Palestine and other forced migrations since 1945: a summary

Estimates suggest between 12-14 million Europeans were displaced in the aftermath of WWII, either through forced migrations, deportations or population transfers based on ethnic criteria. The largest numbers came from eastern Germany, Poland and the Baltic states. This upheaval deeply influenced the movement towards refugee protections and enactment of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention or the Geneva Convention, of July 28, 1951.

The list below contains the major forced mass migrations since that upheaval, though it could be said that the creation of the state of Isreal mentioned below was a part of that WW2 – caused upheaval. Note how often forced mass migrations are part of the creation or destruction of a country.  Are the countries that were instrumental in creating or dismembering a county responsible for the consequences of human displacement? Do these case studies show a way out of the current Palistinian siutation?

(Here is a brief summary of mass migrations due to American-involved wars since the 1960s.)

Partition of India and Pakistan (1947): The division of British India into the two independent states of India and Pakistan, largely along religious lines, led to the displacement of up to 15 million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims due to sectarian violence and fear of persecution. Today, there are about one million Hindus living in Pakistan. There are about 200 million Muslims living in India, the majority of whom live in Jammu and Kashmir, some in disputed territory.  In 2019, India passed the Citizenship Amendment Act = which fast-tracks citizenship for persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but excludes Muslims. The Modi government has made moves to question the legal status of many Muslims in Assam and West Bengal, threatening to deport them to Bangladesh.

Arab-Israeli War (1948): Most of the current number of some 5 million Palestinian refugees originated from areas within modern-day Israel. When Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were expelled.  Jordan occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip – accounting for the remaining 23% of land. Many Palestinian refugees relocated to the West Bank, Gaza Strip and neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Large refugee camps like Ain el-Hilweh in Lebanon and Jabalia in Gaza, have taken on a permanent character over the decades.

The original 1948 refugee population was estimated at 700,000-750,000. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reported over 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in its areas of operation in 2016. Jordan has the largest Palestinian refugee population at over 2 million, followed by Gaza, the West Bank and Syria. Descendants of the original 1948 refugees retain the refugee status. Host countries have granted Palestinian varying residency and citizenship rights. Refugees in Gaza, West Bank and Syria continue to have permanent refugee status with fewer citizenship rights. Their status remains unresolved pending final Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Korean War Refugees (1950-1953): The Korean War caused the displacement of over 5 million people. The division of Korea into North and South led to massive movements of civilians fleeing from the conflict and from communist rule in the North. Only about 20,000 persons have been involved in reunification efforts since.

Vietnamese Boat People (1970s-1980s): After the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the reunification of Vietnam under communist control, political repression, economic sanctions, and conflicts with neighboring China and Cambodia led to the exodus of over 1 million Vietnamese by sea. The Vietnamese American population was about 2 million in 2019, making them the largest Southeast Asian American group. This represents a growth of about 40% since 2000. The Hmong American population was about 326,000 in 2019. The Cambodian American population was about 329,000 in 2019.

Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989): This invasion and the subsequent Afghan Civil War caused over 6 million Afghans to flee, primarily to Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan is home to over 4 million Afghan migrants and refugees, about 1.7 million of whom are undocumented, according to Islamabad. Afghans make up the largest portion of migrants – many came after the Taliban retook Afghanistan in 2021, but a large number have been present since the 1979 Soviet invasion. Pakistan is now expelling all undocumented Afghans.  Iran hosts over 1.1 million Afghans of varying status including, 360,000 Afghans with Iranian resident permits, 267,000 family passport holders and 500,000 undocumented Afghans. (The American withdrawal in 2021 precipitated some 100,000 being admitted into the U.S.)

Iran-Iraq War and Kurdish Displacements (1980s):  In 1990, there were around 3.5-4 million Kurds living in Iraq, making up around 19-20% of Iraq’s total population The Kurdish population was concentrated in the northern provinces of Erbil, Duhok and Sulaymaniyah, though many also lived in Baghdad and other mixed areas. After the Gulf War in 1991, it is estimated that around 1.5 million Iraqi Kurds fled or were displaced to the Kurdish autonomous region, established that year. Iraq’s Kurds were able to establish an autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 3 provinces of northern Iraq under Western protection. This was recognized in Iraq’s 2005 constitution. The KRG has its own parliament, military and jurisdiction over the Kurdistan Region.

Breakup of Yugoslavia (1991-1999): The violent disintegration of Yugoslavia led to the displacement of over 4 million people throughout the 1990s, due to a series of conflicts in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. Bosnia and Herzegovina was recognized as an independent state in 1992 following a referendum. Its constitution, drafted in 1995 as part of the Dayton Peace Accords, created a complex political structure organized into two largely autonomous entities – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and was recognized by western powers that year.

Rwandan Genocide (1994): The targeted genocide against Tutsis by the Hutu majority government led to approximately 2 million people fleeing Rwanda, predominantly to the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The disruption extends through today with the presence  in the DRC of the M13 army, supported it is alleged by Rwanda. Eastern provinces of the DRC, such as North Kivu, are the source of many CRC refugees in the United States.

Sudanese Civil Wars (1983-2005): Over the course of the conflict between the Muslim government in the north and the Christian and animist south, around 5 million people were displaced with many fleeing to Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda.

South Sudan (2013-present): About 2.2 million persons have left this country, which was founded in 2011.

Syrian Civil War (2011-present): One of the largest refugee crises of the 21st century, this conflict has led to over 6.6 million refugees fleeing Syria, with millions more displaced internally. Destinations include Turkey, over 3.6 million; Lebanon, around 1 million;  Jordan; Jordan, around 660,000; and Germany, over 800,000. Sweden, heretofore extremely homogenous, has received 150,000.

Venezuela (2014-present): Due to a major economic and political crisis, according to UN estimates, over 7.7 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2014, and most sense the late 2010s.  The majority of Venezuelan emigrants have gone to nearby countries in South America and the Caribbean, with Colombia hosting the most – estimated at over 1.7 million as of 2019.  The Venezuelan population in the U.S, about 300,000 pre-pandemic, has grown by upwards of 500,000 since, in part approved by special designations by the Biden Administration. These actions by BIden result in the largest increase in authorized residency in the United States since Obama, by Executive Order, in 2012 created DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).

Note: this list can be expanded to include other displacements such as affecting the Tamil population, Tibet, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Eritrea. Suggestions are welcome:




One thought on “Palestine and other forced migrations since 1945: a summary”

  1. As always, you bring an informative overview lending clarity and perspective to a very dysfunctional aspect of cultural conflict within (and over flowing from) national borders. Still hard to wrap one’s head around the loss of life in the current conflict. Netanyahu has reminded the US that we were the perpetrators of mass civilian death when it suited our purposes. Have you read ‘The Peace to End All Peace” by David Fromkin> I’m just starting it but it brings some clarity to the role of European politics in the formation of the modern Middle East and the seeds of dysfunction that were planted in that process.

    Looking forward to your visit.

    – Jez

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