European Refugees In The Middle East: Looking For Safety During World War 2

Much of the discourse around refugees, particularly within certain strands of the media, has taken the flavour of “us” and “them”. Refugees are regularly dehumanised, and talked about in the language of “swarms”. This is not reserved to right-wing media, with former British Prime Minister David Cameron using the latter term to describe some of those attempting to get to Europe, a reflection of the mainstreaming of such divisive language. What many seem to overlook quite readily is that refugees are a primary example of people who are the victims of the direst circumstances. Many like to place much of the blame on the refugees themselves, forgetting that in different circumstances, it would indeed be “us” who flee our homes in search of the basic, inalienable, human right called safety.

This is not a hypothetical pondering. Casting our focus back to World War 2 and we can find numerous examples of Europeans fleeing to the Middle East for refuge. In 1941, Hitler’s aggressive war machine had conquered much of Europe leaving millions of civilians without a safe haven. The British came up with the idea of settling hundreds of thousands of refugees, mainly women and children, from Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, in Egypt, Syria and Palestine. The program was called the Middle East Relief and Refugee Administration (MERRA). The perilous trek across the Mediterranean was made by European citizens, just as it is being made today by Middle Eastern and African citizens, with the destination and arrival ports being reversed.

Among the cities that housed such camps were Syria’s Aleppo, and Palestine’s Gaza City; both are areas that have suffered unimaginably over the last decade, with these cities being the homes of many of the refugees around the world today. While conditions in these camps were not always great, there were efforts to implement work programs for adults, and educational programs for children. Significantly, there was also sustained efforts to accommodate the religious and cultural requirements of Europe’s newly settled needy.

Refugee resettlement to the Middle East was not only limited to these countries, with Iran also hosting hundreds of thousands of Poles. One Polish school teacher who was settled in the Iranian city of Isfahan said of her experience, “The friendly Persian people crowded round the buses shouting what must have been words of welcome and pushed gifts of dates, nuts, roasted peas with raisins and juicy pomegranates through the open windows.”

It can be easy to lose sight of the lessons that history tries to teach us. We all too often get caught up in thinking about what is best for “me” or “us”, while neglecting to consider the needs of the “other”. We can also fall into the poisonous trap of harbouring a deep seated, often obscured idea, that misfortune that befalls on a people is in part their own doing, while the blessing that have come to “me” or “us” is largely deserved. The plight of European refugees during World War II is an incredibly timely reminder that affliction can fall on anyone. Before casting a foul word, or an inconsiderate act, towards those in need, remember that it could be you who must flee their home for the sake of preserving your, and your family’s, lives.

Numbers Of Refugees Today

The world today contains more refugees than it ever has before. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from their homes, of which 22.5 million are refugees. Of this 22.5 million, more than half are under the age of 18. They also report that today, nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced from their homes every minute.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) reports that in 2016, 1 million refugees arrived to Europe, most of them fleeing warzones in Africa and Asia. While we mostly hear about refugee arrivals in Europe, by those discussing a “Refugee Crisis”, the only European country that is currently in the top 10 countries hosting refugees is Turkey (2.5million), which is bested worldwide only by Jordan’s 2.7million. Lebanon and Pakistan make up 3rd and 4th on this list, hosting 1.5 and 1.6million respectively. More than half of the world’s refugees come from 3 countries; Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Despite the attention received by Europe’s refugees, the WEF states that developing nations currently host 86% of the world’s refugees. Shockingly, 1 in every 200 children alive today are refugees. Another shocking statistic is offered up by the WEF; 4,690 refugees died while trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in 2016, higher than 2015’s 3,777. Grimly, September the 3rd 2017 marked the 2nd anniversary of the death of Aylan Kurdi that shocked the world.


The treatment of refugees has varied from country to country, and has also been dependent on the government of the day. We have seen in Canada an example of a country’s hostile policies towards them being improved with the election of liberal Justin Trudeau, while the U.S.A. has seen a significant regression towards refugee treatment with the election of Donald Trump. In Turkey, we have an example of a country that is doing its best to accommodate the influx of Syrian refugees, taking a similar view to Germany, which has seen the arrival of refugees as both a challenge and an opportunity for the country to rectify its dwindling birth rate. Things don’t seem quite as positive in Lebanon where an overstretched state seems to be mixing toxically with historical wounds between Syrians and the Lebanese, resulting in multiple accounts of abuse, neglect and violence.

In Europe, there have been many controversies related to refugee treatment. On the extremes, we’ve seen right-wing group Defend Europe obstructing those attempting to help refugees crossing the Mediterranean in their own boat, which carries banners displaying “YOU WILL NOT MAKE EUROPE YOUR HOME” and “NO WAY”. In a delightful twist of fate, Defend Europe’s boat broke down in the Mediterranean in August this year, and had to be rescued by an NGO boat, one of the very NGOs whom Defend Europe attempt to obstruct. For the refugees who manage to arrive in Europe, many are preyed upon by criminal gangs, being forced into different forms of criminality including prostitution, while conditions in refugee camps range from the bearable, to the atrocious. In Greece, many are housed in abandoned warehouses, with Softex camp borrowing its name from the toilet roll it manufactured once upon a time. The toilet analogy does not stop with the name, as conditions in camps such as this are as difficult as they are restrictive. With little to do, and nowhere to go, the camps have been likened to prisons by their residents. Sexual abuse is rampant in most of these camps, with a report from Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights grimly reporting that the average price of sexual transactions with a child being at £12.50. Children as young as 4 have been victims of rape.

Written by Tamim Mobayed

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Tamim is a 28 year old Dublin born Syrian who grew up in Belfast. He is working in the Media and studying for a Ph.D. in Psychology, part-time. He's a big fan of Liverpool Football Club and cats.