SUCCESSIVE WAVES of refugees were for a century a mirror of European history and for an even longer time of the history of America. Since time immemorial people have moved from one country to another for a variety of reasons; early on the Bible tells a story of one such migration. But, as Michael Marrus points out in his valuable new book, refugees as a category did not impinge on European consciousness and they hardly ever troubled relations between states. The term had initially a very specific meaning -- it referred to the Protestants expelled from France in the late 17th century. Only later it was extended to all those who had to leave their native country in times of distress.

Throughout the 19th century there were several waves of such emigration, mostly political in character such as the Germans leaving their country after the failed revolution of 1848 or the Poles escaping Russian occupation. Jews in their masses also left Eastern Europe because they were persecuted and starved; there was a similar emigration wave from the Balkans. The Southeastern European refugees are seldom remembered now but they had a social and political impact which lasts to this day: If Andreas Papandreou is in power in Athens this is not unconnected with the fact that after World War I, 1.2 million Greeks had to leave Turkey. Their absorption in mainland Greece was difficult and protracted and contributed significantly to the radicalization of Greek politics.

On the whole, the attitude of 19th-century Europe was far more tolerant than in a later age: True, a newspaper like The Times of London would deride the continental revolutionaries recently arrived as "wearing hats such as no one ever wore and hair where none should be." But despite outlandish hats and beards, no one was ever denied entry into Britain at the time, and there was no need for passports and visas either. One of the main reasons was that there were not that many refugees, but above all the refugees were not considered a political or economic threat.

All this changed radically after World War I: More than a million Russians left their country after the Revolution and there was another mass exodus following the disintegration of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. The situation of minorities in the successor states and Nazi persecution of Jews were further cause of the increasing stream of ,emigr,es for which no refuge could be found. The refugees found most doors closed: The Great Depression had caused mass unemployment and there was the fear that a further influx would cause a disaster. And so it came to pass that countries once well known for offering asylum declared that the "life boat was full" -- in the memorable words of a Swiss minister of the interior in 1942. True, France received 250,000 Spanish Republicans after the defeat of the Republic in 1939 -- on condition that most of them would move on. Britain accepted in the last months before the war some 50,000 German and Austrian Jews. But the great majority of those who had wanted to emigrate could not do so, and as a result many perished.

IT IS ONLY fair to add that America, the richest country of all, which had been built by refugees, behaved as badly or even worse. One of the few rays of hope in the interwar period was the establishment by the League of Nations of a High Commission for Refugees. The first incumbent was Frithjof Nansen, the famous polar explorer; while the institution did a great deal of good in the years after World War I, its resources were altogether insufficient to cope with the much greater problems of the 1930s. Conferences such as Evian, which were to help to find at least partial solutions, were mere charades: gradually it was accepted that being one's brother's keeper was an outmoded and impractical concept.

The fate of the refugees after World War II is still vividly remembered: At one time or another some 80 million had been on the move, and as the war ended there were massive "population exchanges" (often a euphemism for something far more unpleasant). Many went on to America and other countries overseas, millions stayed in Europe. So great was the resilience and absorptive capacity of the old continent that by the late 1950s work and shelter had been found for most of them. The attention of the various refugee agencies began to shift to the third world countries, most recently to Ethiopia.

Nevertheless, Marrus is perhaps a little overly optimistic in claiming that Europe's refugee problem has been solved: This is certainly not true with regard to the absorption of Algerians in France and there have been growing problems with new immigrants in Britain and the "guest workers" (above all Turks) in West Germany. Were these people refugees? Most did not leave their countries because they were persecuted for political or other reasons but because they wanted a better life. This is now a major political issue facing European governments. The West German constitution -- alone in Europe -- makes the granting of political asylum to foreigners mandatory. But there is no denying that there has been massive abuse of this provision and it is also true that the staunchest internationalist will flinch once there is the danger that he and his kin will be outnumbered by new arrivals from far away places. This, of course, is true all the world over and Marrus is less than fair when he decries the "deeply conservative impulses" governing contemporary European politics and the prevailing restrictions.

In this respect there is not the slightest difference between conservatives and liberals, socialists and communists in Europe. Inspired by rock music they may give generous donations to refugees but they don't want them in their home. Fortunately, the character of the problem in Europe today is quite different from the crisis of the '30s and '40s when it was literally a question of life or death. Marrus has written a fine book on a difficult subject which will preoccupy governments and nations for many years to come.