By Arockiam Kulandai, SJ

“There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one’s own native country” said Euripides, a great Greek poet (circa 480–406 B.C.). According to a UNHCR report in 2005, about 40 million people have been forced to flee from their country of origin for various reasons. Down the centuries, people have been made to forcibly move from their countries because of war, civil war, slavery, famine, violence, trade, employment etc. Five distinctive waves of migration can be seen in the recent history.

First wave of migration:

Migration began in the 17th century with the emergence of European states as imperial powers and continued through the end of the First World War. From Spain, Portugal and Britain came shiploads of migrants to settle in North and South America and the French moved to Quebec and later to North Africa. An estimated 55 million Europeans migrated overseas between 1821 and 1924, wherein 34 million of them moved to the United States.

Second wave of migration:

In the 17th century and 18th centuries European traders transported slaves from West Africa to South America, the Caribbean islands, Brazil and Guyana. Slavery was abolished in the beginning of the 19th century. The British recruited indentured workers from South Asia for employment in East Africa, Malaya, Fiji, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Sri Lanka. The Chinese were also recruited for employment in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Third wave of migration:

The third wave came about with the dissolution of empires after the First World War. The break-up of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires led to the formation of new nation states in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe with boundaries that did not always coincide with the existing ethnic settlements. So large-scale refugee flows began when new states sought to create a homogenous population through forced migration. Greeks, Jews, Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Turks, Serbs, Macedonians, Armenians and other minorities were forced to flee. People were moving to countries where their ethnic group was numerically larger. This way ethnic groups that were a minority earlier later became the majority during the 1920s. The Russian Revolution and the resulting Civil War produced additional streams of refugees. In 1930s the rise of Hitler and the extension of his Nazi military power throughout Europe led to thousands fleeing to countries that were considered safer.

Fourth wave of migration:

This took place after the First World War. It began with the disintegration of the colonial empires and the creation of dozens of new independent nations in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Many of these new states were often ethnically divided countries, characterized by repressive authoritarian regimes and weak civil societies. Almost inevitably, violent conflicts erupted and millions of people fled to protect their lives.

The world’s largest refugee flow took place in South Asia, following the partition of India in 1947 into India and Pakistan. An estimated 14 million Hindus and Muslims migrated between India and Pakistan. However, minorities were on the move almost everywhere in the newly emerging states: Arabs from the new state of Israel, Jews from North Africa, Chinese from Indonesia, South Asians from East Africa, Burma and Ceylon. Civil conflicts also produced refugee flows from Mozambique, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, East Pakistan (Bangladesh), Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cambodia, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

Fifth wave of migration:

This period overlaps with the fourth migration wave between 1950s and 1960s. It emerged in response to the rising demand for an imported labour force in Western Europe, the United States and oil-producing countries of the Middle East. Migrants from Turkey, North Africa and Yugoslavia were recruited as temporary workers for employment in Western Europe. The United States recruited temporary workers from Mexico and the Caribbean, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iraq. The smaller states of the Persian Gulf recruited migrant workers from Egypt, Yemen, South and South East Asia. Britain admitted migrants from its former colonies in South Asia and the Caribbean. Many of them became permanent additions to the population of their host countries and thereby changed the ethnic and religious characteristics of the host societies. Islam has emerged as a new religious force in Europe. Asians have become the dominant non-Arab element in the labour force in the Middle East. Latinos have rapidly supplemented the African Americans as the largest minority group in the U.S.

The unique and distinctive feature of all the five waves is that they changed the social structure, especially the ethnic compositions of both sending and receiving countries, sometimes in the direction of greater ethnic homogeneity, sometimes in the direction of greater heterogeneity. These five waves of migration have led to refugees and internally displaced people in all continents. Among the total refugee population, Asia has the largest number of refugees with 690,000,0. The second region is Africa with 486,000,0. The third largest is Europe with 443,000,0. Among the asylum seekers, a greater number are found in North America with 291,000 followed by Europe with 270,000. Quite naturally, industrialised countries have become a haven for asylum seekers as they could be readily accommodated.

Refugees who returned:

Among the returned refugees, Asia has more returnees, at 114,600,0. This is due to the Cambodians and Afghans returning home in 1990. Among IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), Latin America has 200,000,0 followed by Asia with 132,800,0. The majority of stateless people are found in Europe (731,000) and in Asia (724,000).  The global refugee population grew from 2.4 million in 1975 to 10.5 million in 1985 and to 14.9 million in 1990. Toward the end of Cold War in 1995 it reached 18.2 million. By 2000, the global refugee population had declined to 12.1 million (UNHCR Report 2000). It decreased for the fourth consecutive year in 2004 from 9.7 million to 9.2 million. However, there was a slight increase in the year 2005 (9.5 million).

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs):

People who were forcibly made to flee from their homes, yet who did not cross an international border, are called Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Their number rose from 1.2 million in 1982 to 14 million by 1986. It rose to over 20 million in 1997. In 2004, there were an estimated 25 million IDPs worldwide.

Significant refugee groups in human history:

The significant refugee groups in world history are: Huguenot Refugees, Armenian Refugees, Jewish Refugees, Bangladeshi Refugees and Indochinese Refugees (Bramwell, 1988).

Huguenot refugees: Protestants in France were called Huguenots in the 16th and 17th centuries. Most of the Huguenots were Calvinists. Henri de Bourbon, a Protestant and a King of Navarre, captured the French throne in 1589. In 1593 Henri converted to Catholicism. After a few years King Henri issued the Edict of Nantes that granted certain privileges for the Huguenots, like religious liberty everywhere. The Huguenots became loyal subjects of the French Crown, but, later, the mere existence of Huguenots made King Louis XIV, the grandson of Henri, feel increasingly insecure. Gradually the Huguenots’ lost their privileges and finally, in 1685, Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, exiled all Protestant pastors and forbade the laity to leave France. The Huguenots faced fierce persecution. Many left, at great risk to themselves, as all those who were caught were sent to the French fleet in the Mediterranean as galley slaves, while the women were thrown into jails and their children were sent to convents. About 200,000 Huguenots left France, settling in non-Catholic countries in Europe like England, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Prussia, and Russia.

Armenian refugees: Millions of Armenians were massacred during the Young Turks’ government under the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1917. This is called the Armenian genocide or the Armenian Holocaust, the Great Calamity or the Armenian Massacre. It has been acknowledged by the world to be one of the first modern and systematic genocides. The sheer scale of the terrible tragedy that led to the death of millions of Armenians is evidence for a well-organized plan to eliminate Armenians. Twenty one countries have officially acknowledged it as genocide. Before the First World War, there were about two million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire belonging to the Armenian Apostolic faith. A significant minority belonged to the Armenian Catholic Church, while several smaller groups were affiliated with Protestant denominations. Armenians were wiped out in their own historic homeland by 1922. This was the first genocide of the 20th century in which an entire nation was destroyed. The Young Turk Ottoman government of Turkey deported and murdered hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Assyrians, accusing them of collaboration with the Allies. The victims fled the country mainly to Russia as refugees.

Jewish refugees: The Nazi persecution of Jews culminated in the Holocaust of the European Jewry. The Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler, came to power in Germany in January 1933. There came immediately the persecution and exodus of 525,000 German Jews. In his autobiography, Mein Kampf (1925), Hitler was open about his hatred of Jews, and gave ample warning of his intention to drive them from Germany’s political, intellectual, and cultural life. Many were jailed and tortured in concentration camps. Thousands of Jews fled to other countries.

Bengali refugees: These are the people who fled East Pakistan (called Bangladesh today) in 1971 seeking refuge in India. The first general elections since Pakistan’s independence were held in Pakistan, in December 1970. While Mr Mujibur Rahman, a popular Bengali leader of the East Pakistan’s Awami League party, won a majority of the seats in the new assembly, Mr Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, the West Pakistan’s chief martial law administrator and president general, refused to honour the election results. Mujibur Rahman made a demand for East Pakistan’s independence at the end of March 1971. Yahya Khan gave orders for a military crackdown in East Pakistan. Mujib was arrested  and imprisoned in West Pakistan. Nearly 10 million refugees fled from East Pakistan to India in the ensuing eight months of martial rule by West Pakistan’s army.

Indochinese refugees (The boat people): Following the Communist takeovers in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in 1975, about 3 million people attempted to escape in the subsequent decades to far and near countries. After the fall of Saigon, many people in Cambodia, Laos, and especially Vietnam, were forced to become refugees in the late 1970s and 1980s. The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia murdered millions of people. Most people made attempts to escape. In Vietnam, the new Communist government sent many people who supported the old government in the South to ‘re-education camps’, where about 165,000 people are said to have died, and others to new economic zones. An estimated one million people were put in prison without formal charges or trials. Several thousand people were abused or tortured. These factors, along with poverty, were the cause for millions of Vietnamese fleeing the country. People tried to escape by boats to safer places. Called the “boat people”, they had to confront forces of nature and pirates before emigrating to Hong Kong, France, the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries. Many refugee camps were set up by the UNHCR in neighbouring countries to process the boat people. Partly for its work in Indochina, the UNHCR was awarded the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize.


(Excerpted from the book, Camp Life of Sri Lankan Refugees in India, Arockiam Kulandai, Routledge, London and New York, 2022.)

Fr. Arockiam Kulandai, SJ (MDU) is Dean, Management Studies, St. Joseph’s College, Trichy, India. He is teaching and supervising research in the Department of Human Resource Management, St. Joseph’s College. Before joining teaching i.e from 2002-05, he served the refugees in the camps in Tamil Nadu through the Tamil Nadu JRS team and served the internally displaced peoples (IDPs) during the wartime during 2008, staying in Mannar, Sri Lanka. He has completed two Minor Research Projects from UGC and ICSSR, New Delhi, and acted as a reviewer for research papers for international journals.)