Building a Digital Archive: The Role of Relevance and Research Trends in ‘Refugees, Relief and Resettlement’

Building a Digital Archive: The Role of Relevance and Research Trends in ‘Refugees, Relief and Resettlement’

By Bennett Graff, Senior Acquisitions Editor, Gale Primary Sources

Released in early 2020, Refugees, Relief, and Resettlement: Forced Migration and World War II lets students and scholars explore the largest displacement of people in human history, which occurred in the near decade-long window just before, during, and shortly after the Second World War. When Gale creates any of its archives, a great deal of planning – which can range from two to five or more years – will have gone into its conception and execution. During that period, Gale’s editors weigh a series of factors before the decision to proceed with the project. In this post, we’ll consider two of these factors in relation to Gale’s Refugees archive: contemporary relevance and academic research trends.

Contemporary Relevance: Why Refugees, Why Now?

On June 19, 2019, the New York Times featured an article with the title: “Number of People Fleeing Conflict Is Highest Since World War II, U.N. Says.”  This headline was based on a version of the chart below, which shows the number of refugees, displaced persons and asylum seekers recorded by the United Nations since its inception.

Because the United Nations was founded after World War II, the number of refugees and displaced persons during the war is taken largely from approximations provided by Allied governments and nongovernmental relief agencies that were operating at the time. The best estimates for the number of people who were forced to leave their homes shortly before, during or after the war range from 50 to 60 million.

This graph, created by Gale staff, is based on UNHCR figures from its Refugee Data Finder.  https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/download/?url=7iOQ.

Contemporary knowledge of the size and scope of this refugee crisis has long been overshadowed by the monumental destruction of human life, with estimates ranging from 70 to 85 million military and civilian deaths. Moreover, following the war’s conclusion, Allied victors worked quickly to repatriate as many displaced persons as possible to their villages, towns, cities, and countries of origin or resettle them in their new national homes.

The monumental effort to repatriate or resettle individuals and families from the late 1930s through the early 1950s required enormous resources and resulted in the production of a vast archive of historical data. Such resettlement and relocation efforts started as early as the flight of refugees from the Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland and the mass emigration of Jews from Germany in the late 1930s, as recorded in the two primary sources below:

Part of a report from British diplomat Basil Newton on the mass resettlement of Sudetens from the Sudetenland into Czechoslovakia.
Part of a report from British diplomat Basil Newton on the mass resettlement of Sudetens from the Sudetenland into Czechoslovakia. “Herr Jaksch” refers to the Sudeten German Social Democrat Wenzel Jaksch.
From: “Refugees: Czechoslovak and Others…1938…General Correspondence Files of the Political Departments of the Foreign Office…Refugees, Relief, and Resettlement: Forced Migration and World War II, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/AGPIYB834143691/RRRW?u=gale&sid=RRRW&xid=21cf4350 (Image 7).
One of several maps documenting the Jewish exodus from Germany just prior to the onset of World War II.
One of several maps documenting the Jewish exodus from Germany just prior to the onset of World War II. 
From: International Conference on Refugees…1938. MS Refugee Records from the General Correspondence Files of the Political Departments of the Foreign Office…Refugees, Relief, and Resettlement: Forced Migration and World War II, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/EZPBXE272723170/RRRW?u=gale&sid=RRRW&xid=d8a5f52d (Image 21).

At the war’s conclusion, the Allies worked assiduously to resettle or repatriate tens of millions. Along the way, accounting for the number of refugees and displaced persons within countries and across national borders proved a massive recordkeeping exercise as Allied forces did their best to record numbers by their country or region of origin, their nationality or ethnicity, and their prospective destinations, as suggested in the two primary sources below:

Progress Reports on Repatriation of Displaced Persons: Policy in British Zones of Germany and Austria…1946
“Progress Reports on Repatriation of Displaced Persons: Policy in British Zones of Germany and Austria…1946. MS Refugee Records from the General Correspondence Files of the Political Departments of the Foreign Office…Refugees, Relief, and Resettlement: Forced Migration and World War II, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/ADBVYM053274615/RRRW?u=gale&sid=RRRW&xid=1e238f92 (Image 115).
A map of population dislocations.
A map of population dislocations.
From: Europe’s Uprooted People. September 1944 – April 19, 1945…MS Refugee Records from the General Correspondence Files of the Political Departments of the Foreign Office…Refugees, Relief, and Resettlement: Forced Migration and World War II, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/DPXXVT147063943/RRRW?u=gale&sid=RRRW&xid=a48fbc2f  (Image 33).

Refugee Crisis Re-Emergence

The number of refugees and displaced persons dropped steeply after the war; the UN recorded around two million in 1951. But over the decades, this situation changed. The displacement of peoples across the globe accelerated with the growth of the global population, the rise of proxy states and their wars, the rapid spread of the arms trade, the emergence and recurrence of internecine and cross-border conflicts owing to postcolonial hostilities, and the increase in armed conflict over resources, from diamonds to oil and food.

This graph, created by Gale staff, is based on UNHCR figures from its Refugee Data Finder.  https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/download/?url=7iOQ.

As shown in the graphs above and below, the world population of displaced persons and refugees grew rapidly in the 2010s, especially with the mass displacements of populations from the Sudanese and Syrian civil wars, the persecution of Rohingya population by Myanmar’s military, and the mass flight of Venezuelans owing to economic privation. In August 2020, the United Nations recorded 79.5 million individuals as “forcibly displaced around the world.”  And with the continued and continuous growth in the number of refugees, there is no argument that the plight of this community remains of contemporary relevance. It is in this new context – the refugee crisis of the twenty-first century – that looking back to the previous largest global mass displacement becomes more important than ever.

Refugees, 2010-2019, graph
Graph created by Gale based on UNHCR figures from the Refugee Data Finder https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/download/?url=M9Ac

Relevance and Its Bearing on Academic Research

It is not uncommon for current events that capture headlines to move in tandem with levels of academic interest. The successful launch of any digital archive of primary sources will always consider the degree of academic interest in the topic as an object of both contemporary and historical study. The study of refugees and displaced persons is no exception.

Presently, there are over a dozen journals on this area of study from such prominent publishers as Oxford University Press (Journal of Refugee Studies, Refugee Survey Quarterly) and Springer (Comparative Migration Studies, Journal of International Migration and Integration). The editorial boards of this dozen or so journals list over 400 scholars. At the same time, nearly 30 research centers devoted to migration studies are housed at universities across the world, from UCLA’s Center for the Study of International Migration to the University of New South Wales’ Centre for Refugee Research. These research centers stand alongside the over 45 master’s degree programmes and nearly 10 doctoral programmes. And, of course, these dedicated programmes only scratch the surface among the hundreds of courses on refugees and displaced persons found as subtopics of critical interest in schools of Public Health, International Relations and Public Policy programmes and departments of History, Economics, Sociology, and other core disciplines.

Conclusion: Relevance and Research

Building an archive of the past is always a response in part to the needs of the present. Refugees, Relief, and Resettlement, in one very fundamental sense, does more than respond to the newsworthiness of its topic.  It does more even than assist in advancing research opportunities among the hundreds, if not thousands, of scholars who have turned their attention with a laser-like focus to the special circumstances of refugees and displaced persons. It also supports the academic work of students who may in the end not take the route of academia. That is say, our law and history of medicine collections do more than support legal scholars or historians of medicine; they also serve as research springboards for students of who may become our future lawyers or public health officials.  The same may be said for a field like Refugee Studies, as a growing cadre of professionals in the fields of social work and medicine, law and translation, arises to meet the demands for relief and resettlement for this community of some 80 million displaced persons.

To read more about Refugees, Relief, and Resettlement, check out ‘Humanity and Courage: Refugees and the Memory of Those Who Saved Them’ by Associate Acquisitions Editor Rebecca Bowden. Stefanie Meinken has also written an interesting piece about escaping from East Germany.


Blog post cover image citation: Combination of: Europe’s Uprooted People. September, 1944-April 19, 1945. MS Refugee Records from the General Correspondence Files of the Political Departments of the Foreign Office… Refugees, Relief, and Resettlement: Forced Migration and World War II, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/DPXXVT147063943/RRRW?u=gale&sid=RRRW&xid=a13f2df7 (image 34) and: International Conference on Refugees…1938. MS Refugee Records from the General Correspondence Files of the Political Departments of the Foreign Office…Refugees, Relief, and Resettlement: Forced Migration and World War II, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/EZPBXE272723170/RRRW?u=gale&sid=RRRW&xid=d8a5f52d (image 21).

 About the Author


Bennet Graff author photo
Bennett Graff is a Senior Acquisitions Editor at Gale. He joined Gale in 2017. When not building an archive, he can generally be found hiking or biking the hill, valleys, and shorelines of his home state of Connecticut.