Caractéristiques migratoires selon les pays d'origine

The Retirada or post-war Spanish republican exile

The Spanish war prompted several waves of refugees to leave for France, from 1936 until 1939, when the fall of Barcelona brought about an unprecedented exodus in the space of two weeks. Almost half a million people crossed the border through the Pyrenees in terrible conditions. This was the Retirada.

Retirada, February 15, 1939. Cerbère, French-Spanish border, arrival of a convoy of Spanish refugees
Retirada, February 15, 1939. Cerbère, French-Spanish border, arrival of a convoy of Spanish refugees
© Bettmann-Corbis

1936-1939 : A country divided by civil war

From the late 19th century, Spain experienced one political and social conflict after another and the proclamation of the Second Republic, on April 14th 1931, fuelled hopes of a better society. The government undertook a series of innovative, progressive-style reforms, breaking with the previous regimes and governments, which had enjoyed strong support from the Church and were fairly conservative. The changes made on the basis of the secular model were immediate and radical: separation of Church and State, civil marriage and divorce, army reforms, educational reforms, agricultural reforms, social and professional measures, autonomy for the Catalan region and, notably, right to vote for women and right to abortion.
But despite the steps forward, in education and women’s rights in particular, disappointment grew and, gradually, the illusions evaporated making way for the expression of popular discontent which exacerbated socio-political tensions. On July 18th 1936, the military uprising exploded, prepared by the nationalists, and the Spanish civil war began. For almost three years, the Spanish people were divided: on one side, the nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco and backed by the Church and the army, on the other the Republicans who included a range of left-wing tendencies - Marxists, anarchists, socialists, communists and moderate republicans. Often viewed as a prelude to World War 2, Spain also became the site of international confrontations. In the nationalist camp, both Hitler’s and Mussolini’s troops trained and tested their equipment there. The Spanish Republic for its part received the support of thousands of foreign volunteers..

The exodus begins

From 1936, the advance of Francoist troops forced many republicans to leave Spain temporarily to flee the fighting. An interior exodus also forced thousands of Spaniards onto the road, gradually finding refuge in Catalonia. When Barcelona fell into the hands of General Franco on January 26th 1939, the Catalan population –  and with them thousands of republicans from all over Spain – headed for the French border to escape the repression and bombing. These civilians were soon joined by a part of the republican army in disarray. This retreat – the Retirada – led hundreds of thousands of refugees into exile. The border crossing happened in particularly tough conditions: the people were weakened by three years of fighting and deprivation, the mountain passes were snow-covered, Franco’s air force bombarded the refugees on the Catalan roads. Civilians and soldiers usually left in a hurry with few belongings, and they arrived in France devoid of any possessions.

Retirada. Bourg Madame: the border bridge
Bourg Madame: the border bridge over which refugees pass, as mobile guards help them carry their luggage. 30/01/1939.
© "Collection F. Berlic".

Split between the fear of seeing "hordes" of revolutionary "reds" streaming into the country and a respect for republican values, which granted asylum and hospitality to the persecuted, the French government of Edouard Daladier (Radical party) ultimately decided to open up the border on January 28th 1939, but only to civilian refugees. Armed men had to wait a few days more under Francoist bombing. On February 5th, the border was finally opened to republican soldiers. From January 28th to February 13th, 475,000 people crossed into France at various border points: Cerbère, Le Perthus, Prats de Mollo, Bourg-Madame, etc.

A mixed welcome

These refugees were not given an optimal welcome. Despite the support of the left and those who supported a humanist attitude, from 1939 France was far from being the sister Republic from which Spaniards had hoped to obtain comfort and support. Worn down by the economic crisis, plagued by xenophobic feeling, withdrawn into itself, French society offered refugees a more than mixed reception. Even before the Retirada, several decrees had been issued by the Daladier government, including one dated November 12th 1938, which provided for the administrative internment of "undesirable" foreigners, in other words those likely to disrupt public order and national security. The Spanish were the first to suffer the consequences of this new policy aimed at non-native populations.

Retirada. Children waiting to be directed to a shelter
The exodus of Spanish refugees. "700 children from Puigcerda arrived yesterday by train at the Tour de Carol station. The little refugees are waiting in the station concourse to be directed to an accommodation center."
France Presse n°13, 30/01/1939. "Collection F. Berlic".

The French government had envisaged a flood of refugees at its border but never in such large proportions and it was overwhelmed by the situation. The authorities deployed troops at different border crossings. The Spaniards, and the foreign volunteers, were disarmed, searched, identified then sent to shelters dispersed along the border to be vaccinated and given supplies.

Because of the urgency and under pressure from the refugees who were rushing to the border, some identification and vaccination operations could not be completed. Families were separated. Women, children and the elderly were sent by train to departments in the interior of France. More than 70 French departments thus welcomed groups of civilian refugees for a period of several months in a variety of accommodation structures, made available by the municipalities. The living conditions in the shelters varied and partly depended on the reception they were given by the municipal team in office and the mobilisation of the local population.

The internment camps

Spanish refugees during their transfer to the Barcarès camp (Pyrénées-Orientales), March 1939, Robert Capa
Spanish refugees during their transfer to the Barcarès camp (Pyrénées-Orientales), March 1939
Robert Capa © Musée national de l'histoire de l'immigration

The men for their part were kept in internment camps hastily assembled on the beaches of Roussillon and the south-west of France. A few groups of women and children were also included, proof of the disorganisation on the part of the authorities at the border. The camps in Argelès-sur-mer, Le Barcarès and Saint-Cyprien were built right on the sand by the refugees themselves, used as a labour force by the authorities. The camps in Le Vernet d’Ariège, Septfonds, Rieucros, Gurs, Bram and Agde completed the internment set-up. They were designed to relieve congestion in the camps in Roussillon where several tens of thousands of men had been interned – 87,000 people for the Argelès camp alone in early March of 1939 (figure provided dated March 6th 1939 – departmental archives of Pyrénées Orientales, 31W274).

group of deserter militiamen, escorted by the Garde Mobile
Exodus of Spanish militiamen: group of deserter militiamen, escorted by the Garde Mobile, driven from Bourg-Madame to La Tour de Carol, where they will be turned back. 04/02/1939.
© « Collection F. Berlic ».

The living conditions in these camps, which the French authorities themselves referred to as "concentration camps" in 1939, were extremely precarious (early February 1939, during a press conference about the Argelès camp, Minister of the Interior Albert Sarraut said the following: "the camp in Argelès sur Mer will not be a prison, but a concentration camp. That is not the same thing". (Quoted in Geneviève Dreyfus-Armand, Émile Temime, Les Camps sur la plage, un exil espagnol, Paris, Éditions Autrement, 1995, 141 p.).

During the first few weeks, the men slept on the sand or the ground, with no shacks for shelter. Deaths occurred frequently due to the lack of hygiene and difficulties procuring drinking water and food. The surveillance conditions were drastic and managed by the military, Senegalese infantrymen, Spahi light-cavalry regiments or the Mobile Republican Guard.
Humiliated by this reception and the living conditions they were subjected to during their initial months in France, the refugees did however try to improve their everyday lives in the shelters and camps. Sometimes counting on the help of various international organisations providing support for Spanish refugees, they organised various activities to avoid sinking into madness and depression. Card games, chess matches, sports encounters, academic classes of all levels, writing newspapers or bulletins, improvised conferences and political discussions defined the schedule of most refugees.

In the turmoil of World War 2

By mid-1939, 173,000 Spaniards were still interned in French camps. The situation, which was supposed to be temporary, was being prolonged. The authorities favoured repatriation to Spain to lighten the load that refugees represented. As a result, many Spaniards returned to Francoist territory, not always voluntarily. Some cases of forced repatriation were indicated, notably from the shelters. Certain refugees then attempted to emigrate to Latin America, refusing to return to Spain as long as Franco was in power. Mexico welcomed refugees, but the numbers remained limited. As the war loomed, those who remained became a possible source of labour for the French government to replace men who had been called to the front. Compagnies de Travailleurs Étrangers (companies of foreign workers) were organised from April 1939 by means of a decree and thousands of Spaniards, male and aged 20 to 48, were hired to fortify borders and take part in large-scale construction work. The military authorities also suggested that Spanish refugees join the Foreign Legion or the Marching Regiments of Foreign Volunteers.
During World War 2, groups of Spanish refugees organised in the underground and became a part of the resistance against the Nazi occupier and the Vichy government. The Spaniards’ motivation was driven by the hope of overturning the Franco regime with the help of European democracies. However, the Allied powers would not keep their promises. Franco remained in power until 1975, thus prolonging the exodus of the refugees who became political exiles (note that just after World War 2, there were 240,000 Spaniards in France, of whom 40% were republican exiles).
Today, more than seventy years after the Retirada, many Spaniards  – former refugees – are still living in the French regions, especially in the South-West. Their children and grandchildren are committed to keeping alive the memory of those who, in their eyes, fought to the death for a humanist ideal.

Report by Cindy Coignard and Maëlle Maugendre of the Association Adelante, January 2012

Adelante is an international, multi-disciplinary association of young researchers in the Humanities and Human and Social Science fields. Its membership, via an Internet distribution list, includes more than a hundred Masters and PhD students along with young non-graduate researchers working on themes directly or indirectly linked to the Spanish Civil War and its many repercussions. These themes include but are not limited to: the Second Republic, the Spanish Civil War, population movements, exiles, anti-Francoist struggles, intellectual and artistic engagements, gender, memory and identity, Francoism, the democratic transition, international solidarities, etc.

The goal of the association is to facilitate contact and mutual assistance among students and to organise a variety of scientific activities: publications, methodological workshops, seminars, study days, etc.

Find out more about the Retirada:

Find out more about Spanish in the resistance:

Oral archives: Interview with Léontine Arenas