To be a refugee — torn from home, friends, possessions, culture — is never less than a ghastly predicament. Last year, the Welsh-Egyptian filmmaker Sally El Hosaini released a terrific movie, The Swimmers, based on the true story of two young Syrian sisters fleeing from their devastated homeland.
There is a scene in which they and a score of others attempt a night passage between Turkey and a Greek island: Their overloaded, leaking dinghy begins to sink. The two girls, aspiring Olympic competitors, heroically take to the water to lighten the load. The film captures, as well as any movie can, the sort of ordeal many such fugitives endure.
Globally, 2023 threatens to be the worst year since 1945 for the displacement of peoples from their homelands. An extraordinarily high proportion are victims of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Around 13 million people, half of Syria's population, has been forced to flee their homes due to Putin's client Bashar al-Assad and the Russian firepower backing him. Of these, seven million have quit the country entirely, like the swimmers of the movie title.
Meanwhile, 14 million Ukrainians have been reduced to the same plight following the Russian invasion of their country; many have been granted sanctuary in Western Europe. Nearly 100,000 have entered the US under President Joe Biden's Uniting for Ukraine program. It is heartening to behold the generosity with which families on both sides of the Atlantic have opened their doors and wallets to the displaced.
The experiences of the hosts have been mixed. Some find their guests charming, grateful — eager to make the best of their new lives and above all to work. Others tell less happy tales, and become impatient to see the backs of the visitors. When living at close quarters with strangers, it is easy to display compassion for a few days; much harder to sustain the Samaritan spirit through many months.
Many Ukrainians themselves at first travelled with unrealistic expectations. Earlier this year I spoke at a dinner at a Ukrainian center in West London, attended partly by refugees — some of whom sang wonderfully and movingly — and also by British charity workers responsible for finding quarters for the newcomers. One of the latter said grimly: "They think they'll be going home before the summer is over. It is going to be tough when they realize this almost certainly isn't so." Indeed, it has so proved.
Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said last week: "I am afraid that in a while we will face a second migration wave related to the winter in Ukraine. And then what?" The UN estimates that around a third of the country's population has been forced out of its homes. Almost five million have registered for benefits offered by the European Union, including rights of residency, health care and access to jobs. Some 1.5 million are registered in Poland alone.
Now that the Russians are conducting a systematic missile assault on Ukraine's civilian energy and communications infrastructure, the plight of the people worsens. Each day at the Polish border there are harrowing scenes as stricken people take the painful road out of their own country and culture, into societies where they know no one, whose language they are unlikely to speak. They must become career outsiders, perhaps for years.
Moreover, refugees are becoming part of the planet's chronic condition, with immense political, social and economic consequences. In Asia, the brutal Myanmar military dictatorship has driven a million ethnic Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh. These people, like the Ukrainians and Syrians, had little choice save to quit a manmade desolation. Yet a host of others from Africa and South and Central America flee northward mostly from poverty, in search of better lives than they can aspire to at home. They become refugees of choice, economic migrants. An estimated six million such people have fled Venezuela. Daily scenes at the US-Mexican border emphasize the scale of the ongoing exodus from Central America.
Last week, a British government source asserted that "an almost infinite" number of foreign migrants is attempting to gain illegal entry into the UK. Media attention currently focuses on Albanians crossing the British Channel in dinghies, but a government spokesperson says: "Even if you stopped any more Albanians coming across, the boats would still travel … filled by Somalis, Eritreans or Afghans who can't afford to pay as much as the Albanians."
Some of us have argued for years that migration — especially but not exclusively from the Southern to the Northern Hemisphere — will be almost as challenging an issue for 21st century governments as climate change, yet few have yet awoken to its prospective scale.
Economic logic argues that all the advanced democracies should admit migrants, not merely from humanity but also self-interest: to compensate for the huge demographic shortfall of native-born workers. Yet among the foremost drivers of nationalist and racist extremism across the world is hostility to threatened changes to the ethnic makeup of societies, whether the US or Europe or Australia. White demagogues and their supporters are immune to the economic arguments — they simply do not want more foreigners.
Refugees are not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, war and famine have prompted shifts of population, many of them involving ghastly sufferings for those displaced. Yet in times gone by, many factors mitigated against the conditions of such peoples hitting the headlines. There were no headlines, or rather no mass media. Population sizes were much smaller. And mankind was more callous: There was nothing like today's widespread sensitivity to the fate of victims of whom most people knew nothing. If they drowned, nobody much noticed.
In the murderous 20th century, hundreds of thousands perished or fled as a consequence of the pre-1914 Balkan conflicts. Little Serbia lost far more dead than France, Britain and the US in World War I — at least 1.2 million, almost a third of its population, most of them not on battlefields but instead as civilian "collateral damage." The Turks slaughtered Armenians in wartime pogroms, then between 1919 and 1922 drove out millions of Greeks from Anatolia and Thrace, killing perhaps 100,000 of them in their destruction of the port of Smyrna.
Tens of millions of Chinese were dispossessed by the Japanese invasion of their country in 1931 and subsequent wars, and an unnumbered multitude of them died. Russia's revolution and civil war, followed by Stalin's 1930s purges and agricultural policies, were responsible for the flight and deaths of far more people than Hitler contrived until at least 1942.
In the late 1940s, an acronym passed into the language of Europe: DP, for displaced person. One refugee wrote: "In our freight wagon there were 98 people, and … we were squeezed together like sardines in a can. When we reached Allenstein people started to die, and had to be deposited along the side of the tracks … Many, many bodies."
These were not Jews, nor other victims of Hitler. The words above are taken from the narrative of a man evicted from Poland in June 1945, following the end of World War II. He was one of more than 12 million ethnic Germans driven from Eastern Europe in the upheaval of revenge that took place. (The former Prussian city of Allenstein is now Olsztyn, Poland.)
At least 500,000 died en route, and today's German government insists that the real toll was much higher — two million, including many women and children. Yet few people in the democracies cared, because the expulsions took place when all of ruined Europe was convulsed by the aftereffects of Hitler. Most of those aware of what was happening — of "death trains" and months-long marches through desolated and unwelcoming countrysides — regarded this as poetic justice. Whatever happened to Germans was OK, because they started it.
For years after the war, the plight of millions of many nationalities stranded in camps was a scar upon the continent. Zionists wanted the Jews, of course, but the British who were in charge of Palestine resisted admitting them.
Stalin wanted the Russians and Ukrainians, many of whom he eventually got and then promptly shot or imprisoned. He cared nothing that they had been Hitler's prisoners and forced laborers; he saw them only as traitors. On their return to Russia, those fortunate enough to be spared punishment had their identity papers stamped for life with the words "former prisoner."
The German refugees from the east could look for little pity from the allied victors. More than 20 years ago I interviewed a woman who had fled across the ice and snow from East Prussia in the first months of 1945, as the Red Army pressed relentlessly on the heels of the desperate throngs. Hundreds of thousands perished from cold, hunger or despair, causing my interviewee to say bitterly, and of course tastelessly: "It was our holocaust, but nobody cares."
Some American and British officers serving in postwar Germany, as well as several visiting politicians, expressed horror at the condition of the DPs, including Goronwy Rees, later a well-known writer: "It is inevitable that millions of the nomads who wander aimlessly in all directions across Germany should find no resting place but the grave …. These facts could be altered, if at all, only by a universal effort of philanthropy."
The 12 million ethnic Germans who survived their flights from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and East Prussia proved in some ways the most fortunate: Their new homeland, West Germany, was ready to receive, feed, house, educate and find jobs for them. Nonetheless, before all those good things happened, all Germans — natives and refugees alike — had to endure years of extreme hardship.
Since World War II, many other nations have experienced refugee migrations: India, in the wake of the 1947 partition; Palestine, after the creation of Israel; China, after the triumph of Mao Zedong; Korea and Vietnam, after their conflicts; and many more, including victims of scores of African civil wars.
Those of us who witnessed one or more of those terrible movements of people never forget the spectacle. In our comfortable lives in democratic nations, we take for granted a certain amount of security from both hunger and violence. When we witness others being obliged to flee, we realize how privileged we are.
It is chilling to recognize that one among many reasons that Putin welcomes the great refugee exoduses, and indeed promotes them, is that today's DPs feed social tensions in Western Europe. Seven years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel provoked an EU political crisis by agreeing to accept a million Syrian refugees in Germany — once again, victims of Putin.
Donald Trump, then president-elect, denounced her open-door policy as "a catastrophic mistake." His British ally, nationalist leader Nigel Farage, called it and "the worst decision a European leader has made in modern times."
Yet a German integration official, Katarina Niewiedzial, said recently of the Syrians: "It's a success story even if no one quite has the confidence to say it yet. Germany has managed." Today, the country has the fifth-highest refugee population in the world, and highest in Europe after Poland. Right-wing nationalists are assuredly unhappy, but German society as a whole has adapted astonishingly well.
Many of us who live comfortable lives in democracies suffer compassion fatigue when confronted with such a catalogue of human tragedy. Last autumn's outbreak of cholera in northern Syria, which spread to Lebanon, passed most of us by, because it afflicted people we do not know. Few of us are related to the 400,000 school-age Syrian children who have no classrooms in their camps in Turkey.
Natural disasters that have always afflicted mankind — floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and such — but a stupendous number of others are dispossessed because of the w
Max Hastings is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A former editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard, he is author, most recently, of "The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis Cuba 1962."illful, intended acts of evil people. Those millions of Ukrainians and Syrians, for instance, are suffering their fates because one man, Russia's Putin, has willed it. His victims will never forget or forgive: nor must we.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.