Civilians with baggage wait to board trucks
© IWM BU 6629
People awaiting admission to No.17 Displaced Persons Assembly Centre at Hamburg Zoological Gardens.

The Second World War ended in 1945, but the consequences continued for many years afterwards. 

One of the largest of these was the continued displacement of millions of people.  In Europe alone it is estimated as many as 65 million people were forced from their homes by the war including those used as slave labour by the Nazis, ex-Prisoners of War, and the millions of citizens whose homes had been bombed and shelled and who had fled advancing armies.

In 1943 United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was founded to "plan, co-ordinate, administer… measures for the relief of victims of war in any area under the control of any of the United Nations through the provision of food, fuel, clothing, shelter and other basic necessities, medical and other essential services." 

This was the first time that planning for anticipated refugees had occurred during a war.  UNRRA was limited under its Articles of Agreement to assissting in the repatriation or return to their home countries of ‘Displaced Persons’ (DPs).

Crucially this did not cover prisoners of war held in other countries, or Internally Displaced Persons from Axis powers.  Millions of German civilians from the East had already fled the advance of the Red Army but around another 10 million ethnic Germans were expelled from places such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania, sanctioned under the Potsdam Agreement in July 1945. 

There were many DPs from Eastern Europe who did not want to return to their homes now that the Soviet Union was occupying their countries, and many such as the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who did not want to return to a country that had forced them out in the first place.

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Until the surrender of Germany most DPs were looked after by the allied military.  Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) G-5 Office (Refugee Displaced Persons and Welfare Branch) issued plans for dealing with refugees during the Normandy Invasion in June 1944. 

They expected 11.3 million refugees and DPs in Western occupied countries (excluding German civilians and forces).  Between May and June 1945 SHAEF repatriated 5.25 million DPs at a rate of 80,000 a day.  UNRRA only took over operational tasks in January 1945 when they helped with 250,000 refugees in France and the Low Countries. 

A family of four look out of the window of a wooden hut
© IWM BU 6637 Aleksy Waszczuk and his family at the window of their assigned hut in the DP camp at Hamburg Zoo, Germany
Aleksy Waszczuk and his family at the window of their assigned hut in the DP camp at Hamburg Zoo, Germany

Accommodation included former military barracks, factories, airports, hotels, castles, hospitals, private homes, and even partly destroyed buildings. There were also some summer camps for children.

In Hamburg in Germany, a reception camp was established on the site of the zoological gardens.

See more photos of what became known as the 'Zoo Camp'.

A large group of women and girls, some wearing striped clothing
IWM BU 6652
Russian women and girls, former slave labourers, who have just arrived at the camp. Some still wear the striped prison clothes given to them by the Germans.

On 1 October 1945, UNRRA, which had already been running many of the camps, took responsibility for the administration of DPs in western Europe, though military authorities continued to play a role for several years to come, in providing transportation.  By the time it closed in 1947 UNRRA was still running nearly 800 resettlement camps.

The International Refugee Organisation (IRO), a temporary organisation of the UN, was founded in April 1946 and took over the functions of UNRRA. 

IRO was itself dissolved in 1952 after resettling just over one million refugees, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) took over responsibility for the international refugee efforts.  The 1951 Refugee Convention created a legal definition for refugees that is still used today.  At that time there were still 175,000 DPs left in central Europe, usually because they were too old, or unable to work due to illness or disease, so that countries did not want to take them.

As late as 1959 there were still thousands of people waiting in ‘temporary’ accommodation.  The UK initiated World Refugee Year (1959-1960), which was soon adopted by the United Nations.  The idea was that a world-wide humanitarian effort should be made to bring the refugee problem in Europe, as well as newer refugee situations in the Middle East and Asia,  to a close, particularly those who fell outside the criteria for a ‘refugee’ in UNHCR’s convention.

15 years after the end of the Second World War there were still many waiting for a permanent home.



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A family and their overloaded car at a refugee centre on the Iraq-Kuwait border, during the First Gulf War, 1991.
A family and their overloaded car at a refugee centre on the Iraq-Kuwait border, during the First Gulf War, 1991. © John Keane (IWM GLF 174)

Refugees: Forced to Flee

IWM London
Until 13 June 2021

Reckoning with Refugeedom Teaser Image
First World War

Reckoning with Refugeedom

Reckoning with Refugeedom is an ongoing project conducted by the University of Manchester.

The project aims to put refugees more firmly and centrally into modern history by accessing the perspectives of refugees from different backgrounds, through petitions and letters to those in positions of authority, but also personal correspondence and other source material.

Two children, with their mother, hold up bowls for soup
© IWM BU 6635
Second World War

The 'Zoo Camp' for displaced persons – Hamburg 1945

On 3 May 1945 British forces entered the city of Hamburg after overcoming the last desperate defence of the beleaguered German army in northern Germany. Victory brought with it enormous challenges as the Allies attempted to deal with millions of people displaced by the war. The Allies called them Displaced Persons (DPs) and set up a network of camps to house and feed them.