Russia's current invasion of Ukraine has once again placed a European country in a situation of displacement where, just a fortnight after the beginning of the conflict, the number of displaced people outside their country of origin already exceeded two million, and a further two million are estimated to be internally displaced. Moreover, the United Nations predicts that this figure might reach four million. This is the largest increase in forced migration in Europe since the Second World War, when an estimated 20 million people fled their countries.
Refugees from Ukraine have mostly headed to Poland (1.5 million); hundreds of thousands to neighbouring countries such as Hungary (255,000), Slovakia (186,000), Romania (105,000), Moldova (85,000); and around 300,000 to other European countries.
Unlike other forced displacements, women and children constitute the vast majority in this one, as following the application of Martial Law in Ukraine, men between 18 and 60 years of age are forbidden to leave the country and are forced to remain in order to join the armed resistance.
Forced population displacements for reasons associated with the need for food, environmental degradation, violence and war or the occupation of new territories have been part of human history. In some periods these movements were easily undertaken while in others they encountered limitations imposed by the host populations.
Changes in international population flows present real challenges to both social and institutional responses. The global dynamics of poverty, mass displacement, environmental disasters and armed conflicts have created unprecedented levels of social expulsion, especially in the global South, but also now in the global North, albeit as result of different developments.
In addition to economic issues, other visible causes of migration can be found in armed conflicts, whether internal or external, and in climate change, which is increasingly producing population movements. Thus, there is an exponential increase in the number of refugees and forcibly displaced persons.
Refugees increased from 10 million in 2010 to 20.4 million in 2020; and displaced people rose from 41 million in 2010 to 82.4 million in 2020, with the largest numbers being around 6.5 million from Syria, 5.4 million from Palestine, 5 million from Venezuela, 2.7 million from Afghanistan, 2.3 million from South Sudan and 1.1 million from Myanmar, 85% of whom are hosted by developing countries. Many are crammed in precarious conditions for long periods of time, such as the estimated one quarter of Palestinian refugees who have been living in camps for 70 years.
The first wave of major flows of refugees and displaced persons in the world (around 5 million) occurred in Europe between 1914 and 1922, during the First World War and the Russian Revolution. It was a consequence of the emergence of new transportation means, colonial settlements and notably the expansion of the United States.
This wave faced an increase in border controls in the host countries which, from the beginning of the 20th century, began to implement more selective migration policies. In response to this situation, the first refugee protection organisations began to be created in the 1920s, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, established in 1921 by Dr Nansen, initially designed to protect Russian refugees.
During the Second World War approximately 40 million refugees left Europe. Faced with this influx, which began with the Nuremberg Laws in 1936 (according to which the Jewish population lost all rights), the Western countries decided to hold the Evian Conference in 1938. On that occasion, the vast majority of the countries attending refused to facilitate the arrival of Jews (with the exception of Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela). Throughout this period Syria, Egypt and Palestine received the largest number of European refugees.
Faced with the serious problem of displaced people and refugees in Europe, the United Nations Refugee Agency was created in 1943 and was later replaced by the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) from 1947 to 1952. Finally, in 1949 the United Nations General Assembly established the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and in 1951 the Provisional Committee for Migration Movements in Europe (PICMEE) was created. In 1952 it became the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM), later transformed into the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
During the 1980s movements of refugees and displaced persons originated in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the face of an isolated Europe.
In the 1990s, it was Europe that once again faced a refugee crisis after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the implosion of the former Yugoslavia. On the other hand, with the aim of "fighting terrorism", the Western powers invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, which provoked a wave of displaced people, reaching more than a quarter of a million.
In the 21st century, with a peak in 2014 and 2015, refugees from Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo moved along new routes through the Balkans and Eastern Europe, seeking to reach European countries such as Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. However, 80 per cent of refugees are now in countries of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.
Such situations show that the right to migrate, to the free mobility of people, and to the regular settlement of migrants has been restricted over the last decades in most parts of the world, especially in developed countries. In the past, most border barriers and walls were built to deter foreign armies and to protect populations. In the mid-20th century (as in the case of the Berlin Wall) they were meant to prevent the exit of people.
One of the main objectives of today's border barriers is to protect the territory from the entry of "illegal migrants". Possibly never since the Middle Ages have so many barriers been built to prevent the free movement of people in the name of "border security".
Currently, in response to the implosion of displaced Ukrainians, there has been an opening of European borders. Thus, Brussels adopted the rule of unlimited acceptance of refugees, and various countries around the world have implemented special programmes for the reception and care for this migration. In this sense, the reception of Ukrainian refugees by European countries, is especially remarkable in neighbouring countries, where cultural proximity plays a predominant role; it is worth noting the case of the president of Hungary, an ardent xenophobe who opposes African and Asian migration, who travelled to the Ukrainian border and promised to “let in all' refugees from the neighbouring country.
In the face of this solidarity response, there is hope that it can be extended throughout the world to protect the human rights of those who must leave their countries of origin for their own protection, that of their families and that of all those whose freedom or life is at risk.
Lelio Mármora is a sociologist, Director of the Institute for Migration and Asylum Policies (IPMA). He also serves as Director of the Master's and Specialisation Degree in International Migration Policies and Management (UNTREF).