Throughout the long history of man, intolerance, persecution, and war have generated mass movements of frightened, weary people. The very word "refugee" (from the French refugiem ) dates back 300 years to the Protestant Huguenots who fled religious repression in Roman Catholic France.
But is debatable whether today's world is suffering from proportionately more refugees than in the past. It may just seem so, some analysts suggest, because modern society has beenexposed to dramatic television and other media coverage of dramas like those of Vietnam's and Cuba's "boat people."
"I think it iis a bit of both," says Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Not only are we having to cope with an unprecedented number of refugees from all parts of the world, notably Africa and Asia, but we have also certainly become more conscious of the dilemma than say a few years ago."
Perhaps the greatest difference is that before the 20the century there wa little organized international response. Indeed, fre governments or societies seemed to care. It has only been in the past 60 years that the refugee problem is jarred people and governments into cooperative aid programs.
The turbulent period that included World War I and the Russian revolution began the process.
Besides the disruptions of World War I itself, some 1.5 million people left Russia in the three years following the 1917 "October REvolution." They settled mainly in Europe and China. Many of them later made their way to North America.
The next wave was made up of 500,000 Armenians. They fled Turkey after an estimated 2 million of their countrymen were massacred in 1916. Another 1.25 million people, this time Greeks fleeing Anatolia (Asia Minor), sought refuge in Greece and other parts of Europe after the 1921-22 Greco-Turkish war.
Most relief operations were initially carried out by the Red Cross, church groups, and a few governments on a bilateral basis.But more aid was needed. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were living in camps in Asia Minor or crowded in major European cities such as Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and paris. So in 1921 the League of Nations appointed a high commissioner for refugees.
Relief sources say the world has produced as many as 100 million refugees since World War II, which added 12 million of its own. Most of them were Europeans in the early post-war years. Only five months after the capitulation of Germany in May 1945, The UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration repatriated 7 million displaced persons with the help of volunteer organizations.
Entire refugee populations were exchanged or ejected. Among them were the thousands of Russians who in some cases were forcibly sent back to the Soviet Union. Many ended up in Stalin's slave camps.
Other East Europeans refused to live under Soviet control or domination. One million of these people from Russia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other Eastern countries poured into refugee camps in 1946. Many were eventually resettled in Western Europe, North and South America, and Australia. Since 1945 and the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, more than 3.75 million East Germans have fled to the West.
While Europe was losing some refugees but taking in others, political upheavals elsewhere in the world were spawning similar mass movements. The partition of India in 1947 produced millions of Muslim and Hindu refugees fleeing religious strife.
In the Middle East, the creation of Israel in 1948 absorbed most of Europe's remaining Jewish refugees. But the conflict between the Arabs and Israelis produced a new crop of homeless: 750,000 Palestinians. More than 30 years later the Palestinians, now numbering 1.8 million, are still refugees.
In 1951 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established to deal with the 1.25 million refugees still in Europe. Later its mandate was broadened to include refugees all over the world.
Refugee movements have tended to come in spurts over the past three decades. In many cases the international community has handled them through repatriation or resettlement.
Until the mid-1950s East European refugees continued to trickle into Austria, Germany, and Italy. Then came the 1956 Hungarian revolt and the brutal Soviet response. Almost overnight some 200,000 Hungarians fled to Austria and Yugoslavia. Yet barely 18 months later 180,000 Hungarians had been resettled in 30 different countries, while 18,000 agreed to return to their homeland.
Similarly, the turmoil surrounding Algeria's struggle for independence against France in 1957 forced some 250,000 refugees to seek refuge in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco. Almost all were repatriated several years later.
In the 1960s, the refugee seepages shifted away from Europe and more toward the crisis-prone areas of the third world. After Fidel Castro's takeover in 1959, The United States was deluged with more than 500,000 Cuban refugees. The first appeal to the UNHCR from a black African country came in 1961, when the Togo government asked for help in dealing with 6,000 refugees from Ghana.
But the beginning of the 1970s marked one of the worst refugee crises in modern times. Almost 10 million inhabitants of East Pakistan, later to become Bangladesh, fled to India. By the end of 1972, however, they had all been repatriated.
Considered the ideal solution to refugee problems, repatriation has become one of the hallmarks of the 1970s. Hundreds of thousands of Africans have returned to Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, and Angola in the wake their independence from Portugal.
In two other successful operations, more than 187,000 Burmese refugees in Bangladesh returned home in 1979, while some 100,000 Nicaraguans returned home after the overthrow of Gen. Anastasio Somoza.
Today, however, the refugee roster is again becoming dangerously long, relief officials agree. The turmoil in Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Africa, and Latin America is rapidly adding to the rolls.
"The problems have become so massive," warned George Elsy, president of the American Red cross in an interview with the Monitor, "that they are beyond the abilities of the UNHCR and the voluntary agencies to cope. We can only serve as crisis organizations. It is up to the governments."