During WWII European Refugees Fled to Syria – Here Is What the Camps Were Like

SPECIAL FEATURE, 30 May 2016

Evan Taparata and Kuang Keng Kuek Ser – Public Radio International-PRI

US Army General Allen Gullion and Fred K. Hoehler, Director of the United Nation’s Division of Displaced Persons, stand before a map predicting the movement of European refugees of World War II. Many Europeans would find a haven in refugee camps in the Middle East. Credit: Courtesy of the Fred K. Hoehler Papers in the Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota

US Army General Allen Gullion and Fred K. Hoehler, Director of the United Nation’s Division of Displaced Persons, stand before a map predicting the movement of European refugees of World War II. Many Europeans would find a haven in refugee camps in the Middle East.
Credit: Courtesy of the Fred K. Hoehler Papers in the Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota

Since civil war erupted in Syria five years ago, millions of refugees have sought safe harbor in Europe by land and by sea, through Turkey and across the Mediterranean.

Refugees crossed these same passageways 70 years ago. But they were not Syrians and they traveled in the opposite direction. At the height of World War II, the Middle East Relief and Refugee Administration (MERRA) operated camps in Syria, Egypt and Palestine where tens of thousands of people from across Europe sought refuge.

MERRA was part of a growing network of refugee camps around the world that were operated in a collaborative effort by national governments, military officials and domestic and international aid organizations. Social welfare groups including the International Migration Service, the Red Cross, the Near East Foundation and the Save the Children Fund all pitched in to help MERRA and, later, the United Nations to run the camps.

Map created by Kuang Keng Kuek Ser

Map created by Kuang Keng Kuek Ser

The archival record provides limited information on the demographics of World War II refugee camps in the Middle East. The information that is available, however, shows that camp officials expected the camps to shelter more refugees over time. Geographic information on location of camps come from records of the International Social Service, American Branch records, in the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota.

In March 1944, officials who worked for MERRA and the International Migration Service (later called the International Social Service) issued reports on these refugee camps in an effort to improve living conditions there. The reports, which detail conditions that echo those faced by refugees today, offer a window into the daily lives of Europeans, largely from Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Turkey and Yugoslavia, who had to adjust to life inside refugee camps in the Middle East during World War II.

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