About The Refugee in the Postwar World



Emigrant Assembly Center photo courtesy of U.S. Holocaust Memorial MuseumThe Refugee in the Postwar World is an interdisciplinary conference that explores the causes, consequences, and contemporary interpretations of the refugee crises that followed the end of World War II. The key objective is to gain a better understanding of a pivotal period of global population upheavals, which was also a critical moment in the formation of the international refugee regime. The conference examines the relationship between the construction of nation-states and the formation of refugee populations, the uneven development of the international refugee regime, the practices of refugee relief, and refugees' efforts to make sense of their dislocation. Taking a global perspective, it focuses on the geographical regions in which displacement was most extensive after the war: Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia.

During the late 1940s and early 50s, more people were displaced than at any other time in modern history. Surveying population movements in 1953, the sociologist Jacques Vernant concluded that refugees were “one of the most burning problems of our times.” In Europe, the refugees included some 12 million Germans expelled from their homes in Eastern Europe in a series of brutal “ethnic cleansings” and some 200,000 Jews fleeing renewed antisemitic persecution in Poland. These new refugees joined the more than 1 million wartime “displaced persons” still scattered throughout Europe, the remainder of a population that in the immediate aftermath of war reached about 11 million. In South Asia, the Partition of India was accompanied by widespread communal violence that forced between 10 and 12 million people from their homes. In East Asia and the Middle East as well, political transformations created huge new refugee populations. However, the significance of the postwar period lies not only in the numbers of people displaced: this period also saw the development of a new body of norms, rules, and structures for managing refugee crises—a new international refugee regime. Supplanting an earlier group-oriented approach, the new refugee regime was organized around a putatively universal definition of “the refugee” as an individual fleeing political persecution. Despite its universalizing pretensions, however, this regime was by no means comprehensive. Its development was informed primarily by the experience of assisting displaced persons in Europe. Refugee crises outside Europe often continued to be addressed in an ad hoc fashion, with little assistance from the international community. Indeed, even within Europe, many refugees remained outside the structures of the refugee regime.

By taking a global approach, the conference offers the opportunity to systematically compare both the causes and consequences of the postwar refugee crises and thus to identify both common structural and historical underpinnings and salient differences. With this goal in mind, the conference focuses on four central issues. First, how were postwar refugee movements related to the formation and reformation of states? What salient categories of difference were employed in the construction of nation-states and what kinds of refugees did they produce? Second, how did governments and intergovernmental organizations respond to each of these crises and why did some crises prompt a stronger response than others? What forms did international assistance take and what definitions of “the refugee” were deployed in the process? Third, what techniques for managing refugee populations were developed in response to postwar refugee crises? What durable practices of international refugee relief, and international humanitarian assistance more generally, developed during this period? Fourth, how did refugees themselves make sense of dislocation? What did the concept of refugee mean from an experiential perspective?

The views or opinions expressed in this conference, and the context in which the image above is used, does not necessarily reflect the views, or policy of, nor imply endorsement by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.