Forced Out: The 10 Largest Forced Migrations in Human History
Forced Out: The 10 Largest Forced Migrations in Human History

Forced Out: The 10 Largest Forced Migrations in Human History

Kurt Christopher - August 23, 2017

Since human beings first wandered out of Africa 60,000 years ago humanity has filled up most of the inhabitable places on the globe. The search for a better life beyond the horizon often motivated the migration of large groups of people, but in other cases, large groups of people have been compelled to move by force. What follows are the ten largest forced migrations in human history.

In 1830 President Andrew Jackson facilitated the passage of the Indian Removal Act, a law which empowered the U.S. government to relocate any Native Americans living in what is now the eastern United States to reservations west of the Mississippi River. The destination chosen for the “Five Civilized Tribes,” (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminoles) were reservations in Oklahoma, what was then called Indian Territory. While this displacement was legitimated by treaties signed by members of each of the tribes, the signatories to these treaties were not necessarily the recognized leaders of the tribes.

Forced Out: The 10 Largest Forced Migrations in Human History
An artists depiction of the Trail of Tears – Britannica

10. Indian Removal – 60,000 People Displaced

The first tribe to be subjected to removal was the Choctaw, who had agreed to cede their lands in 1830. Though the U.S. government provided wagons and steamboats for the migration, intense cold and flooding along with poor provisions led to a heavy death toll on what one Choctaw Chief called a “trail of tears and death.”

Of the 17,000 Choctaw who attempted the journey at least 2,500 died. The Cherokee, too, would travel this Trail of Tears. Though 2,000 Cherokee relocated to Oklahoma of their own accord when the remaining 16,000 refused to leave President Martin Van Buren ordered their forcible removal in 1838. A quarter of them died.

The Chickasaw fared better than the other tribes, receiving $3,000,000 for voluntarily abandoning their homeland in 1837. The Muscogee and Seminoles, though, chose to fight rather than submit to removal. Following Muscogee raids on settlements, the U.S. army confronted the Muscogee in the Creek War of 1836. The defeat of the Muscogee in this war resulted in the expulsion of 15,000 to Oklahoma in treks that resulted in a death rate similar to that of the Cherokee.

The Seminoles were more successful in defending themselves. They fought for seven years in the Second Seminole War. Most of the Seminole tribe would be removed during the war, but a few managed to hold out and remain.

Forced Out: The 10 Largest Forced Migrations in Human History
People displaced by the Three Gorges Dam protesting for compensation.

9. The Three Gorges Dam – 1,200,000 People Displaced

The idea of building a massive dam on the Yangtze River in China dates back to the early twentieth century. In the early 1930s planning began for the construction of just such a dam at the Three Gorges, but the outbreak of war with Japan would interrupt the scheme.

During the Second World War Japan seized the site of the proposed dam and took on the project as their own, imagining that the dam might serve as a symbol of their victory. The Japanese never attained that victory, but the defeat of Japan did not bring peace to the Three Gorges.

After the end of the Second World War, some construction began on the dam itself, but the Chinese Civil War, which would sweep the Communist Party into power interrupted work once again. Mao Zedong was himself interested in the dam project, but the disruption caused by his disastrous economic policies made it impossible to go ahead with construction. It would not be until 1994 that a concerted effort to complete the dam began. It was a monumental undertaking. The structure, a mile and a half long and 600 feet tall, took eighteen years to complete.

One significant consequence of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam was that water backing up behind it would create a 370-mile long reservoir in what was a highly-populated area. As the reservoir filled up it flooded 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,350 villages. Some 1,200,000 people who had lived in these population centers along the Yangtze River were forced to relocate as their homes disappeared under the waters. While these displaced people were promised compensation for their loss, many of them have still not received what they are owed.

Forced Out: The 10 Largest Forced Migrations in Human History
An illustration of victims of the Potato Famine sailing to North America. Brittanica

8. The Irish Potato Famine – 1,500,000 People Displaced

In the mid-19th-century, nearly half of the population of Ireland relied on potatoes as their primary source of nutrition. Much of the best farmland in Ireland had long ago been collected into estates which were barred to the Catholic population. The land that remained had been gradually subdivided over generations, due to an Irish practice of splitting up inherited lands amongst all sons of a family rather than leaving the plot intact and passing it on to the oldest son. As a consequence, by 1845 most farmers had no more than fifteen acres of poor land.

Cultivation of potatoes offered these tenant farmers a means to survive. The Irish Lumper strain of potato grew well in nutrient-poor or wet soil, enabling even the smallest plots of land to feed a family – albeit in abject poverty. Then in 1845 a blight of Phytophthora infesta, a parasitic algae not seen before in Ireland, broke out across the island. The blight devastated Irish Lumper potatoes, destroying as much as half of all of the potato crops on which Ireland’s poor depended. The first deaths of starvation were reported the following year.

Over the next four years, famine swept the country as hunger and epidemic disease claimed the lives of between 500,000 and 2,000,000 people. Faced with the catastrophe at home, young Irish men and women fled, touching off a wave of emigration from Ireland. 1,500,000 people left Ireland between 1845 and 1855.

The overwhelming majority came to the United States, though many would go to Canada and Australia as well. Most of these new immigrants had left their families behind in Ireland, but they would attempt to protect them from the worst of the famine by sending money back from their new homes overseas.

Forced Out: The 10 Largest Forced Migrations in Human History
The expulsion of Greeks from the Turkish city of Nicomedia in the early 1920s . Flickr

7. Turkish and Greek Population Exchange – 1,600,000 People Displaced

In 1453 the fall of Constantinople to the forces of the Turks of the Ottoman Empire brought the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire to an end. The centuries that followed, however, witnesses a high degree of cooperation and friendship between the Turkish and Greek peoples. Under the Ottoman millet system, Greek Orthodox Christians were recognized as a distinct community and given the right to practice their religion and develop their own laws, schools, and institutions. The advent of nationalism in the early nineteenth century, however, would once again put these two populations at odds.

Beginning in 1821 Greek nationalists rebels, with the help of European great powers, waged a war of independence against the Ottoman Empire. Their victory in 1835 won them an independent state and touched off the Ottoman Empire’s long retreat from the Balkans. The subsequent erosion of the Ottoman position in the region over the next eighty years would contribute to the outbreak of the First World War. Defeat in the First World War spelled the end for the Ottoman Empire, but animosity between Greeks and Turks would persist.

In the aftermath of the First World War, Greece made territorial claims to the western parts of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), hoping that they might rebuild their lost Byzantine Empire. But the arrival of Greek occupation troops in Anatolia touched off an uprising of Turks under Kemal Ataturk, reigniting the war. By 1923 Ataturk had driven the Greek forces from the new Republic of Turkey, but a good number of Greeks, who had lived there for generations, remained.

Likewise, hundreds of thousands of Turks were still living in Greece. According to the terms of peace between the two countries, these populations were to be exchanged. As a consequence 1,200,000 Greeks were expelled from Turkey and 400,000 Turks were expelled from Greece.

Forced Out: The 10 Largest Forced Migrations in Human History
An 1881 engraving of a pogrom in Kiev –

6. Jewish Emigration from the Pale of Settlement – 2,200,000 People Displaced

In the late eighteenth century, the Russian Empire was rife with anti-Semitism. As the Empire spread westwards from its Orthodox Christian base it conquered lands populated by people of other religions: Catholics and Jews. In order to control the Jewish population, Catherine the Great established the Pale of Settlement in 1791. The Pale, comprising the western fifth of the Empire, was designated as the only place where Jews could live and work. Even within the Pale, some cities were off-limits to Jews, and their property rights were severely limited.

While Jews in the Russian Empire were denied equal rights, the greatest challenge that they faced was the threat of pogroms – violent attacks on Jewish communities. When Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by socialist revolutionaries in 1881 many Russians blamed Jews for the Tsar’s death. This touched off a series of 166 pogroms in Ukraine. A still larger string of pogroms occurred during the tumultuous years of 1903 to 1906 when Russia was rocked by a failed war with Japan and an abortive revolution.

In response to legal oppression and mob violence, many Jews looked to leave Russia in search of a better life. Rather than trying to restrict Jewish emigration the Russian state actively encouraged Jews to leave the country. Most Russian Jews, some 2,000,000, would find new homes in the United States or Western Europe.

A small contingent of these emigrants, believing that they were not safe from anti-Semitism even in more liberal western countries, would found the Zionist movement with the goal of establishing a Jewish state. 45,000 of them would leave Russia for Palestine.

Forced Out: The 10 Largest Forced Migrations in Human History
A Syrian family fleeing from ISIS approaches the border with Turkey in 2014 . Newsweek

5. The Syrian Civil War – 4,800,000 People Displaced

Bashar al-Assad has held power in Syria as the head of the Ba’ath Party since the death of his father in 2000. The emergence of the Arab Spring revolutions, beginning in late 2010, has since posed a challenge to his leadership and plunged the country into civil war. In December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire to protest police brutality in Tunisia. This action precipitated widespread popular demonstrations in Tunisia which, in less than a month, would succeed in unseating the corrupt Tunisian regime non-violently.

From Tunisia, the demonstrations spread to the rest of the Middle East. Egypt followed the Tunisian model, removing President Hosni Mubarak after eighteen days of peaceful demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In Libya the demonstrations turned violent, sparking a civil war that resulted in victory for the rebels and the death of Muammar Gaddafi. Similarly, in Syria crowds of protesters took to the streets calling for Assad’s ouster, but a massacre of protesters in June 2011 marked the shift towards civil war in Syria as well.

The initial armed opposition to Assad’s regime came from the Free Syrian Army based around the city of Aleppo, but since the war began other interest groups have entered the fray as well. The Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of Kurds in the north of the country, fight for their autonomy. The al-Nusra Front, affiliated with al-Qaeda, wages jihad to build an Islamic state in Syria, and ISIS claims to have established a Caliphate by brutal means. Violence against civilians from all sides has produced an exodus of 4,800,000 people from the country, with an additional 6,000,000 internally displaced.

Forced Out: The 10 Largest Forced Migrations in Human History

4. Population Transfers within the Soviet Union – 6,000,000 People Displaced

As the dictator of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin sought to create a totalitarian society that controlled every aspect of its people’s lives, from how they worked to how they thought. While Lenin had not hesitated to persecute people he saw as class enemies in the 1920s, under Stalin a whole new segment of the Soviet population received this designation. More well-off peasant farmers were labeled “Kulaks,” considered to be enemies of the revolution, and in 1929 Stalin initiated a program called “Dekulakization.” This effort, which continued unabated until 1932, saw the deportation of 1,800,000 “Kulaks” to labor settlements in Siberia.

Stalin’s security apparatus would not just target so-called class enemies. Beginning in the 1930s it would move against ethnic groups classified as enemies as well. Stalin feared that the ethnically Polish population in the west might be loyal to the Polish state, newly created after the First World War, rather than the Soviet Union. Likewise, he questioned the support of the Korean population in the east.

Between 1932 and 1937 both ethnic groups would be removed from border regions. This effort would expand in 1939 when the Soviet Union joined Germany in invading Poland. This prompted a new wave of deportations of Poles as well as politically objectionable people from the Baltic states.

When the uneasy alliance between Stalin and Hitler crumbled with the German invasion the Soviets began to target ethnic Germans as well. A substantial German population then lived in the vicinity of the Black Sea. Stalin determined that they were a threat to security and would have to go. The Muslim populations of the same region, some of whom had supported the Germans during their advance to the Soviet Union, were also labeled enemies and sent to Siberia during and shortly after the war. All told, Stalin relocated some 6,000,000 people by force during his tenure.

Forced Out: The 10 Largest Forced Migrations in Human History
Trains loaded down with refugees in Amritsar in 1947. The Guardian

3. The Partition of India – 10,000,000 People Displaced

By the twentieth century, the Hindu and Muslim populations of India had lived side by side for twelve hundred years. While the majority of the Indian subcontinent had been under the control of the Muslim Mughal Empire from 1526 until the colonization of India by the British in the mid-eighteenth century, Muslims still made up only about twenty percent of the total population. The divisions between the Hindu and Muslim populations in India would become accentuated with the development of Indian nationalism in opposition to British rule in the late nineteenth century.

1885 saw the creation of the Indian National Congress by a group of primarily Hindu Indian nationalists dedicated to gaining independence for the country. Still, the Indian National Congress had little purchase amongst the Muslim population. In 1906 Muslims in India established the All India Muslim League, dedicated to ensuring the rights of Muslims and India. The All-Indian Muslim League also dreamt of removing the British, but they envisioned a future in which an independent India would be separated into two countries: a Hindu state of India and a Muslim state of Pakistan.

Between the First and Second World War, the drive for Indian independence gained traction under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi, who for a time managed to bring the Hindu and Muslim populations together in non-violent resistance. Near the end of the Second World War, the British imprisoned Gandhi and the independence movement spun out of control. Opposition to the British turned violent, and sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims increased dramatically.

Intercommunal violence persuaded the British to accept the All India Muslim League’s partition plan, and in August 1947 the independent states of India and Pakistan came into being. Hindus in Pakistan were expelled to India, while Muslims in India met a similar fate. In all 10,000,000 people would be driven from their homes.

Forced Out: The 10 Largest Forced Migrations in Human History
A trek of Germans expelled from their homes passing through the Spreewald in 1946.

2. Expulsion of Germans from Central Europe – 12,000,000 People Displaced

A primary objective of Hitler’s Third Reich had been to conquer and colonize most of Central and Eastern Europe. As the German military moved into Poland and the Soviet Union they were followed by German settlers. Ethnic Germans encountered in the East, the so-call Volksdeutsche, were also enlisted in this scheme to Germanize Central Europe. This colonization scheme began to go awry after the Battle of Stalingrad when the Soviets turned back the German advance and began, ever so slowly, to retake the territories that Hitler had slated for German settlement. As the Soviets advanced, ethnic Germans began to flee back to the interior of the Reich.

This wave of flight intensified once the Red Army approached the German border. In the winter of 1944 to 1945 treks of German civilians, mostly women and children pressed westward on foot through the cold. Others managed to book passage west on passenger ships operating in the Baltic Sea. Neither escape route was safe. Many of those who proceeded on foot made a perilous crossing over the frozen Vistula Lagoon where the ice was so thin that many wagons fell through. At sea, refugee ships faced attack from the Soviets. One transport ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, was sunk in January 1945 with 9,400 people on board, mostly refugees, in the greatest maritime disaster of all time.

Though the war ended in May 1945 the removal of Germans from Central Europe continued. Though the Soviets had ostensibly liberated Poland, Stalin was eager to retain the eastern regions of Poland that he had conquered in cooperation with Hitler in 1939. To facilitate this, he proposed that the entire Polish state be moved five hundred miles to the west.

In exchange for the Polish territory that remained under Soviet control, Poland was to receive a large amount of what had been eastern Germany before the war. To solidify the Polonization of this area the remaining ethnic Germans were expelled and replaced with Poles. In all 12,000,000 Germans were driven out through flight and expulsion.

Forced Out: The 10 Largest Forced Migrations in Human History
An engraving of African captives being brought aboard a slave ship on the West Coast of Africa.

1. The African Slave Trade – At Least 12,000,000 People Displaced

While most of the other forced migrations on this list took place over the course of months or years, the African Slave trade violently relocated people for centuries. The primary destination for African slaves in the premodern period was the Middle East, where as early as the tenth century the Fatimid Caliphate filled out the ranks of its military with African as well as Turkic slaves. With the opening of the Americas to European colonization at the end of the fifteenth century, however, the pace and scale of the enslavement of Africans would increase dramatically. The character of European colonization in North America differed from that of South America.

In North America the British and French established settler colonies, removing the native population and introducing European colonists. The North American plantation economy relied on slave labor to produce goods like cotton and tobacco, but the European population outnumbered the African slaves. In South America and the Caribbean, by contrast, a small number of Spanish and Portuguese colonists ruled over spaces overwhelmingly populated by slaves and Native Americans.

Moreover, the cultivation of commodities like sugar by slaves was extremely dangerous work, so much so that the mortality rate amongst slaves outpaced the birth rate. As a consequence, the majority of the African slaves sent to the Americas would wind up in the south.

The colonization of the Americas initiated a process called the triangle trade. Raw materials produced on American plantations were transported across the Atlantic to Europe, where they were processed into finished goods. These goods were then brought to West Africa, where they were exchanged for slaves. Slave traders brought the African slaves back across the Atlantic in the so-called “Middle Passage” to the Americas where they would work on plantations producing raw materials, perpetuating the process. As a consequence, between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries 12,000,000 Africans were brought to North and South America.


Sources For Further Reading:

University of Virginia – December 3, 1838: Second Annual Message to Congress

History Channel – At Least 3,000 Native Americans Died on the Trail of Tears

National Public Service – What Happened on the Trail of Tears?

Jewish Virtual Library – Modern Jewish History: The Pale of Settlement

Wikipedia – Timeline of the Syrian civil war

National Geographic Channel – What was the Arab Spring and how did it spread?

Aljazeera – Arab Spring Protesters Reflect on Hosni Mubarak’s Legacy

Khan Academy – Mughal Empire