Michigan State University

The European Migration Crisis in Perspective

Kasey Wilson

In his speech to the US Congress on September 24, Pope Francis stated that “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War.” This common refrain can be heard throughout the current dialogue on the refugee and migrant situation in Europe and elsewhere but, what does it really mean?

Following the Potsdam Agreement, there were approximately 23 million people displaced either by the war’s effect or through the forced expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe. These population movements are reflected in our map from 1952, showing an astounding 13.5 million refugees in Eastern and Western Germany and another 1.5 million refugees throughout Western Europe seven years after WWII.

Map 1: Map projecting the spreading of refugees in western Europe. Beijer, G. published by:M. Nijhoff, The Hague. 1952.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw another migration crisis in Western Europe. This event was of a smaller scale than after WWII or the present but was not less contentious. At that time, EU member states tightened their borders and instituted laws refusing entry to refugees entering the EU through a third 'politically safe' country. This policy, concerned with deterring economic migrants from former Soviet Republics, has stirred intense debate and added to the misery of refugees currently traveling through Eastern Europe to seek asylum in Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

Map 2: Coping with the rising tide of European immigration. Washington, D.C., USA. Central Intelligence Agency. 1993.

Currently, UNHCR estimates that over 800,000 people have fled to Europe by sea, with the majority fleeing the on-going conflict in Syria. However, these numbers represent only a fraction of the 11.7 million displaced Syrians and the greater than 50 million displaced persons around the globe. It is because of these staggering figures that the numerous comparisons to the post-WWII situation are common and warranted.

These maps are on display in the MSU Map Library starting November 16, 2015.

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