* war and social upheaval: The Cold War -- refugees

Cold War: Refugees

Figure 1.--This precious little Hungarian girl has just made it to the West in the dead of Winter, one of millions who had managed to escape from Communist Workers' Paradises. The press caption read, "Hungarian Refugees in Autria: The seasonal snow now blanketing lower Austria does mot prevent Hungarian refugees from crossing he border in large nimbers. Their difficulties re intensified by the cold. Before taking a bus to distributing nd collrctging cmpsin tghe interior, the exhusted refugees are welcomed with a warm drink and food at farm houses near the border. Red Cross nurses prepare the food on a 24-hour schedule. Photographed on arrival at the border farm-house is this little girl who was separated en route from her mother." We are not sure what she is hilding in her box. The photograph was taken in January 1957.

One tragic consequence of Communism is the huge numbers of refugees generated. Where ever Communist triumphed, refugees attempted to escape. The refugee flow was only limited by geography, police state force, and the ability of neigbiring states to take in refugees. Geography was often a barrier. It was virtually impossible to escape from large areas of the Soviet Union and China because of the distances involved. Other Communist states like Poland were surrounded by other Communist states which did not accept refugees. Cubans were hemed in by the dangerous Florida Straits. And the Vietnamese had no where to go. Over a million none-the-less risked death to escape Communism--the tragic Boat People. Communist regimes did not tolerate refugees. This was a deprture from 19th century empires (Austrian, German, Ottoman, and Russian) did not restrict emmigration and were in fact largely happy to geet rid of querilous subjects. Not so the Communists. As refugees were proof that the regimes were not building worker's parasises, trying to leave was a criminal offense in all Communit countries. Stalin saw them as traitors. Castro called them 'worms'. Stalin anxious to keep the failure of Communism leaking out, very effectively sealed off the Soviet borders. Of course the most egregious example of holding people in by force was the East German Berlin Wall which the East German regime was actually proud of because its chillingly perfection of a murderous barrier. So many people wanted to escape Communism, that neigboring countries had to limit the entry of refugees, This was especially the case of Hong Kong, And America had to restict the entry of Cubans. Thailand had to keep Cambodian refgugees in camps rather than assimilating them. In the one case where a revolution briefly replaced the Comminist regime (Hungary), the barbed wire came down and a huge flood of refugees poured out. The notable fact here is that it was always a one-way flow. Westen Govrenments did not restrict emigration. It was just that virtually no one wanted to move to a Communist country. As President Kennedy pharsed it, "Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in ...." Even among the million of Italian and French Communists, virtully no one wnted to emigrate to a Communist country. We note American leftists who lionize Castro, but no one wants to live there. One of the most vociferous critic of America was Black Panther Huey Newton. One there, however, he could not wait to get back to America.

Germany (1944-60)

The first Cold War refugees were the result of World War II. Hitler and the NAZIs from the beginning created refugees neginning with German Jews and abti-NAZIs. Onece ge and Stalin launched World War II by invding Poland, mmany more refugees were set in motion, This was in part a purpseful effort known as Generalplan Ost to remake the ethnic composition of Europe and murder tens of millions of people. While millions were murdered, the War did not go as Hitler had antipated and by the end of the War it was millions of Germans who were turned into refugees. And the floof of Germans moving west did not end with the Wr. The neighboring states terrorized by the NAZIS wanted the Germans outbof their country. It became a major issue for Germanynin the Cold War. ThevSovirt attitude was that bitbwas a problem the Germans created and that it was up to the Germans, namely the Federal Republic (DFR--West Germany) to solve. As the German Economic Miracle unfolded, it was DFR that had the capability to deal with the influx and it was the DFR that the refugees wanted to lice in rather than the Communbist DDR (East Germnany) police state and failing economy.

Greek Civil War (1946-49)

Children were affected in a number of ways during the Greek Civil War. There were the obvious ways which occur during any conflict. Some children were injured and killed as a result of the fighting. As houses were destoyed, some children lost their homes. Others became refugees and if their parents were killed orphans. If just the father was killed, the mother had difficulty supporting the family. There is a fairly accurate assessment of the casualties, but assessments of the impact on children are more difficult to obtain. We have not yet found any assessments of the children so affected. Children became a major issue in the post-War era, primarily because of the forced removal of children by the Communists in the areas that they controlled. The Communist deny that the children were foricbly removed, but it is clear that this indeed occurred. What we are not sure of is who gave the orders, Moscow or the KKE. Queen Fredericka helped set up camps for abandoned children. They became another post-War issue. Many of the children were taken in by Greek-American families.


The Chinese Civil War went on for three decaedes, interpersed with the Japanese invasion n seconf Sino Japanese War (1937-45). The War caused millions of casualties and displaced millions of refugees. Most of the refugees during th 1930s-40s were fleeing the Japnese. This chnged with the Communist victory in the Civil War. The Chinese Communists defeated the Nationalist armies (1948) and founded the People's Republic of China. Few Chinese people understood what Communism was or what it meant for their and their country's future. Those associated with the Nationalist regime had a fairly good idea what it meant for them and those that could left for whee Chiang and th Nationlists made a successful stand. Chiang along with some 0.5 million Nationalist soldiers and 2 million civilian refugees was what was left of the Republic of China. Onece the Chinse Communists seized port cities along the Taiwan Srraits, futher refugee vflow of any importance ended. This mean that refugees of the Communist regime had no where to go. The Soviets to the north did not acccept regfugees and geographic barriers (mountains and deserts) blocked refugees. Geographic barriers along with historic emnities and war blocked refugee flows south. The refugee flow, however did mot end with the Civil War. As on the Soviet Union, the inherent weakness of socialist economics along with Mao's incomprtence created refugee flow. The one outlet was Hong Kong. The problem was that Hong Kong was a tiny British Crown Colony along the southern coast near Canton which could accomodate only a fraction of the Chinese peole seeking to flee the abject poverty that came with Communism. They refugees came in waves. The largest wave came with the disaster of Mao's Great Leap Forward which created the most deadly famine in Chinese history. Millions starved. And the only outlet from the uffering was tiny Hong Kong. Vast numbers of mainland refugees fled across the Shenzhen (a small fishing village) border to seek better lives in Hong Kong. As one author tells us, "Neither East Germans climbing the Berlin Wall nor the tens of thousands of North Koreans crossing the Yalu River to the Chinese city of Dandong could compare to the exodus from the mainland to Hong Kong. It�s an epic account of the fate of communists seeking a better life in a capitalist harbour, at a cost of life and blood." [Bingan] Some 2 million people goy into Hong Kong, mostly illeglly. The nu,br of people who dies along the way or were teturned to the Chinese Communists we are unsure.

Korean War (1950-53)

he Korean War refugees for some reason are some of the least covered refugees of the 20th century and one of the most tragic refugee groups. The impact of the Korean conflict on the Korean civilian population was particulrly traumatic. Precise date is unknowable, but the tool on the civilian poplation was enormous. There are believed to have been some 3-4 million casualties (dead, injured, and missing). There are eimates that some 1 millio people in the north fled south to escape from the advancing Chinese Army (December 1950-April 1951). The refugee flow was vitually all one way, civilians moving south, fleeing the Communists. Very few Koreans fled north as the U.N. armies broke out of the Pusan Perimiter (September 1950). Many thought that their flight south would be temporary. They left land, property, heirloom, and family members behind that they would be reunited after only a brief period of separation. Family members found themselves permanetly separatd. A few wer briefly reunited when th two Koreas agred to unification visit (2002). [Haan] Others managed to flee as a family group, but failed to kep together as hry treekd south. Parents were killed or captured. Children becme lost or died of exposure and malnutrition. There wer incidents of soldies firing on refuges, but the greater problem was exposure in cold wether and the lack of food and water. There was no provision for refugees, especilly during the fisrt yer of the war when the battle lines swung widely north and south over virtully the entire length of the peninsula. During this period it was only Americ GIs sharing their provisions that saved many from starvation, especially the children.

Hungarian Revolution (1956)

Hungarians that could, fled to the West. Some 0.2 million Hungarians fled their country. There were only two possibilities as most of Hungary's borders were with other Soviet-controlled satellite countries (Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Romania). The only possibilities for escape were neutral Austria to the West an Yugoslavia to the south. The Yugoslave border was much longer than the Austrian border. Budapest is located in the north, about equaldistant to the Austrian and Yugoslav border. Yugoslavia was a Communist country, but had its leader, partisan commander Tito had broken with the Soviets when Stalin attemted to take control as he had done the rest of his the Eastern European Empire. Soviet policy at the time was still Stalin's efforts to ostracize the Yugoslavs. Premier Nikita Khrushchev would later move to normalize relations with Tito's Yugoslavia, but at the time relations were frozen. Unlike the Soviet satellites, Yugoslavia did not support the Soviet intervention and for a time proected Nagy in their embassy. As a result, refugess also flowed into Yugoslavia. Camps for the refugees were hastiy set up in both Austria and Yugoslavia. The Hungarians were the first massive refugee flow in Europe since the end of World War II (1945). It took the Europeans by surprise and they were unprepared. Neither Austria or Hungary had the resources needed to deal with the massive influx. Nor were international humanitarian organizations prepared for the unexpected crisis. The two primary organizatins involved were the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Both institutions had played an important role in the post-World War II refugee crisis, but had no major refugee crisis to deal with for more than a decade. They were suddenly confronted with a huge crisis with few resources in place to meet thge needs of the refugees. About 15 per cent of the Hungarian refugees who reached the West were minors. Most of them came with their parents. And the officials dealing with te refugees gave priority to families. Western countries quickly accepted the families and made provision for them to build new lives. The United States took no military steps to aid the revolution. This would led to a reassessment of American Cold War policies. The United states did, however, aid the refugees. Many eventually emigrated to the United States. Ironically, Hungary had not signifantly participated in the great European migration to America during the late-19th and early-20th century. Congress made special provision for Hungarian refugees (1956). Other Western countries also accepted the Hungarian families and adult refugees. One of the secial tragedies of the Hungarian Revolution were the young people that had fled the Soviets. The children and teenagers who fled without their parents were not properly assisted. There were about 20,000 of them who came to be called 'unaccompaied minors'. For the most part, Westrn Governments did not want to assume the much more difficult responsibility of caring for unaccompanied minors. Most were older teenagers (15-18 years of age). [N�v�] Ironically these were the same young people that months earlier the Western press had been lauding as valliant freedom fighters.

Cuba (1959- )

Communism in Russia was imposed on the population by a small group of ideaologues andexcept for the ruling class with money, there were few opportunities to flee. The same was true of Eastern Europe. Once the Iron Curtain was established, there were very limited opportunities to flee. Cuba was very different. Only 90 miles across the Florida Straits lay Key West and freedom. And despite the still enormous difficulties. hundreds of thousands of Cubans chose to leave their country, often risking their lives. This was substantial movement fora small country. Perhaps 15 percent of the population left Cuba, including much of the educated middle class. There are today in the United States about 1 million Americans of Cuban ancestry. They are among the most successful immigrant groups and the lives they created for themselves in America is in sharp contrat to the poverty that Castro has created in Cuba which before him ws one of the most prosperous Latin American countries. The refugees have arrived in several waves as Castro unfolded his Revolution and American refugee policy fluctuated.

Soviet Jews

The Soviet leadership created a new issue in the Cold War, an asault on Soviet Jewery. Stalin had been preparing a major pogrom at the time he died (1953). The Doctor's Plot was the first step. This was shelved by Khruschev, but by the 1960s the Soviet began a new campaign. It was not a NAZI style racial genocide, but a cultural campaign to eliminate all Jewish culture and cultural identity. We are not sure while idea this was or the thought process involved. And raw anti-Semitism can not be ignored. Another factor here was Soviet foreign policy which by this time had sided with Arab regimes adopting Arab Socialism (Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen). Those countries were intent on destoying Israel and the siviets provided massive arms shipments to make this possible. This policy which blended it to attacks on Jews. It is likely that the KGB saw Soviet Jews as a potential subversive group in the effort to destoy Israel. The KGB resorted to Stalinist tactics, although not on Stalinist scale. The KGB arrested an executed over one hundred Jews on trumped-up charges of various economic crimes. The Soviets began systematically closed down synagogues and published shockingly anti-Semitic books. Soviet spokesmen charged that Judaism was a Nazi-like religion. This only intensified when the Israelis emerged victorious in the Six Days War (1967). Cartoons appeared in Soviet newspapers of Israeli General Moshe Dayan with a Nazi swastika armband. What the Soviets had not counted own was the reaction, both in the Soviet Union and in the West (especially America). In the Soviet Union, the attention given to the Six Days War seems to have stimulated interest among Soviet Jews in their religion and cultural tradition. This ws just what the Siviets did not want. And why they wanted to destroy Judaism and Jewish identity, they were dead set against large-scale Jewish mmigration. Jews wre among the most educated and skilled groups in the Sovit Union. It would mean the loss of many talented citizens. As a Jewish movement began to build, the KGB began aresting leaders. Now Stalin could have prevented the Soviet Jewisg movement. There would hve been a bullet in the head or years of slave labor in the Gulag. But the lower level of terror meant that there were Jews willing to challenge authorities, And arests onlyhightened the intenational condemnation of the Soviet Union. In fact, these prisoners of conscience of the world-wide Soviet-Jewish protest movement. In the United States, the Jewish community was transformed by the issue as reports of Soviet actions against Jews became known. There had been considerable sympthy within the Americam Jewish community with its liberal leanings for the Soviets, both because of the role they played in defeating the NAZIs and their socialist policies. Some bought the Soviet propaganda line of a worker's paradice. American Jews by the 60s were better informd about the nature of Soviet Communism. And Jewish publications picked up on the reports of Soviet spression of their Jews. Many American Jews had guilty feeling about not being more militant during the NAZI Holocaust. Jewish leadees were determined not to repat that mistake. A protest movement on behalf of Soviet Jewry rapidly spread throughout the United States and other Jewish communities, but itws merica that had the largest Jewish community outside Israel. And not only were Jew politically active, America was a country with real power. American Jews were not only outraged, but detrmined to act. Young New York Jews organized the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) (1964). Jacob Birnbaum Glenn Richter were key figures. The SSSJ demanded that Jews who so desired be allowed to openly live as Jews in the Soviet Union or leave the country if they so desired. Jews across Ameica formed other support groups. They colessed into the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry. Protestors lost no opportunity to raise the issue. Any Soviet delegation wether ibscure or the world renowned Bolshoi Ballet, found themselves facing Jewish protestors demanding rights for Soviet Jews. And there was more than protest. Jewish groups encouraged thousands of American and European Jews to make tourist trips to the Soviet Union and to meet with Jewish dissidents. Here the Soviets were torn because if tgey rejected visa requests they were turingvdown needed foreign currency earnings. Jewish groups began lobbing in Washington. This issue first appeated at the height of the Cold War -- the early-60s. By the end of thecdecade, Soviet foreign policy was changing. Soviet diplomats began promoting D�tente. There were also important trade issues. The failure of Soviet agriculture meant that they had to import grain. And just as Soviet diplomats began negotiating with America, they found that they had alienated what had been the most sympthetic elment in American politics.

East Germans

Vietnam War

After the American withdrawl from Vietnam we have the phenomenomn of the Boat People.

Cambodia (1969-93)

The Cambodian humanitarian crisis began with the escalation of the Vietnam War, especially North Viertmananmese movement and enlargement of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, part of which ran thriough eastern Cambodia, and American efforts to disrupt North Vietnamese movement on the Trail. This began a humanitarian crisis affecting the Cambodian people, including death, torture, hunger, displacement, or emigratiomn for millions of Cambodians. Unlike the Vietnamese, the Cambodians did not become boat people. There were several phases of the developing Vietnanmese crisus: 1) Fighting in eastern Cambodia spilling over from the Vietnam War (1969). 2) The Cambodian Civil War between the Lon Nol government and the Communist Khmer Rouge (1970-75). This included the United States bombing of eastern Cambodia targetting thee Khmer Rouge and North Vietnamese sanctuaries and bases inside Cambodia and movemnbt down the Ho CHi Minh Trail. 3) The Kymer Rouge enter Pnom Penh and ruled the country for 4 deadly years 1975-79). This was by far the most deadly phase of the huminanitarian crisis as the Kymer Rouge launch an horific genocide. The Khmer Rouge as a matter of policy murdered or killed by starvation aquarter of the 8 million Cambodian people. 4) Next the Viernmese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Vietnam and the puppet Cambodian government it put in place governed the country for the 12 years. The Khmer Rouge and other groups fought a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese and the Cambodian government, mostly in western Cambodia. Few Cambodians during the Kymer Rouge era could make it to the Thai norder. With the Vietmamese invasion, the chaos created the opportunity for thousands to make the arduous trip to be border, largely on foot (1979-80). They were not only escaping the fighting, but the famine that Kymer Rouge had caused. Various hHumanitarian organizations sought to meet the needs of the wave of humnity reaching Thailand. Only the war between the Viuetnamese and Kymer Rouge did not end, it went on for a decade (1981-91). This meant that hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were stuck jn the Thai refigee camps, many along the border. Some 260,000 of the refugees were resettled abroad, more than half in the United States. The Cambodian humanitarian crisis was not resolved uhtil (1991-93). The Kymer Rouge finally lkayed down their arms. The Vietnamese withdrew from Cambdia. The United Nations attemoted to help form an elected government Some 360,000 Cambodians were repatriated from theThai camps. They were emptied and closed. .

Central America (1970s-80s)

Central America was domnated by conservatibe fores which for years resisted change and reform and resorted to brutal violence. The situation was especially acute in the northern Cebtral American countries south of Mexico (Guatemals, Honduras , Nicaragua, and El Salvador). The situation and ebsuiung developments varies in each of the four countries. These were countries with substantial indigenous populatins which did not particiapte in the national society. These countries were very isolated, but after World War II the same anti--colonial ferment in Asian and Aftrica addected Latin America. Many became comviomved that Comminism and socialism were the key to the future and they began to challbge the region's conservative power structure. The region became enbroilder in the Cold War. The first outbrak of viokence occured in Guatemal (1954). The United States help supress the Government Jacobo Árbenz who was a rare elected president of the country and initiated a land reform effort. The United States was concerned about Comminist influences in the Government and oressed by the United Fruit Compamy, supported a coup. It was over with quickly. Fidel Castro's Revolution in Cuba introduced a a Comminist bridgeheas in the region which supported rrvolutionary groups. These groups proved effective in attacking dictaorial regimes, especially the Somoza dictatorship whoch democtic forces could also be recruited. This was smme tactic Catro had used in Cuba where he gained contro iver the 26 of July which began as a democratic movement. No one can defend Somoza and other fictatirs. The oproblem is that the Communists only want to relace obe dictatorshio with abother. And it is clear from the Cuban and Venezuelan experience as well as other Communist efforts in Europe, Asia, and Africa is that the Communists do not have the ability to crate a prosperous economy. This can only be achieved by capital economies which usually maeans democracies. We see this clearly in the Asian Tigers.) The Comminist controlled Sandinista movement supportd by Cuba and Soviet arms overthrew the corupt Somoza dictatorship (1979). /And this failutated the flow of arns and money to revilytionary hroups into the regiion caysing what became a civil war when the United States sypporting anti-Commumist groups which became known as the Contras. Civil war and communist revolutions emgulphed the region. The United States feared that victories by communist forces would create another Cuba amd expansion of Soviet power. ause the rest of South America to become isolated from the United States if the governments of the Central American countries were overthrown and pro-Soviet communist governments were installed in their place. The United States has bee criticised fir causing this problem. But this simolistuc narative commin in left-wing vircles ignores the four decafed of Spamish colonial rule. It is true that the United States has been invilved in varioys ways in these countties, espcially in the 20th century. The problem with this assessment is that develoopments in Central America is not umlike developments in South America, a much larger, area in which American influence had been mimnimal. Clearly the predominate inflience was Spamosh and Portuguese colonial rule. In the fughting that followed, refugees flleung the fighting became a seriou problem.

Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan (1979- )

War befinning with the Soviet invasion !979) has displaced millions Afghans from their homes, The Afghans have experienced the Soviet invasion, Mujahedin resistance, Soviet withdrawl, Taliban rule, and finallthe American involvement after the 9-11 attacks. Afgghanistan is one of the world's largest largest refugee problems. Since the American outure of the Taliban, over 5.7 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan (since 2002). This had had an enormous impact, essentially increaing the country's population 25 percent. The situation has since chznged znd not all for the best (2006). There has been a declining trend of voluntary repatriation and increasing internal displacement. The number of refugee returnees in was the second lowest on record with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since the beginning of the War (2011). The declining rte of voluntary return appears to reflect the mounting exile concerns with the security situation in the country.


Bingan, Chen. The Great Exodus to Hong Kong (2013).

CIH -- Cold War

Navigate the Children in History Website:
[Return to Main Cold War page]
[Return to Main 20th century refugee pahe]
[Return to Main Communism page]
[About Us]
[Introduction] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Freedom] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]

Created: 9:31 AM 3/30/2016
Last updated: 12:35 AM 4/2/2020