Great Migrations Essay

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During the period 1900 until 1950, there were vast migrations of people around the world—some peoples having to flee as refugees and others voluntarily migrating in order to have a better standard of living, with numbers of indentured laborers going to work in other lands, often staying there. In addition, there were large mass pilgrimages, such as those of Muslims on the Haj to Mecca, Shi’i Muslims to Karbala on the commemoration of the Day of Ashura, and Hindus to the River Benares. Mention should also be made of the Russian Orthodox pilgrims, whole villages of whom made pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the early years of the century.

World War I

The period before World War I saw the advent of massive ocean liners that took many tourists, but also settlers, across the Atlantic from Europe to the United States. Among the 1,317 passengers on the R.M.S. Titanic were large numbers of Irish seeking a better life in the Americas. At the same time many British left the British Isles to seek a new life in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa—those going to Australia being guaranteed a job under an Australian government incentive scheme. Many of these stayed in Australia, with large numbers serving in the Australian Expeditionary Force in World War I. There were also French and Italians moving to Algeria, where they established farms and small businesses, and significant numbers of British moving to Argentina, many to work on the railways. Political troubles during this period saw some Russians, especially after 1906, moving permanently, including numbers to Australia to work on the railways, as well as many Russian Jews leaving Russia owing to the pogroms, with many settling in the United States. There were also some Armenians and Christians leaving the Ottoman Empire before and during the Balkan Wars.

Indentured laborers from India moved to South Africa, to Ceylon for work on tea plantations, and to Malaya to work on the rubber plantations and tin mines, with others from Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies moving to the West Indies, including numbers from the latter for Suriname. Many Chinese went to work in Transvaal, South Africa, on the goldfields, and men from Barbados and other places in the West Indies went to work on the Panama Canal.

During World War I there were many migrations, especially in the Balkans, with Serbia being invaded by Austria-Hungary, and many Serbs having to flee Belgrade and other cities. In addition, there were internal migrations in Bosnia and Albania, also with Bulgars having to evacuate Thrace. Similarly, many Armenians were forced to migrate, and the end of the war resulted in war between Greece and the Turks, with Greeks in Turkey, such as in Smyrna, fleeing the Turks.

There were other conflicts that followed World War I including the Russian Civil War, which led to the flight of many White Russians and Ukrainians, including numbers moving to Harbin and Shanghai in China, as well as major smaller migrations associated with the formation of Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania (especially in Memel/Klaipeda), and Poland. Some ethnic Hungarians from Vojvodina left for Hungary, Mennonites left for Paraguay and other places, and the Irish civil war saw many Protestants leaving the newly created Irish Free State and others fleeing the fighting and settling in Northern Ireland or on the British mainland. In Asia, large numbers of Britons continued to go to India, Malaya, China, and Hong Kong, with Chinese moving to Malaya for the tin mines and Indians continuing to go to Malaya for the rubber plantations. Large numbers of Koreans also left Japanese-occupied Korea for Manchuria.

In the United States, many people moved to northern cities like Detroit, New York, Cleveland, and Chicago with the establishment of large auto works and other industrial centers like Pittsburgh. Many of those who migrated north were African Americans looking to escape the repressive Jim Crow laws of the South. Additionally, with the halt on European immigration during World War I, African Americans were able to find work in northern factories. The scope of the migration was huge: The African-American population in Detroit swelled from 6,000 in 1910 to nearly 120,000 by the start of the Great Depression.

 Between The Wars

During the 1920s and 1930s, there was continued British migration to India, Malaya, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore, to Burma with the enlarging of Burma Oil, as well as others going to Africa, especially with the copper mines at Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (modern-day Zambia), and elsewhere. Other Europeans also moved to Rhodesia and South Africa, with some Italians moving to Argentina. Lebanese and Syrian traders started to establish themselves in the Caribbean and in West Africa, with many Indian traders and professionals moving to seek greater opportunities in East Africa. The Italians encouraged many of their people to settle in Africa, with numbers moving to Libya, Italian Somaliland, Eritrea, and also, after 1936, to Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Most left at the end of World War II, although some, especially farmers, remained. In China, owing to people wanting to flee the warlords and also the subsequent civil wars, many Chinese left for Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The economic problems in Japan resulted in Japanese moving to Brazil, Peru, and Paraguay, with the harsher Japanese rule in Korea causing even more Koreans to flee to find work in Manchuria. The establishment of constitutional government in Siam (Thailand) saw the departure of some Thai royalists. The most noticeable forced migration was that of Jews leaving Germany for a new life in the United States and other places. This coincided with the depression and many countries introducing measures to stop migrants arriving, such as Australia starting to use the now discredited “dictation test” and other legal restraints. As a result, many of the Jews leaving Europe had to seek refuge in any country that would take them, with numbers moving to China and settling in the international city of Shanghai and other cities such as the northern Chinese city of Harbin, and others migrating to places like Bolivia, which welcomed migrants. Other migrations forced by the rise of Adolf Hitler included numbers of Germans from eastern Europe moving to Germany, including many Germans from the Baltic States, and also others from Poland and Czechoslovakia.

There were also major moves during the 1920s and 1930s within countries. The great Mississippi flood of 1927 displaced hundreds of thousands of African-American farm workers, who migrated both north and west. The dust bowl in the United States sent large numbers from states on the Great Plains, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota primarily, to California as their farms failed. This came about because of the failure of large numbers of farms and represented a massive move. It is estimated that one out of four families was forced to leave the area. The subsequent establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority and other projects of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal saw people moving to where work could be found. Prior to that, work on the Hoover Dam had also attracted many people to Boulder City, Nevada. Many people throughout Latin America also headed to the big cities with the emergence of massive cities such as Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Mexico City. Other cities in Africa and Asia also proved to be magnets to people from the countryside—Tangier, Algiers, Bone, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Salisbury, Nairobi, Mombasa, and Dar-es-Salaam are some examples.

World War II

During World War II, the Germans, after overrunning much of Europe, caused the “migration” of many of the people in the occupied territories. Many fled the fighting and the massacres by the Germans, and there were also 10 million “foreign workers” who were forced to take up employment in Germany, the largest movement of forced laborers since the end of slavery. The Japanese victories in the Pacific also saw large-scale movement of people, with Japanese civilians and Korean laborers settling into newly captured territories, indentured laborers from the Netherlands East Indies moving to Singapore, and the “Comfort Women” being forced to work in Japanese-run brothels for their armed forces throughout their newly won lands. The fighting also saw large numbers of people fleeing places to avoid the war, including Britons to Africa, especially Kenya, and wealthy Chinese escaping from the Japanese for Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) and Australia. In the United States, African-American workers moved north, following jobs as industrial production in the North, Northeast, and West increased due to the war effort.

Major migrations took place in the Balkans, especially Yugoslavia, during and after the war, and Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union deported whole nationalities during the war, including the Volga Germans and later the Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Kalmyks, and Crimean Tartars. Many were relocated in Kazakhstan in Soviet Central Asia. The end of the war saw many Japanese, German, and Italian civilians being forced to return, respectively, to Japan, Germany, and Italy. Famine in Annam (central Vietnam) in 1945 also saw a large movement of people from that region.

The period from 1945 until 1950 saw many people leaving their places of residence in Europe and displaced persons camps being established to accommodate refugees, war orphans, and other stateless people—a large number of whom migrated to Australia, some working on projects such as the Snowy Mountain Scheme, which later led to the adoption of multiculturalism in Australia and other places. The end of fighting saw many eastern Europeans, including large numbers of Poles, returning to their homelands, and others such as Free Poles and anticommunists from the Baltic states being forced to establish new lives throughout the West, especially in the United States, Canada, and Australia. The Volga Germans were able to leave the Soviet Union, and the Greek Civil War (1946–49) saw many Greeks and Macedonians leave the region. Most of the Jews who survived the Holocaust left Europe. Many of these settled in Israel, Australia, the United States, and South America, especially in Argentina. There were also the “Ratlines” for Nazi war criminals and others suspected of being Nazi war criminals fleeing to South America, often with travel documents furnished by the Vatican. Many others also found a new life in Latin America, with many Spaniards and Italians encouraged to settle in Argentina by Evita Perón, while at the same time many Britons left Argentina following Juan Perón’s nationalization of the formerly British-owned railways. Britons during this period also started settling in Rhodesia and South Africa, as well as the “£10 Poms,” with many assisted migrants moving to Australia. Fairbridge and other children’s settlement schemes also saw many British boys and girls being settled in Rhodesia, Australia, and South Africa.

Similarly, the great wealth being generated in Rhodesia and South Africa saw large numbers of Africans move in search of work, although many migrant workers from Mozambique were expelled from South Africa following the introduction of apartheid. Mention should also be made of the expatriates who went to work in the emerging oil industry in the Middle East, in Abadan, Basra, and other places.

There were also movements in the Middle East, with many Palestinians leaving their lands in the wars that followed the establishment of Israel. The largest migration of this period was undoubtedly the movement that followed the partition of India in 1947, with the British and many Anglo-Indians leaving and more importantly large numbers of Hindus leaving Pakistan and many Muslims leaving India for Pakistan. Many also moved within both India and Pakistan, especially the former, which saw Muslims from the countryside move to areas where they were in greater numbers. Within Pakistan there was also a major movement of people to Karachi, which became the capital of Pakistan. Large numbers of Indians also had to leave Burma before and after it became independent in 1948.


  1. Bonnifield, Matthew Paul. The Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt and Depression. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978;
  2. Dinnerstein, Leonard, and David M. Reimers. Ethnic Americans: a History of Immigration. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999;
  3. Heilbut, Anthony. Exiled in Paradise: German Refugee Artists and Intellectuals in America, from the 1930s to the Present. New York: Viking Press, 1983;
  4. Marrus, Michael Robert. The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985;
  5. Nugent, Walter. Into the West: The Story of Its People. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1999;
  6. Skran, Claudena M. Refugees in InterWar Europe: The Emergence of a Regime. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995;
  7. Spitzer, Leo. Hotel Bolivia: The Culture of Memory in a Refuge from Nazism. New York: Hill & Wang, 1998.

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