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Great 20th Century Migrations

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The 1917 Russian revolution and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire created over 5 million refugees from 1919 to 1939, mainly Russians, Armenians, Turks and Assyrians. The League of Nations provided so-called Nansen passports (see photo above), travel documents, to some 450,000 stateless people.


More than 11 million people were brought to Germany by the Nazis to work as slave laborers, and many remained in squalid refugee camps for years after the war ended. The U.N. created a refugee agency in 1950 to deal with the millions of displaced Europeans, establishing the asylum system that continues to this day.


Three million people fled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the two decades following 1975 communist victories in the region. Photographs of Southeast Asian states turning away boatloads of refugees prompted global agreements in 1979 and 1989 to resettle 2.5 million people, over half in the U.S.


Nine in 10 Kosovars left the Balkan territory in 1998–99, with tens of thousands escaping into Macedonia and Montenegro. The E.U. struggled to agree on how to share the burden, with Germany taking the lion’s share of asylum applications and the U.K. facing particular criticism from the U.N. for accepting so few.

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Write to Naina Bajekal at naina.bajekal@time.com