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Displaced Persons and Refugees
President Truman's Statement and Directive on Displaced Persons
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Displaced Persons and Refugees
A political cartoon illustrating the obstacles impeding the immigration of displaced persons to the United States (1945-1948). Immigration restrictions were still in effect in the United States.

Tens of thousands of refugees from Europe entered the United States before the Second World War. But once the United States entered the war, stricter immigration policies actually went into effect. There was a fear that refugees could be blackmailed into working as agents for Germany. It was not until January 1944 that President Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board (WRB) to facilitate the rescue refugees. He did this under pressure of the Jewish community in the United States and other members of his government.

The surrender of Germany in 1945 left millions of people homeless and far removed from their homeland. Millions of homes had also been destroyed. Entire populations were displaced. Slave laborers from countries occupied by Germany had been taken to Germany to work and were left to fend for themselves. Cities and towns with large Jewish populations had become ghost towns.

Many parents were killed in bombing raids, leaving large numbers of children as orphans.The Holocaust and its aftermath left millions of refugees, including many Jews who had lost most or all of their family members and possessions.

The original plan of the Allies was to repatriate these "Displaced Persons" to their country of origin, but many refused to return, or were unable to as their homes or communities had been destroyed. The creation of the State of Israel in May 1948 finally provided a refuge for Jews who had been hounded from their homes in central and Eastern Europe. Before that, the British had interned illegal immigrants to Palestine in detention camps on Cyprus between.

The US Response

After the war ended, the United States was slow to relax its immigration requirements. The new President, Harry Truman, wanted to speed up the process of providing a new home for refugees from Europe, but encountered much resistance. He issued an executive order to help displaced persons in December 1945. This was called the “Truman Directive”.

It took until 1948, three years after the war had ended, before the US congress passed legislation to admit 400,000 displaced persons to the United States.

By 1959, some 461,000 European refugees had been accepted by the USA. Roughly 20 percent of them were Jewish Holocaust survivors. Another 900,000 refugees had been taken by West European countries. A further 523,000 by other countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

International response

A United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had been created in 1943. This was replaced by the International Refugee Organisation in 1946, which transported millions of former concentration-camp prisoners, forced laburers and other victims of the Nazis to countries such as France, Belgium, and Greece.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 guaranteed a "... right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."

World Refugee Year 1959-1960

Many refugees still remained in camps almost fifteen years after the end of the Second World War. This was seen as disgraceful by those who had suffered greatly during the war and those who were concerned about their situation.

It was at this point that the United Nations launched a program to resolve the refugee problem once and for all. 1959-1960 was announced as World Refugee Year. The aim of this project was to 'clear the camps'. It achieved some significant results, especially in Europe. By the end of 1960, for the first time since before the war, all the refugee camps in Europe were closed.

Photo Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Norbert Wollheim.
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This day in history
Today: 16 October 2018
Then: 14 October 1944

Allies liberate Athens.

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