The Migration Files of the International Refugee Organization

The International Refugee Organization (IRO, the predecessor of the current United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR), which was established in 1947, supervised and assisted more than one million displaced persons. The documentation resulting from this work is an invaluable source on post-war migrations, from the first contact with the organization to the displaced person’s entry within the camps system and emigration to various countries. The majority of these records are now held in the archives of the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, and are partly accessible online. They cover the post-war period, although the information they contain also traces the pre-war trajectories of displaced persons, their origins, family situations, and experiences during the war.

Europe on the roads

At the end of the Second World War, approximately twelve million people were outside their home country as a result of the war and Nazi policies. Fleeing civilians, forced labourers, soldiers who had given up their uniforms, and concentration camp survivors were scattered across Europe. After the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies, this group swelled with people fleeing the advance of the Red Army, such as former collaborators, anti-Soviet fighters, civilians escaping Moscow’s potential stranglehold on Central and Eastern Europe, individuals taking advantage of the chaos and shifting borders to flee Soviet territories, etc. A large proportion of the Jewish survivors from Central and Eastern Europe, who had survived in camps or occasionally in hiding—and those in the Soviet Union facing the extermination of their relatives, destruction, spoliation, and persistent anti-Semitism—opted for emigration, sometimes out of fear of communist power.

DP camps’ map in Europe after the war © USHMM

To supervise displaced populations and organize their repatriation, the Allied forces set up the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). In 1946, nearly a million displaced persons refused to return, and sought international protection. The International Refugee Organization was established to organize their emigration rather than their repatriation to the country of origin. From 1947 onwards it registered and monitored the populations under its protection, as well as the migrants who continued to arrive in Germany, Austria and Italy. In a few months, this vast administrative undertaking had generated nearly 350,000 files, thereby opening up the rights of displaced persons to international aid, which was generally provided in camps for displaced persons (DPs). The application forms in these files are referred to by the initials C/M for the “Care and Maintenance program”.

Jewish DPs waiting to register with IRO officials, Linz, Austria, 1948 © USHMM, Julien Bryan Archive

Personal and familial data

A file was opened in the name of each migrant requesting assistance from the IRO, including those who were denied protection after examination of their request or due to their departure. For approved requests, each new interaction between the organization and DPs resulted in a new form, as did any change in status. Some documents predating the IRO are sometimes included, such as assistance application forms filed with UNRRA, medical records, or documents produced by the internal administration of DP camps. The language of the forms and responses varies depending on the different documents.

The files were generally completed for the whole family, so one file can involve more than one person, with relatives sometimes joining the family process to form a group of up to ten individuals. When requesting assistance from the IRO, displaced persons, with the help of an organization official, had to provide details regarding their identity, claimed citizenship, religion, family ties, educational background, profession, and all stages of their journey over the preceding twelve years.

Envelope containing the documents of a same family over three generations © Arolsen Archives

The familial dimension of application forms was based on the individual referred to as the “head of the family”, whose status and rights tended to apply to others. It is the surname of the head of family – sometimes a woman – that figures at the top of the envelope containing the various forms and documents. The information is not detailed in the same way for everyone; often the only trajectory provided is that of the head of the family. As a result, because they belonged to a group already under the protection of the international organization, some displaced persons were not subject to as many surveys, and subsequently did not provide as much information as the head of the family. Their family link, specified in the file, made it easier to obtain this protection.

The ethnic and geographical origins claimed by displaced persons, along with their religion, appear very early in the form. The categories in which displaced persons fell were crucial to the file’s processing. The IRO tended to more readily offer protection to certain populations, especially Jewish Holocaust survivors, and later, in a context of hardening international relations marked by the beginning of the Cold War, to open opponents of the communist powers.

Prototype of the CM/1 form completed by migrants at the IRO, 1948 – Archives Nationales (France), AJ43, International Organization for Refugees © Archives Nationales

A migration project

A second component of the forms filled out by displaced persons relates to their migration process. When seeking assistance from the IRO and humanitarian organizations, displaced persons had to simultaneously formulate their plans for future migration.

This link between immediate aid and future plans for departure can be seen in the obligation for displaced persons to indicate—early and often—the country of destination to which they wished to emigrate. These declarations almost automatically introduced further procedures with the consulates and delegations of the countries concerned, procedures that the IRO simultaneously supervised and facilitated. This process is sometimes reflected in refusals by diplomatic administrations, quota restrictions imposed on migrants, and mention of the visa number and mode of transportation to the emigration destination at the time of departure, at which point the file was closed.

To support their efforts, displaced persons also mentioned the relatives or relations who could assist them. The names and addresses mentioned, generally of relatives who had already emigrated to another continent, illustrate the importance of past migration and family networks when specifying departure.

Interaction between DPs and international organizations

The information provided by DPs had two main objectives: to demonstrate that they were “genuine refugees” – to use the IRO’s term – likely to receive international protection; and to negotiate a destination and assistance in the process. Like any administrative document, the IRO migration files are the product of interactions between actors with diverse interests.

The populations in transit emphasized elements that provided them with aid and protection, especially since they were sometimes assisted in their efforts by humanitarian organizations specific to the different displaced populations, whose deliberate aim was to enable the greatest number of people to obtain IRO protection. Persecution during war was a major argument. The Jews referred to the violence they had personally suffered, the extermination of their relatives, loss of property, and the persistent climate of anti-Semitism after the war to emphasize the peculiarities of their persecuted status. Other populations from Eastern Europe mentioned the ravages of the war, and the risks they would run in remaining under a communist government as the Soviet Union asserted its domination.

To support their claims, DPs produced documents testifying to their war experiences, or used the testimonies of other displaced persons; the IRO did not hesitate to confirm the alleged situation in the documents it collected, such as records from concentration camps, forced labour camps, and prisons.

In some cases, the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or the national committees for other populations, took the place of the applicants themselves. The committees played a crucial role in identifying crossing points and places of gathering, and in interacting with local or international authorities. In some DP camps, the IRO was concerned that the standardization of personal narratives, under the authority of the camp authorities, was hampering its work.

Offices of the International Refugee Organization, the American Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Palestine, Munich, Germany, c. 1948 © USHMM, coll. Alex Hochhauser

According to the IRO, a “genuine refugee” was someone who, for example, had fled his or her home in a hurry because of persecution or fear of persecution. In its eligibility manual, the IRO thus described “displaced persons” as those “who have left the country of their nationality or habitual residence involuntarily, or under duress, threat or violence … either for forced labour or for reasons of race, religion or politics”. Initially focusing on “Nazi, fascist or other regimes” and the Second World War, the IRO’s definition quickly expanded to include “fear of persecution” by communist regimes and the untenable situation of Jewish survivors in the post-war period. This characteristic tends to overshadow the preliminary steps taken by future DPs to highlight a highly coerced departure: attempts to resettle, a search for relatives or temporary work, and the sale of property were often omitted. With a view to obtaining international protection, the elements stated by the displaced persons were selected; similarly, the notes and brief comments made by officials left little room for orality and biographical narrative, retaining above all the facts deemed to be crucial.

For further information

Dossier « Réfugiés, sujets d’une histoire globale », Monde(s), n° 15, 1/2019, p. 7-191

Dossier « Figures de l’exil », Genèses, n° 38, 1/2000, p. 2-104

Suzanne Brown-Fleming, Nazi Persecution and Postwar Repercussions. The International Tracing Service Archive and Holocaust Research, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016

Anne-Sophie Bruno, Philippe Rygiel, Alexis Spire, Claire Zalc, « Jugés sur pièces. Le traitement des dossiers de séjour et de travail des étrangers en France (1917-1984) », Population, vol.61, 5-6/2006, p. 737-762

Gerard Daniel Cohen, In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order, New York, Oxford University Press, 2011

Zeev W. Mankowitz, Life between Memory and Hope. The Survivors of the Holocaust in Occupied Germany, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002

Katarzyna Person, Dipisi. Żydzi polscy w amerykańskiej I brytyjskiej strefach okupacyjnych Niemiec, 1945-1948, Varsovie, Żydowski Instytut Historyczny, 2019

Ben Shephard, Le long retour, 1945-1952. L’histoire tragique des déplacés de l’après-guerre, Paris, Albin Michel, 2014