VoxEU Column Economic history Education Migration

A silver lining of forced migration: Investment in education

Can the experience of being uprooted by force encourage people to invest in portable assets such as education? The idea has a long history but is a difficult hypothesis to test. This column combines data from historical censuses with newly collected survey data to show that Polish people with a family history of forced migration as a result of WWII are significantly more educated today than any comparison group. The results suggest a shift in preferences toward investment in human rather than physical capital, and imply that the benefits of providing schooling for forced migrants and their children may be even greater – and more persistent – than previously thought.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 65 million people are currently displaced from their home regions as a result of interstate wars, civil conflict, or natural disasters. The trauma of forced migration leaves deep scars in the memory of those who have experienced it. Furthermore, this trauma can then resonate through subsequent generations and leave diverse and unexpected footprints across the lives of the descendants of those first forced from their homes.

Academic economists have long entertained the idea that being uprooted by force or expropriated increases the subjective value of investing in portable assets, in particular in education (e.g. Brenner and Kiefer 1981).1 This notion is also popular outside of the academic spheres. In his bestselling autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz gives a testimony of his Aunt Sonia:

Why is she a roadsweeper? So as to keep two talented daughters at university… Food – they save on. Clothes – they save on those too. Accommodation – they all share a single room. All so that the studies and textbooks they won’t be short. It was always like that with Jewish families: they believed that education was an investment for the future, the only thing that no one can ever take away from your children, even if, Heaven forbid, there’s another war, another revolution, more discriminatory laws—your diploma you can always fold up quickly, hide it in the seams of your clothes, and run away to wherever Jews are allowed to live. (Oz 2005: 172)

Despite its prominence, the proposed relationship between forced migration and preferences for investment in education is a difficult hypothesis to test. Forced migrants typically differ from locals along many socioeconomic and cultural characteristics, such as ethnicity, language, and religion.  Even the prominent case of preferences for education among Jews may be explained by other factors than forced migration. Botticini and Eckstein (2012) have shown that one way the trend can be explained is due to the requirement to read religious texts, dating back well before Jewish people were forcibly expelled for the first time. Furthermore, labour market competition with locals can also affect the educational choices of forced migrants, who – unlike locals – often have no access to land or other productive physical assets.2 

In a recent paper (Becker, Grosfeld, Grosjean, Voigtländer, and Zhuravskaya, forthcoming), we exploit a unique historical setting that allows us to study this ‘uprootedness’ hypothesis. Our research explores whether, and why, forced migration affects preferences for investment in education. The historical experiment we study is key to bypassing the typical confounding factors mentioned above.3

Forced migration and preferences for education: The case of Polish migrants after WWII

At the end of WWII, the Polish borders were redrawn, resulting in large-scale forced migration. We focus on the case of over two million Polish migrants who were forced to move away from Kresy, a region in the eastern borderlands of Poland that was taken over by the USSR following the end of the war. Polish expellees from Kresy were primarily resettled to the newly acquired ‘Western Territories’, which were taken over from Germany (and from which Germans themselves were forcibly expelled). A smaller proportion of former inhabitants of Kresy were also moved to the territories of Central Poland, which were Polish in the inter-war period and remained Polish after WWII (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Poland’s territorial change after WWII 

The expellees from Kresy were forced to leave behind most of their family possessions and were only allowed to take a small share of their belongings to their new homes. Figure 2 illustrates the nature of this migration, depicting the arrival of Kresy migrants to the Western Territories.

Figure 2 Forced migrants from Kresy with their belongings arriving to Bielawa, former Langenbielau (in the Western Territories), 1946

Source: Figure 29 in Zaremba (2012).

After WWII, Poland became one of the most homogenous countries in the world. This allows us to compare forced migrants from Kresy with other Poles who were not forced to migrate but who had the same ethnic, linguistic, and religious background. This homogeneity eliminates the problem of cultural differences as a potential confounding factor. Furthermore, in sharp contrast to German refugees from Western Territories who resettled in densely populated West Germany (e.g. Bauer et al. 2013), many Polish migrants (including expellees from Kresy and voluntary migrants from Central Poland) settled in the largely emptied Western Territories. The existence of abundant land and physical capital left behind by the Germans (and made available to all Polish migrants) makes this case uniquely suited to studying the effects of forced migration on investment decisions. 

A shift in preferences towards investment in human capital

We study the long-term effects of forced migration after WWII, analysing the generations of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the original adult expellees. We combine data from historical censuses with newly collected survey data to test our hypotheses. We find that Polish people with a family history of forced migration are significantly more educated today than any comparison group. The descendants of Kresy migrants are 11.2 percentage points more likely to finish secondary education and 8.8 percentage points more likely to graduate from university compared to all other Polish subgroups. These differences amount to about one extra year of schooling for descendants of Kresy migrants, which in turn translates into better labour market outcomes and substantially higher incomes. 

Importantly, before WWII commenced, Polish inhabitants of Kresy were, if anything, less educated than compatriots living elsewhere. We show this by using both the survey data and the historical census data. The reversal of the historical pattern is observed already in the first generation of children educated after the war, and it persists up to this date (see Figure 3). 

Figure 3 The difference in years of education between Kresy migrants and other Poles by birth cohort 

Note: The first cohort is the only one with education completed before the expulsion.

The evidence we present strongly supports the ‘uprootedness’ hypothesis: forced migration caused a shift in preferences toward investment in human as opposed to physical capital. 

In particular, we consider and reject a variety of alternative potential explanations that could be behind the educational differences between the descendants of different Polish groups. First, we show that selection into migration does not drive our results. We then document that Kresy migrants did not have differential access to resources, schooling, or employment opportunities at their destination locations. Furthermore, there is no indication that the presence of congested labour markets, differential fertility, differential out-migration, economic conditions at destinations, or differential exposure to war experiences could be the explanation of our results. 

Instead, we present direct survey evidence that the descendants of forced migrants value material goods less and have a stronger aspiration for education of their children, compared to other Polish subgroups. They also own fewer physical assets relative to what they can afford, given their higher incomes. Interviews with forced migrants conducted by historians immediately after the expulsions corroborate our survey evidence. For example, a testimony of a forced migrant from Kresy reads: 

In Western Territories… people did not attach great importance to material wealth... most of the people who came here were still living in the memories of places of their origin and of material things that had belonged to their families for generations. In a new life situation, the cult of new values emerged, i.e. values that are indestructible, that cannot be lost, and that die with the man -- the cult of knowledge, of skills, which can resist cataclysms. (Halicka 2005: 262)

Policy implications

The reversal of fortune that we observe offers a glimmer of hope for descendants of forced migrants. The mechanism behind the educational advantage of forced migrants also has important policy implications in the face of the large refugee flows seen in many parts of the world today. The shift of preferences among refugee communities towards valuing investment into human capital over investment into physical capital should be used to guide aid priorities. A policy recommendation emerging from our study is the proposal that governments in countries receiving forced migrants should foster refugees’ access to education. While the international aid community does consider education as an important factor in reducing economic and social marginalisation of refugees (G20 2017, UNICEF 2017), our results suggest that the benefits of providing schooling for forced migrants and their children may be even greater – and more persistent – than previously thought.


Bauer, T K, S Braun and M Kvasnicka (2013), “The Economic Integration of Forced Migrants: Evidence for Post-War Germany”, Economic Journal 123: 998–1024.

Becker, S O and A Ferrara (2019), “Consequences of forced migration: A survey of recent findings.” Labour Economics 59: 1–16.

Becker, S O, I Grosfeld, P Grosjean, N Voigtländer and E Zhuravskaya (forthcoming), “Forced Migration and Human Capital: Evidence from Post-WWII Population Transfers”, American Economic Review (also published as CEPR Discussion Paper 12975).

Botticini, M and Z Eckstein (2012), The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, Princeton University Press.

Brenner, R and N M Kiefer (1981), “The Economics of the Diaspora: Discrimination and Occupational Structure”, Economic Development and Cultural Change 29(3): 517–534.

G20 (2017), Education and Skills Development in the Context of Forced Migration, G20 Insights.

Halicka, B (2015), Polski Dziki Zachód. Przymusowe Migracje i Kulturowe Oswajanie Nadodrza 1945-1948, TAiWPN Universitas.

Nakamura, E, J Sigurdsson and J Steinsson (2017), “The Gift of Moving: Intergenerational Consequences of a Mobility Shock,” mimeo.

Oz, A (2005), A Tale of Love and Darkness. Vintage Books, NY City, USA.

Stigler, G J and G S Becker (1977), De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum. American Economic Review 67(2): 76–90.

UNICEF (2017), Education Uprooted: For Every Migrant, Refugee and Displaced Child, Education, UNICEF.


1 Stigler and Becker (1977) attribute this idea to Reuben Kessel, but give no specific reference.

2 This logic, together with the change in investment preferences towards education, can explain the results of two fascinating studies. Nakamura et al. (2017) document the positive effect of forced migration on education of families displaced by the eruption of a volcano off the coast of Iceland in 1973. Bauer et al. (2013) study the economic integration of Germans expelled from formerly German territories into West Germany. They find that migrant children tend to acquire more education than their native peers.

3 Becker and Ferrara (2019) survey the literature on the effects of forced migration.

2,520 Reads