Module 1 – Historical Perspective


Forced Migrations due to Discrimination


Forced Migrations due to Economic Factors


Conflicts in the
Middle East 

Recent Forced Migrations into the United States of America. 


Migration has been an important aspect of world development from earliest records of history.

Forced Migrations due to Discrimination

Students of American history are taught of the Puritans voyage to the new world to escape religious persecution. Others followed for similar reasons such as the Mormons, Catholics and Jews.

Pogroms, persecution of ethnic or religious groups in Eastern Europe (particularly by the Russian Empire), resulted in the displacement of whole villages of Jews. The well-known play “Fiddler on the Roof” tells the story of such a village when residents are told they have three days to leave or be forced out by the Russian soldiers sent by the government. They flee to parts of Europe, Palestine (now Israel), and the United States.


Forced Migrations due to Economic factors 

Widespread famine in Ireland in the 1840s resulted in many fleeing to the United States. For example, there is a story of sisters Mary and Mima who were forced to leave Northern Ireland as teenagers. They attempted to join their brother in NY, only to find he had relocated to Denver. They found work and sent for their younger sister, Elizabeth. She eventually married an immigrant from England and would tell her daughter years later, “You’re English, not Irish”. The struggle to find a sense of identity and belonging seemed to follow them through generations.

The massive destruction from heavy artillery and tank fire of warring armies and blanketing of aerial bombing throughout Europe during World War II led to massive economic despair and dislocation of those who survived. For example, teenagers Mike and Yvonne each left their families in devastated England by a slow freighter ship to find work and new lives in New Zealand. They met onboard, married, settled in Wellington, raised a family and only years later flew back to England to visit their family members who they had left so many years before.

At the end of WWII in 1945, Germany was divided into four occupational zones according to the Potsdam Agreement. Russia occupied the former eastern territories of Germany and in 1949 formed the German Democratic Republic that was commonly referred to as East Germany. During the early years of what was known as the Cold War (1950s), many people in that region of Germany wanted to move to the West for more freedom and opportunities. As a result, thousands left from 1950 through 1953 (Loescher, 2001). Fearing what was called a “brain drain” of the young and best-educated professionals, Soviet rulers in 1961 decided to construct a wall on their own territory along the border between East and West Germany. Soldiers protected the border and were ordered to shoot to kill in order to end defections to the West. 

[See Potsdam Agreement] and [Transcript in German from May 2009]

A new wave of refugees leaving East Germany and other areas of former Soviet control occurred beginning in 1989 (soon after the Tiananmen Square protests in China) with political unrest, sparked by massive worker strikes and demonstrations within communist governments representing Eastern Block countries, such as Hungary and Poland. This unrest eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989 soon after the resignation of Erich Honecker, the long-term leader of East Germany. ​[See link]

Forced Migrations due to Unrest in the Middle East 

Unrest has occurred for many years in the Middle East. More recent conflicts such as the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990 resulted in over 100,000 fatalities and tens of thousands being displaced. Continuing conflict in this region inspired a UN declaration on Human Rights in 2006. [See document Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 2006] 

Other recurring conflicts between the Kurds and Turks, Iran and Iraq, Israel and Palestine/neighboring Arab countries, plus in Yemen and Egypt kill and displace many more. The US has also been involved in conflicts in this area. Ongoing conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria has resulted in many casualties and added to the continuing flow of refugees seeking a safe haven in other countries. See UNHRC 2015 doc/PDF and [See link]

Recent Forced Migrations into the United States of America. 

Past migrations into the U.S. tended to focus on individuals who came to work for survival of themselves and their families who remained behind—and those workers are still needed today. There is a story of an undocumented worker named Mike, age 32, who, with his wife and four children, has provided much needed farm labor in Syracuse, New York for over a decade. The family lives in fear of being detained at a roadside immigration checkpoint or supermarket parking lot and being deported. [See link]

Recently we seem to be seeing more families and parents with young children fleeing from violence or threats of violence in their countries of origin. Reports of family separations and “caging” of young children after they are seen by U.S. officials along the border with Mexico flood the media and their cause is being fought in courts. [See link]

Environmental changes appear to be a more recent cause of forced migration to the U.S.. Previously productive lands in areas of the world such as Central America are now no longer able to support families. Coffee farmers in Honduras include the story of Fredi who faced a doubtful harvest due to their plants’ struggle with rising temperatures that contribute to crop diseases. His brothers, sister and teenage son have already headed north to the U.S. to find a way to survive—and they are not alone. [See link]


It is clear that global migration and, specifically, forced migration because of discrimination, persecution, economic necessity, political unrest, and environmental destruction has occurred throughout the world and throughout history. The international community needs to address the causes and consequences of forced migration and explore humane solutions to provide all persons safety, dignity, economic opportunity, and environmental sustainability.


With the rise of white supremacist Nazis in Germany in the 1930s, Jews were again forced to flee or face suffering and death in concentration camps. Dr. Alice Salomon was caught up in a dangerous time. Born in 1872, she was raised in an upper middle class Jewish family in Berlin at a time when Jews there had full rights as citizens. In 1906, she fought cultural biases against educating women and received a doctorate in economics and history. She was an educator, women’s activist, and a peace advocate who is often referred to as the “mother of social work in Germany”. She was targeted by the Nazi secret police who questioned her in 1937, at age 65, and ordered her to leave Germany within three weeks or be sent to a concentration camp. She was forced to leave her family, colleagues, friends, and her way of life to become a refugee in the U.S.. [See: Document on Alice Salomon]

Alice Salomon 1904

Alice Salomon 1942

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