The Refugee Crisis: Historical Perspectives from Europe and North America, 1945-2000

17.03.2016, Symposium, DHI Washington

1:00 - 5:30pm
Symposium at the German Historical Institute, Washington DC
Conveners: German Historical Institute, Washington DC, German Embassy, Washington DC, KNOMAD/The World Bank

In the wake of the war in Syria and other conflicts and crises in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, the world is currently experiencing some of the largest waves of refugee movements since the end of World War II. Policy-makers, activists, researchers, and the media in Europe and North America have engaged in heated and often polemical debates about how to cope with the "flood" of refugees - Should they be given refuge? How many should each receiving country accept? How can or should they be integrated? These debates have been overtaken by events, as several European countries are facing the arrival of hundreds of thousands refugees crossing the Mediterranean and the Balkans.

Although politicians and the press in Europe and North America tend to stress the singularity of the current "refugee crisis," such a situation is by no means unprecedented. Over the course of the past seventy years, Western Europe and North America have repeatedly experienced the arrival of massive numbers of refugees and other forced migrants within short time spans. Among them were expellees and victims of "ethnic cleansing" in Central and Eastern Europe during and immediately after World War II, European "returnees" following decolonization in the 1960s-70s, political refugees during the Cold War, and several waves of people fleeing wars, civil wars, or persecution. As a matter of fact, post-1945 Western Europe has been to a large extent shaped by the arrival and the integration of millions of refugees and asylum-seekers. Such precedents are not entirely forgotten. Several cases - such as the post-1945 German expellees or the 1956 Hungarian refugees - are routinely mentioned in current debates but are mainly cited for polemical purposes or for their emotional resonance.

Against this backdrop, the symposium "The Refugee Crisis: Historical Perspectives from Europe and North America, 1945-2000" seeks to invite critical reflection by situating the current refugee migration in broader historical context. It examines and compares responses by the nations of North America and Western Europe to several instances of mass refugee and involuntary migration. How did state and society react to the refugees? How did the social, economic, and cultural integration happen? What were the prerequisites and the impediments of successful integration? What were the short-term and long-term consequences of accepting the migrants for the host societies?

The half-day symposium will look closely at five cases from the period between the 1940s to the late 1990s: (1) the German expellees after the Second World War; (2) decolonization migrants to France, the Netherlands, and Portugal in the 1960s and 1970s; (3) the 1956/57 Hungarian refugee crisis in Europe and North America; (4) Salvadoran refugees in the United States in the 1980s; and (5) refugees to Western Europe and North America during the Yugoslavia Wars in the 1990s. These cases cover a broad spectrum of types of migration and of international and domestic contexts. The driving forces and numbers of people involved varied considerably from case to case, and the backgrounds (national, religious, social) of the migrants also differed enormously. The common factor is that in each instance the receiving countries were confronted with the crucial question of how to deal with the arrival of a large number of people that could not simply send away.

The symposium will consist of presentations by five international specialists followed by a panel discussion. Each paper will focus on one of the five case studies. The panel discussion will focus on the question if and to what extent these historical case studies provide lessons for the current refugee crisis.

A panel discussion on "Learning from the Past? The Refugee Crisis in Historical Perspective" will follow the symposium.

Please RSVP  by Mar. 4. Tel: 202.387.3355 - Fax: 202.387.6437 -  E-mail