At the end of World War II, millions of dislodged people from all over Europe, including those who were imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps and those who were uprooted as a result of the war and the shifting of country boundaries, found themselves in various displaced persons camps. In fact, they came to be known as DPs, short for displaced persons. Western Allies were caught up with the problem of trying to find places for these immigrants who had nowhere to go. In time, countries like Argentina, Brazil, the United States, Canada, France and the United Kingdom accepted an influx of these migrants and settled them in their countries. What was unique about this experience was that the waves of immigrants involved were brought overseas through far-sighted and humanitarian policies adopted by these receiving states.
Fast forward to today. Now, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.N.’s refugee agency reports that the number of displaced people is at its highest ever – surpassing even post-World War II numbers. We are seeing this naked reality manifest itself at the southern border of the United States and in the presence of undocumented immigrants in the country today. The question is how to address this issue going forward. A possible solution is to employ the same program the Allied Nations used at the end of World War II.
The Old Policy
Under the old policy brought in at the end of World War II, the resettlement of many of these immigrants involved a sponsorship by local citizens or humanitarian organizations who took on the responsibility to pay for and look after the immigrants on their arrival. Usually the new arrivals agreed to terms in which they would pay off the investment made in them by the sponsors in short-term contracts, perhaps a few years in length. A good example is the case of my spouse’s parents. Her father came to Canada and paid off the cost of his relocation and settlement by working as a lumberjack in the forests of northern Ontario. Her mother worked as a nanny in a French-speaking home in Montreal looking after that family’s young children. In both instances, after fulfilling a one year contract their debts were paid off and they then settled in Toronto to continue their lives as new immigrants to Canada. This experience was common and I am aware of many individuals whose parents came to the United States, or Canada, or Argentina on the same basis.
The Exceptional Element
What was so exceptional about this migration was the way it was handled. Whether the individuals who migrated were, strictly speaking, refugees as defined by the U.N. Convention on Refugees, was not the primary basis of their immigration. Instead, what was used was a displaced-persons-method of immigration that responded to the upheavals occasioned by the war. What mattered was whether the persons concerned were uprooted from their homes, and whether someone could be found to sponsor them to immigrate. The matching of the immigrants to sponsors was, very often, based on the initiatives of the immigrants or sponsors themselves. They would write to relatives or friends overseas asking them for help. While the policy had to be enacted by governments, the mechanics were left up to the individuals themselves. Officials simply cleared the immigrants before their departures reviewing their papers and their criminal and medical histories.
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This same approach could serve us well today. Most persons uprooted abroad are probably not refugees according to the narrow legal definition adopted by the United Nations, that is to say, “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” But they are dispossessed and have no safe long term place to lay down their heads at night.
What Is Needed Today
What is needed is for Western governments to accept such displaced persons as immigrants, not necessarily because they are refugees, but because they are worthy of support based on their humanity and the misfortunes they have encountered in their lives. They are the victims of wars, of volcanic eruptions, of climate change, of criminal violence, of human trafficking and many other forms of depravity. Their stories of misfortune stir us to help them because we are human and know very well that but for the grace of God we could be them.
It is true that it would be impossible for us to save all those who seek our help and good will. But that is no argument for doing nothing. We need to do the best we can. Alongside the current refugee system that addresses those who are being persecuted, we can use the displaced persons approach to open our doors to others also worthy of our attention. There need be no limit imposed on such applications. If there is someone in our country that seeks to sponsor a displaced person abroad and is prepared to financially support such an immigrant, that should be the test of admissibility. An affidavit of support and sponsorship application with a contract to pay off the sponsor should be sufficient to enable the immigrant to come. Of course a medical and police/security clearance should also be involved. Conditional admission for two years subject to the immigrant satisfying the terms of the contract to repay the sponsor, could be the basis of approval for entry. That would provide a means of government enforcement of the conditions of admission.
It Could Be The Solution Needed
Such an approach could help address the need of those overseas who seek to immigrate while also helping our local population address their needs here. It could also help ease the pressure on the southern border. This approach has a proven track record and could be a great source of inspiration for those who get involved. There is no doubt the current refugee system is not solving the problems that need to be addressed in our immigration system. Introducing this displaced persons policy once again could very well be a way to do it.