Rear-view mirror: when Europeans sought refuge

Friday, October 23, 2015

“We never learn from history.” 

How many times have you said, or heard someone else say that. As we witness unprecedented human mobility caused by raging conflicts in the Middle East and other parts of the world, abject poverty, human rights violations and persecution, we are sometimes quick to forget that we have witnessed this many times in our recent history plagued by global conflict.

The current migrant and refugee emergency is perhaps the right time for a reminder that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) came into existence after the Second World War, as the Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movements of Migrants from Europe (PICMME) which soon after became the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM).

Coming into existence in post-World War II Europe and a few years after the establishment of the United Nations, ICEM became the preeminent agency tasked with processing the emigration of over 406,000 refugees, displaced persons and economic migrants from Europe to overseas countries such as the United States, Australia, Canada, amongst others.

ICEM was responsible for the resettlement of nearly 200,000 Hungarian refugees who had fled to Austria and Yugoslavia after the Soviet invasion of 1956. In response to the crisis, ICEM together with the host countries, quickly provided the Hungarian refugees with humanitarian aid like food, clothing and shelter.

Such were the migration and refugee flows in Europe at the time, that by 1960, ICEM had directly assisted 1 million migrants.

In 1968, ICEM organized the resettlement of 40,000 Czechoslovakian refugees from Austria.

By mid 1970s over 2 million migrants had been directly assisted by ICEM – most of them European.

In 1992, IOM launched the Yugoslav Emergency Programme (YEP) for the evacuation and family reunification of displaced persons from former Yugoslavia and over the following eight years the programme assisted over 130,000 persons.

In 1996, IOM assisted more than 190,000 Bosnian refugees in Europe to return home. On the eve of the new millennium IOM organized the Humanitarian Evacuation Programme which airlifted some 80,000 Kosovar refugees from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to over 30 host countries.

With the current Hungarian response and general lack of coordinated European Union response to the migration and refugee emergency being criticized, reminding Hungary and other Europeans of their own history as desperate migrants and refugees is sometimes casually dismissed. “Those mass movements cannot be compared and the contexts were different from what we are seeing now,” is the often repeated retort. That may indeed be so, but the main compelling reason why yesteryear and todays’ refugees and migrants are desperately migrating in numbers remain the same. Self-preservation.

The same pragmatism, compassion, empathy, coordinated responses and decisiveness (eventually in some cases) shown throughout these aforementioned migration and refugee crises within Europe, is now desperately needed for today’s migrants and refugees who are now arriving on Europe’s shores.

By Itayi Viriri

Photo series on Hungarian refugees from 1956:

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