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History – 1945-73

After World War II

The end of the Second World War saw massive population movements within Europe. Around 15 million people awaited transfers from one country to another.

Many were German nationals living outside German territory who had to return within its new boundaries. Others had been uprooted during the war or had to relocate as a result of boundary changes. Emigration to the traditional receiving countries also revived, peaking at around 800,000 in 1949. 

Many Europeans were also tempted to emigrate during the austerity years of the 1950s, though few European governments were keen to encourage emigration, since the war had cost 7.8 million lives. The United Kingdom was again the major source, followed by Italy, the Netherlands and the Federal Republic of Germany. The main destinations were Australia, Canada, and the United States but many Europeans also went to South America and to Israel.

Eventually, however, the reconstruction of Europe ushered in an economic boom. This created a huge new demand for workers, and Germany, France and the UK started to run short of labour. At first they were able to recruit many of those displaced during the war. Then they looked to other European countries that had been slower to industrialize — including Italy, Portugal and Spain. But as these countries too became more prosperous recruiters had to look further afield. Some countries drew on their colonial ties.

France turned to North Africa, and the UK to the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. Germany, without a colonial reservoir instead recruited short-term contract workers from countries adjacent to Western Europe, notably Yugoslavia and Turkey. Over this period net immigration for Western Europe reached around 10 million.

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Welcome to Australia
Australian Prime Minister Ben Chiffley greeting new immigrants in 1947.
Photo: National Archives of Australia