- I can identify locations around the world from which refugees come.
- I can think about world events as interrelated.
- I can explain possible causes and consequences of displacement.
- I can use photographs and other historical sources to examine the role of different historical agents — from state powers to humanitarian organizations.
Note: Sections of this background are taken from the Collection introduction because they support the learning targets of this activity.
In the pre-World War II era, a number of factors created refugees. In the seventeen century, Huguenots left France because religious beliefs led to persecution. Colonialism and wars in the late nineteenth century displaced large numbers of citizens. A number of events and social phenomena shifted the perception of displaced peoples in the early twentieth century, which marked the emergence of the global modern refugee. Between 1914 and 1922, World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the ethno-religious “unmixing” of Greece and Turkey displaced millions of people. In 1919, the Turkish government massacred one million Armenians, and the threat of death forced hundreds of thousands of surviving Armenians out of the country. In this pre-World War II era, different countries appealed to refugees, and some countries encouraged refugee resettlement. Jews seeking refuge from religious persecution went to South America and the United States.
While the World War I era conflicts uprooted some seven million people, it was the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War that pushed 40 million people into statelessness. Europe became the focus of refugee history because inward-looking nations such as the United States made it more difficult for refugees and migrants to enter the country. World War II marked a turning point in the movement of peoples. On the one hand, the number of refugees increased. Wars and conflicts, failing governments, uprisings, and disasters forced millions of people around the globe to leave their homelands in levels that challenged host governments and humanitarian organizations, and fundamentally altered nation states. At the same time, their movement became more difficult as nations introduced more border control and restrictions for entry.
From the 1960s on, African countries dealt with the fallout of decolonization, genocide, and famine. The 1990s saw the end of the Soviet-Bloc-affected wars in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, which led to another large wave of displacement. These events prompted some receiving countries to change their refugee policies. In the 1970s and 1980s, refugees from Vietnam and Kampuchea (Cambodia) went to Australia, a country that had not previously encouraged refugees. The arrival of Vietnamese refugees marked the end of the infamous White Australia Policy, or the Immigration Restriction Act, which was passed in 1901 and was designed to discourage non-Europeans from coming to the country.
Cold War refugees from Asia also impacted the West. Hundreds of thousands of so-called “boat people” — formerly people from the French colonies of Indochina who did not want to live under repressive Communist rule in the post-Vietnam War era — became a fixture in the national consciousness of the United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s as refugees were resettled there. Cubans also braved storms and the shark-infested waters of the Florida Straits in their efforts to reach the United States during the 1980s, as did Haitians in the 1990s. Thus, the present-day situation in the Mediterranean is not the first instance of widespread attention to refugees fleeing by boat.
IDPs faced similar challenges. In Columbia, for example, a 50-year civil war has produced more than five million IDPs. The government security forces and paramilitary units have been combating the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or FARC, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and the National Liberation Army (or ELN, Ejército de Liberación Nacional). The illegal drug trade has exacerbated the numbers of IDPs as people have left their homes because of the added threat of drug-related violence.
In 2016, negotiations began in Myanmar to end the long civil war, which started in 1948. Decades of fighting between ethnic minority groups and the government have resulted in large numbers of IDPs and mass human rights abuses. The Rohingya population (who are Muslims) continue to suffer disproportionately. People from Myanmar form the largest refugee population in the United States as of 2015.
As with World War II, 2015 was arguably a turning point in modern refugee history. Beginning around 2011, the world began to see unprecedented numbers of conflict-driven displacement. Conflicts and failed states in Africa and the Middle East led people to flee Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has become increasingly difficult to settle in neighboring countries, so most look to Europe as the only other possible destination. Passing through the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and other countries in Eastern Europe because these countries offer little in terms of economic stability, millions of people have embarked on perilous journeys to seek new lives in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and the UK. Because of the substantial numbers they have accepted into the country, Germany has played a central role: In 2015 alone, 1.1 million refugees crossed the German border. Berlin received nearly 10,000 refugees in November 2015.
Throughout 2015, the world was riveted by the images of ill-equipped and overcrowded boatloads of Syrian families and individuals struggling to survive a perilous passage through the Aegean Sea. Dogan News Agency’s Nilufer Demir’s photograph of the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi shocked the world. Kurdi drowned after the overcrowded boat carrying him and his family across the Mediterranean was overcome by waves, and his body was found washed up near the Turkish town of Bodrum. Yet Kurdi represents just one life out of millions impacted by what many observers now recognize as the greatest humanitarian crisis the world has ever known.
Meanwhile, changing climate conditions and environmental factors are creating new kinds of displacement that do not fit neatly into definitions of persecution, because there is no legal definition of a “climate refugee” or an “environmental refugee.” Floods and storm events are the overwhelming cause of internal displacement. In Myanmar, nearly half a million people have had to flee their homes because of monsoon flooding. Other events, such as the earthquake in Nepal, have also caused displacement.
In Oman and Mongolia, climate change is impacting pasture quality and water resources and disrupting the rural landscape. Therefore, those who are economically dependent on the land see rural poverty and out-migration. These “environmental migrants” are often forced to leave pastoralism all together because fencing, policies, and fixed borders restrict their capacity to move and continue their work in either their home country or a neighboring nation state. The government often reinforces these pressures with policies of forced settlement, thus cutting them off from their livelihoods. The issue is further compounded by large-scale mining and oil extraction in these regions, which further degrades the local ecosystem.
Unlike refugees of the past, refugees today use smartphone apps such as WhatsApp, Viber, Messenger, and Google Maps to help them navigate sea crossings and hostile borders and to maintain contact with loved ones. This also helps them keep their family and friends informed of their whereabouts. Before arriving at a destination, through texting and messaging, refugees can determine their next steps. A number of refugees have used their experience and skills to create their own social media tools to help others. A Syrian refugee living in Turkey created an app called Gherbetna (which translates to “loneliness, otherness, or exile” in Arabic) that aids users by answering questions and offering advice, such as how to apply for a work permit in Turkey. Another online network helps Syrian refugees find job opportunities in the country in which they have relocated.
Questions to Consider
- What events or factors lead to people being displaced?
- What are reasons that someone would be forced out of their home, community, or country?
- Is displacement more prevalent now than it was 100 years ago?
Begin the Activity
Group students into fours, and then give each group one of the photographs selected for this activity. Have them read the caption and study the photographs for other clues. Have them consider the following questions:
- Where was this photograph taken?
- Why is/are the subject(s) in this photograph?
- When was this photograph created?
- From where was/were the person(s) displaced?
- Why did this displacement occur?
- What do you need in order to understand more about the people in the photograph?
Students will be able to answer some of these questions, but not all. Allow the groups to research online about their photograph so they can answer each question accurately and be able to support their answers.
Mapping and Inferring
Ideally, you can have a world map or globe in the front of the room. (Feel free to display one overhead as well.) Have each group of four show on the map where the people (or person) in the photograph were from originally and where they were when they were photographed. Then have each group tell the class why they were displaced and what happened when they were relocated. Once all of the images are “mapped” and each group has explained their photograph, have the class brainstorm responses to this question: What factors created forced displacement or statelessness?
Look to identify common themes across each image.
The UNHCR and the Foreign Policy Group websites provide resources showing the movement of people across Europe. Human migration is mapped and charted using a variety of displays. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html and http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/09/03/europes-migrant-crisis-by-the-numbers/
- Using statistics provided by the UNHCR, have students create a map of the major locations from which people are displaced and where they ended up. To examine specific aspects of this issue, students can use techniques of carto journalism to create alternative maps, through which they can observe the wealth/GDPs of the countries that have taken refugees versus the countries that have not, along with other statistics. Carto journalism combines journalistic research and cartography to create maps based on information or statistics rather than traditional geographic features. The State of the World Atlas (1991) pioneered this technique.
- Students can research the displacement of people as a result of specific environmental disasters. These could be isolated incidents — such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods — or ongoing environmental changes that have created displacement.