When the war was over: European refugees after 1945

Key terms



According to the UN Refugee Convention (1951), a refugee is someone who ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country or return there because there is a fear of persecution’. Note that the formal definition excludes those who are internally displaced.

In 1945 the Allies adopted a different definition of refugees as ‘civilians not outside the national boundaries of their country, who desire to return to their homes, but require assistance to do so, and who are: (a) temporarily homeless because of military operations; (b) at some distance from their homes for reasons related to the war.’

Displaced Persons (DPs)

The Allies defined Displaced Persons (DPs) as ‘civilians outside the national boundaries of their country by reason of the war, who are desirous but are unable to return to their home or find homes without assistance’. In practice, most DPs had been taken to Nazi Germany as forced labourers. There were at least six million such people towards the end of 1944, around half of them from the Soviet Union. Some estimates are higher still.


Repatriation means returning or being returned to one’s country of origin. UNHCR regards this (along with resettlement and integration) as a ‘durable solution’ to refugee crises.


In relation to refugees, resettlement means moving or being moved to a third country i.e. neither one’s original country nor the country to which one initially fled.


In relation to refugees, integration means finding a permanent home in the country to which one initially fled.

Relief Worker

Someone who provides humanitarian assistance, for example as a member of a non-governmental organisation, to those affected by man-made or natural disasters.

Refugee Camp

A refugee camp is a settlement to accommodate refugees. Often regarded as a temporary measure, camps frequently become long-term places of residence.


In most countries a person must apply for asylum before he or she is recognised as a refugee. An ‘asylum seeker’ is someone who arrives in a new country and makes an asylum application. It is then up to the Government to decide if their claim meets the definition of a refugee. Meanwhile, asylum seekers are often housed in reception, detention or transit centres.


The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was created in November 1943 to prepare for the economic and social recovery of countries occupied by Axis powers and to assist people displaced by war to return to their homes. It was wound up in 1947.


The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, established in December 1950 to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and find solutions to refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to look after the rights and welfare of refugees.

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