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Seventy-five years of forced displacement leading up to the Syrian exodus of 2015

A visual depiction of refugee crises since World War II.

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This year's mass migration of some 4.4 million Syrians into surrounding countries — not to mention the more than 6 million estimated to be displaced within Syria itself — has drawn near-constant headlines around the world, as Europe struggled to deal with the influx. But it's by far not the first instance of millions of people fleeing conflict in their homeland, nor the largest. So how does it compare to the refugee crises of decades past?

It's actually a little difficult to figure that out. There was little official recordkeeping of the magnitude of mass migrations before World War II. While the U.N. High Commission on Refugees has kept better track since its founding in 1950, its standardized, searchable databases only go back to about the year 2000. Even then, they mostly measure how many people have been displaced to what countries at any given time, rather than the total impact of a discrete conflict or other historical event.

Given those constraints, we've combed through the autobiography of sorts that UNHCR issued in 2000, which contains many more of those retrospective statistics (i.e., X number of people were displaced by Y event). The post-2000 section is drawn from current statistics, and so reflects displacement levels in 2015. Both sections lump together people displaced in their own countries with refugees, who by definition have crossed borders in search of safety.

The picture that emerges is a tapestry of people on the move throughout the second half of the 20th century — sometimes in extremely large bursts, such as the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 that displaced 14 million people, and the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971, which forced 10 million Bengalis to flee to India. Repatriation can take decades, and sometimes people never return.

In the case of Syria, that story is still unfolding. Click here for the full graphic.

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