RPN 17 published August 1994


In 1942 John Corsellis joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, a voluntary agency providing humanitarian employment in war-time to a thousand young pacifists. Two years as a hospital orderly and in the agency's Overseas Relief Office were followed by eight months work in refugee camps in Egypt and Italy. He moved to Austria in May 1945 and worked in camps there for two years before returning to the UK.

Humanitarian agencies often lament their own lack of an institutional memory and their tendency is to re-invent the wheel each time they are called upon to respond to a new refugee emergency. .. it is only through an analysis of past mistakes and successes that progress can be made. (Barbara Harrell-Bond)(1)

The Yugoslav refugees of 1944-47 were among the first of the war and post-war refugees. They participated fully in the running and management of their camps and their experiences and the `mistakes and successes' of the agencies that looked after them offer many lessons.

In this paper, based on research funded by the Rowntree and Cadbury Trusts, I allow a variety of primary sources to tell their own story. Material is drawn from my own diaries, unpublished memoirs and letters, official papers, tape-recorded interviews and various books and pamphlets.


By the beginning of 1944, Marshal Tito's Government of National Liberation had gained control of parts of the Dalmatian coast but could not feed the inhabitants. To save them from starvation, the Allies evacuated 25,000 Croats to Egypt, accommodating them for 18 months at El Shatt camp.

Between April 1941 and May 1945, Slovenia was occupied first by German, Italian and Hungarian troops, and later by Germans and Hungarians alone. For four years the country was subjected to two largely separate but simultaneous wars: the Axis against the Allies and Communists against Catholics. The Allies won the first conflict, the Communists the second. Of the Catholic Slovenes who lost, the majority stayed at home and survived under Communism as best they could. But 17,000 who felt most threatened fled to Austria and settled in a camp just across the border at Viktring. Three weeks later 11,000 of them in uniform were sent back - forcibly repatriated - by the British Army and brutally murdered by the Communists.(2) The 6,000 civilians remained at Viktring until the end of June, when they were sent to four other camps in south-west Austria.

The Croat refugees and the camp in the desert

The camp was set up and run for the first four months by the British MERRA, Middle East Relief and Refugee Administration, with help from voluntary society personnel. On 1 May 1944, UNRRA entered the field and officially absorbed MERRA. UNRRA reports from that year describe the camp(3)

El Shatt was located in the Sinai Desert just across the Suez Canal from the town of Suez, and the entire camp area covered some 100 square miles. For reasons of efficiency the El Shatt settlement was broken into five separate camps, each one maintaining some degree of self-sufficiency corresponding to a small village in Yugoslavia.

The entire population, which reached a peak of slightly less than 25,000, was housed in British Army tents. The housing unit consisted of two large tents placed end to end, and each unit could accommodate approximately 18 persons. Permanent structures were confined to administration offices, storehouses, recreation halls, mess halls, bath houses, and medical buildings. Some degree of permanency was given to the housing unit by the laying of a cement or tiled floor. ...

Each camp had its own school buildings, its administration headquarters both for the Yugoslavs and UNRRA staff, its recreation hall, staff quarters, community store, store houses, work shops, repair shops, infirmary, and laundry. ...

Administration was divided between UNRRA representatives and the refugees themselves. UNRRA personnel handled supplies, maintenance, and generally supervised all camp activities. Most of the administration, though, was handled by the Yugoslavs since the operation of such a large community necessitated dealing with thousands of minor problems daily. ... the Yugoslavs were extremely independent and took a great personal interest in camp administration.

On arrival the refugees were grouped by the village from which they came, and family units were always kept intact. ... At the Registration Centers the refugees were inspected; they and their clothing were disinfected. They were issued stamped fibre identity (numbered) discs, registered, and assigned to tents.

In addition to the UNRRA and the Yugoslav administrative bodies, there were independent agencies taking an active part in the running of the camp. The British private voluntary agencies worked through COBSRA (Council of British Societies for Relief Abroad) which designated which agencies should send representatives to the camp and specified the type of personnel needed in order to avoid duplication.

On the whole the agencies fulfilled a definite need, although from time to time there was some dissatisfaction because of the large turnover in personnel. People mysteriously appeared and disappeared with a frequency reminiscent of a popular transit hotel.

The outstanding feature of El Shatt camp was its medical services. ... One of the finest features was the training of a large number of Yugoslav girls to be nurses. ... Considering the condition in which the refugees arrived and considering that there was an undue proportion of the very old and the very young, the health record was excellent and the mortality rate low. Diets, milk rations for the children, child clinics, periodic inspection, sanitary precautions and the interest of the medical staff in the people were responsible for this record.

There were numerous work projects at the camp and when the camp reached its peak of efficiency practically everyone who was physically able and who had the time was employed. Because of the high esprit de corps of the refugees, there was never any difficulty in finding people to do the work.

Practically all of the children of school age attended school. There were nursery schools for children of working parents or orphans, kindergartens, elementary schools, secondary schools, nursing schools, trade schools, administrative training schools, as well as an apprentice system in all the workshops. There was a People's University for adults and high school graduates, where languages and other courses were offered.

There was special attention given to refugee welfare, both by the UNRRA personnel and the Yugoslavs themselves. Refugees had their own theatre, put on plays, often written by themselves, gave concerts, dance recitals and pageants.

The problems of welfare were closely integrated with those of morale. On the whole, morale was good. ... Considering what the refugees went through and the desolate and discouraging surroundings of the Sinai Desert, their adjustment was a tribute to their self-sufficiency. ... When the refugees had the tools and equipment to keep them busy both at work and at play the camp functioned as smoothly and quietly as a new gas refrigerator.

On the whole, the dual administrative policy worked out well. The refugees were .. responsible for all problems of refugee administration. They appointed the various camp committees who in turn set up the District Committee system. Tent leaders were chosen by the tent occupants. Should the people be dissatisfied with their representative, complaints were brought to the attention of the next highest committee and changes were made.

The presence of such a refugee administrative set-up removed from the shoulders of the camp staff a thousand and one petty problems that crop up daily.

In August 1944, William B Edgerton, a relief worker with one of the independent agencies, the American Friends Service Committee, arrived at El Shatt and started sending letters back to his wife(4)

Some of the more recent arrivals had lived in the forests and in caves and had been hunted by the Germans for years before they finally escaped, and a great many came over with nothing at all, hardly enough clothes to cover themselves. In spite of their difficulties and their lack of training, they have done marvels with the little they have.

In camp 3 there are a carpentry shop, a shoe shop, a sewing tent, a soft-toy shop, and a metal-working shop, which are manned by as many of the skilled artisans as we can provide tools for and by as many young apprentices as they can take care of ... The shoemakers will take shoes that have been discarded as completely valueless by somebody and then sent down here, and they will cut out the bits of leather that are still good and make a whole new pair of shoes out of scraps ...

The metal workers are now making drinking cups out of scraps of tin and knitting needles out of wire, with which we are trying to set up home knitting all over camp to make clothes for winter. In the dress-making shop the women will take absolutely anything and out of it they will make absolutely anything ...

I must not give the impression that these people have managed to create a little paradise here on the desert with their resourcefulness ... Their extreme lack of everything ... only makes what they do accomplish more impressive, standing as it does against such a background. And always you are haunted by an awareness of what these people have been through.

Professor Edgerton then described a visit to the Camp 3 schools:

There were eight classes going on at once in a single large room. Three small blackboards had to be used by turns in the eight classes. Small children sometimes used overturned benches as blackboards. There are no textbooks whatsoever. The pupils learn to read from mimeographed copies of the camp newspaper ...

It is interesting to compare these official and unofficial accounts with those written by Vladimir Dedijer, `friend, confidant, critic, historian of Tito'(5):

From the very first days in the camp, the people began to organize their own people's authority, their own mass organizations. Certain English officers attempted to prevent the refugees from administering their own camp life. One .. swore the first day that he would `break this arrogant communist spirit'. All his attempts failed and he was replaced. At tent, area, and camp meetings the refugees chose the leaders of the tent, area, and camp committees, as well as the members of the refugees' central committee. In the camp was formed a Partisan guard which maintained order in the camp and which had the right of search and entrance recognized even by the allied authorities. People's courts were also formed. They even had the right to order imprisonment.

The English officers, who expected to find a group of helpless refugees, were greatly surprised when the day following their arrival in the Sinai Desert they published the first issue of Na list [Our paper], the organ of the refugees' central committee. Soon afterwards they published ena u zbjegu [Women together], which was 50 pages long, Omladinska revija [Youth review], and Omladinska rije [The word of youth].

The Slovene refugees in Viktring, Austria

In 1945, two officials from the Friends Ambulance Unit visited Viktring and sent a report back to their headquarters in London:(6)

... a quite astonishing camp ... A group of Slovenes numbering about 6,000 .. had fled across the border carrying in their horse-drawn vehicles many of their household possessions and other assets. Included in the group were doctors, teachers and local government officials, making up the nucleus of a self-contained community. This group created a fantastic shanty-town built of bark, branches and every conceivable material. ... Inside .. the camp was remarkably well-kept by the refugees themselves, most of whom seemed to be engaged industriously in building, cooking, laundry or some similar occupation. We also learnt that they had their own Secondary School already in operation!

At the end of June 1945, the Slovenes were sent from Viktring to four permanent camps in Austria. Two months later the two FAU agency workers at Lienz, the largest of the four camps, wrote a memorandum:(7)

It is assumed that the authorities will at this time be making plans for the administration of refugee camps during the next few months. The Slovenes would presumably be disposed of in these general plans. These notes suggest that the Slovene problem is substantially different from that of other groups .. and that therefore a different policy should be adopted in their case. ...

The first seven weeks Under exceptionally difficult conditions the refugees ran the camp themselves with the minimum of equipment, and ran it well enough for its inmates to compare life at Viktring favourably with that at the camps to which they were later sent. Apart from having responsibility for the general administration of the camp and the collection and distribution of food, they registered all the inhabitants, prepared complete nominal rolls for their transfer to four separate camps, and ran a secondary school for 140 students with a comprehensive curriculum in a neighbouring farm house. ...

The Slovenes at Lienz: administration The Slovenes maintain their own office with a registration system containing comprehensive details of every Slovene in the camp. They have a representative in each barrack in which their nationals live to look after their interests, and this work is coordinated by a committee of five men, each responsible for four or five barracks. ... Their general committee meets at least once a fortnight and consists of chairman, secretary and the chairmen of the six sub-committees, for Registration and Housing, Food, Education and Recreation, Labour and Employment, Welfare, and Hygiene and Health.

Education and Recreation The kindergarten and elementary school, at which attendance is compulsory, are staffed by qualified teachers. The secondary school, which provides a full classical and modern syllabus, has received warm praise from Mr. Baty, Deputy Director of Education, Allied Commission. A domestic science school has recently been started to cater for the 150 girls who do not attend the secondary school, with a class on agricultural subjects for youths. Adult education includes language courses for English, French, Russian, Italian and German. Sports and gymnastics for school classes and adults are organised by an ex-Olympic Games athlete.

Labour and General The establishment of workshops has only been hindered by the lack of tools. However a carpentry shop and a forge have started and have been producing their own tools as far as possible. The enthusiasm for work is very great and there are few trades for which trained men cannot be found.

Conclusion The administration of the Slovenes at Viktring and Lienz shows that they have enough competent leaders and skilled workers, and are a unified enough community, to be able to run their camp by themselves. If they are in the future concentrated in a camp or camps in which they would be in a majority, the most satisfactory course would seem to be to attach one or more liaison officers in an advisory rather than directory capacity. This would contribute greatly to the preservation of that individual and communal self-respect which is usually the first casualty in the refugee camp.

The memorandum was in fact written by me: my colleague generously added his signature. We were urging the authorities to adopt a refugee-centred policy in line with the best doctrine of today, as recommended by organisations such as the Oxford University Refugee Studies Programme. Of course no notice of the memorandum was taken by the British Army, although it may have had some influence on UNRRA policy later.

The relevance of my material to - and the lessons to be learnt by - current Refugee Studies should by now be apparent, and also to the future prospects of the new republics of Croatia and Slovenia. It suggests that, if left to themselves apart from some economic aid, both states may surprise the world with the energy and competence with which they tackle national revival and reconstruction.

1. 1. A C Bramwell, ed Refugees in the Age of Total War, 1988, xiv (preface by B Harrell-Bond), Unwin Hyman, London.

2. 2. N Tolstoy, The Minister and the Massacres (London 1986) and A Cowgill, T Brimelow & C Booker, The Repatriations from Austria in 1945 (London 1990).

3. S K Jacobs to L Archer, Acting Chief of Mission, UNRRA, 25 May 1944: UNRRA Archives, New York, PAG 4/, El Shatt Camp 270 and MERRA 630.

4. UNRRA Archives, New York, PAG 4/, El Shatt Camp 270.

5. V Dedijer, War Diaries, Vol 3 (Univ of Michigan Press, Ann Arbour, 1990), 226-7.

6. FAU Archives, Friends House Library, London.

7. J Corsellis and J L Strachan, Notes on Slovene Refugees in Austria, dated 30.8.45, typed memorandum in author's possession.

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February 1997