absorbed into the larger population in Lebanon, establishing themselves in mainstream society, Jordan and Turkey have become the locations of some of the largest camps for housing Syrian refugees. One of these, Zaatari, near the Syrian border, opened in 2012 as a camp but has now grown into Jordan's fourth-largest city. It is home to about 80,000 Syrian refugees, with more than half its residents under the age of 18.

Zaatari is divided into 12 districts and includes community centers, mosques, schools, hospitals, and health clinics, all largely funded by foreign help. When less money comes in, the camp faces shortages and problems. For example, in 2016 the camp did not have electricity for nine months when the UNHCR could not pay the electricity bill. Refugees were given an income of $30 per month, and about 60 percent (including 13 percent of the children) earn additional income by working irregularly for the camp administration, in private shops, or for nongovernmental organizations.

Children who are refugees are not permitted to attend school in countries where they are housed, but some private organizations have set up schools in many of the larger refugee camps. One such organization active in Lebanon and Jordan camps is the Malala Fund, founded by Malala Yousafzai (1997–), winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. The Malala Fund sponsors diverse educational programs in refugee camps, including an information technology class for girls at Zaatari.

Health care in the camps is often provided to refugees by volunteer organizations such as Médicins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), International Orthodox Christian Charities, and the International Medical Corps. Common medical problems for refugees new to a camp are hypothermia and injury. Women may require obstetric care. Refugees with chronic health problems or ongoing psychological issues may need special care.

Help for Refugees

The UNHCR has overall authority to care for refugees, but camps are managed and supported inside and outside Syria by a network of local, governmental, nongovernmental, and private foundations that provide education, medical care, job skills, and legal advice. For example, rescue boats of Migrant Offshore Aid patrol the Mediterranean Sea to save migrants lost at sea; the US-based Karam Foundation is raising funds to rebuild schools in Syria; Save the Children is supporting education for refugee children in camps; UNICEF assists with nutrition, vaccinations, and sanitation; and Oxfam focuses on clean water and hygiene education to prevent disease outbreaks in camps. The World Health Organization (WHO) offers support to organizations that create appropriate health policies for refugees.

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