Of the 7–9 million people dislocated by World War II, most returned home. But some 1.5–2 million DPs remained homeless in 1945. Among the DPs were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, East Europeans whose countries were being overrun by Soviet-imposed communism, and people who simply had no place to go. DP camps were located in factories, army barracks, and even concentration camps. The camps were crowded and unsanitary and were plagued by food and clothing shortages. The UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) helped DPs in the immediate aftermath of the war, but it shut down its own camps in early 1947, forcing DPs to fend for themselves.
The conditions in the camps came to the attention of U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who sent Earl G. Harrison to Europe in June 1945 to investigate conditions. Harrison reported two months later that conditions were comparable to the Nazi concentration camps, except for extermination. The Harrison Report led Truman to demand changes in the way the camps operated. Jews were later separated from non-Jewish Poles and Germans.
In 1946 the DP population doubled because of difficulties in Eastern Europe, with 150,000 Polish Jews repatriating from the Soviet Union to where they had escaped at the war's onset. By the winter of 1946, Europe had about 250,000 DPs, with more East Europeans than Jews. Truman loosened U.S. immigration laws, giving priority to orphans. During 1946–1950, 100,000 Jews made their way to the United States. The United States further modified its immigration laws with the 1948 Displaced Persons Act, which allowed 341,000 immigrants into the country during 1948–1952.
For many Jewish death camp survivors, the desired solution was emigration from Europe to Palestine. Thus, the Harrison Report recommended the relocation of 100,000 Jewish DPs from Europe to Palestine. But this created significant problems. The British feared alienating the Arabs and losing control over Middle East oil, and Palestinians living in the British mandate were hostile to the Jewish immigrants. London placed the conundrum in the hands of the UN, which sought to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Meanwhile, Britain maintained the Jewish immigration quota to Palestine of 18,000 people per year through 1948. After the British left their Palestinian mandate and Israel became an independent nation in May 1948, 13,500 Jewish immigrants per month entered Israel through the end of the year.
The many Cold War armed conflicts led to a change in the treatment of those uprooted by violence. Millions of Koreans, Vietnamese, Palestinians, Lao, and Congolese fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries, there to remain for years if not longer. When late in the Cold War many nations experienced internal wars, the neighboring states closed their borders instead of accepting refugees as they had done in the past. In the 1970s the international community began applying the term "internally displaced persons." International agreements dealing with refugees did not apply to IDPs. This meant that the developed world could ignore the 1949 Geneva Conventions, two 1977 protocols pertaining to victims of armed conflict, and the mandate of humanitarian organizations to safeguard IDPs.
The UN attempted to define the status of IDPs under international law in 1992, and in 1998 the UN established a special advisor for IDPs and attempted to expand authority to aid refugee-like situations. It allowed the same level of support for DP camps as for refugee camps, but it failed to establish any basis in international law for protecting the DPs or the camps themselves.
John H. Barnhill
Wyman, Mark. DPs: Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945–1951. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.