Belmont Club

The Modern Refugee

How far could you run if you really had to? The historical answer to that question has been provided by the refugee, who was literally running for his life. Today the word “refugee” is typically applied to people from the Third World traveling thousands of miles, sometimes in commercial aircraft, to Europe, Australia or North America. This database shows the volume of refugee flows between any two countries.  One can readily observe from the database that refugees from Turkey, for example, flee to Germany or the United States, as do people from Togo in Africa.

But the iconic image of a refugee is that of someone in much greater distress; that of a Western European fleeing advancing German panzers in 1940, or vanishing into the endless spaces of Russia in the mid-1940s. Between 1939 and 1946, millions of people fled to what they believed to be a temporary place of safety, though this was often comparative and sometimes illusory. When the fighting stopped in 1945, these desperate groups were called displaced persons. Historically, refugees covered far shorter distances. Their near term goal was simply to get out of the path of immediate danger.

In the last months of World War II some five million German civilians from the German provinces of East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia fled the onslaught of the Red Army and became refugees in Mecklenburg, Brandenburg and Saxony …

During the same period, millions of former Russian citizens were forcefully repatriated against their will into the USSR …

At the end of World War II, there were more than 5 million “displaced persons” from the Soviet Union in the Western Europe. About 3 million had been forced laborers in Germany and occupied territories. The Soviet POWs and the Vlasov men were put under the jurisdiction of SMERSH (Death to Spies). Of the 5.7 million Soviet prisoners of war captured by the Germans, 3.5 million had died while in German captivity by the end of the war.  The survivors on their return to the USSR were treated as traitors (see Order No. 270). Over 1.5 million surviving Red Army soldiers imprisoned by the Nazis were sent to the Gulag.

The agonies of the Indian partition and the millions displaced by fighting in the Chinese civil war are other examples of short-distance refugee movements. The partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, and the population shifts associated with it, were also titanic.  Even today the short-haul refugee can commonly be found fleeing conflicts in the Third World. Who flees to Ethiopia? People from the Sudan. Who in his right mind escapes to Pakistan? Answer: people from Afghanistan.  Safety and security are comparative. The ultimate short-haul refugee is the partisan, who faced with the alternative of death, runs into the nearest forest or wilderness to fight back or escape notice, like the Jewish holdouts of the Lithuania.

Clearly, the modern long-haul refugees, miserable as they might be, still rely on motorized transportation, shipping or the airlines to move. This is in stark contrast to the short haul refugees, who arerunning from an imminent threat, deprived of vehicle, home and much else. In those circumstances, the mode of movement devolves to the lowest tech.

Probably the lowest tech, short of ambling around on bare feet like our ancestors from a 100,000 years ago involves escape with a handcart.

Going My Way?

France 1940


The handcart is the bottom of the barrel; the only thing left if the gas stations are closed, the highways are blocked by burning vehicles and the railroads are all shot to hell. It’s where you put grandma, or the baby, or the wife if she breaks a leg. In capable hands the handcart offers a surprisingly robust way to travel across country. One American family traced the movements of their ancestors to Utah to the handcart convoys of the 19th century.

Most of the people in the Christian Christiansen handcart company were Scandinavians (Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes). They numbered about 330 souls, including a girl with a wooden leg and a 60-year-old blind woman. Because the Perpetual Emigrating Fund was exhausted, the emigrants had to purchase their own outfits with pooled resources. They had 68 handcarts, 3 wagons, 10 mules, and 1 cow. The cow soon died but others were purchased along the way. Likewise, the travelers purchased a fourth wagon and oxen to pull it. Elder J. P. Park, a Scotsman, was the company captain, but he had to communicate with his charges through an interpreter because he could not speak nor understand their language. Also, he was reportedly unsympathetic towards them. “The less said about this unfortunate choice of a leader for such a people as us,” wrote an emigrant, “the better for him.”

Bound for the Promised Land

The best kinds of handcarts, it turns out, are not the supermarket trolley types, but those that are pulled like rickshaws.  You can build your own, as shown here,  or you can buy these marvelously engineered devices from Germany, where they are made from converted bicycle trailers.  The bicycle trailer equipped with the proper handles, is come to think of it, probably the most efficient pulling gizmo ever devised.

The story of the modern short-haul refugee has serious gaps; one is the part played by the convoy and escort. In every movement towards a terra incognita in hisotry, there has always been the need for a guide and mutual aid and protection. Little has been written about how the World War 2 era refugees organized their movements  we know from literature on modern long-haul refugees that a people smuggling industry eventually emerges to facilitate their movements.

Fortunately we have more data from people movements in an earlier era, who were not at all shy about describing their convoying and security practices. The classic example is the wagon train. “A wagon train is a group of wagons traveling together. In the American West, individuals traveling across the plains in covered wagons banded together for mutual assistance … Overland emigrants discovered that smaller groups of twenty to forty wagons were more manageable than larger ones. Membership in wagon trains was generally fluid and wagons frequently joined or left trains depending on the needs and wishes of their owners.”

The wagon train is a classic convoy. The phrase “circling the wagons” is commonly used today, even though few stop to think of its origins.

Refugees have not been seen on any scale in the Western world since the end of World War 2.  With any luck it will never again. But the current world crisis has eroded our confidence in the unshakeable permanence of the post-war boom and peace. Should a crisis of such apocalyptic magnitude ever come again, then the handcart, canned food, sleeping bag and firearm are likely to be as important today as they were in the 19th and 20th century.


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