Refugees used to be gathered into two major groups according to the reasons that made them undertake evasion. Those who wanted to fight fascism next to the allied army, citizens from occupied countries (French, Belgian, Dutch, Polish ...) as well as pilots taken down in the fighting (British, American and Canadian), and those fleeing Nazi barbarism (Jews of all nationalities) who were hoping to go to America, some Belgian or Dutch colonies and Palestine.
Among the refugees, the largest contingent was formed by the French, with more than a half of all detainees, followed by the Jews, which was the group that suffered more acutely the difficulties and consequences of evasions.
An estimated 80,000 total refugees passed through Spain during World War II. This figure includes both detainees and those who managed to cross the Iberian Peninsula undetected.
The transit of Jews across the Pyrenean border was relevant for both the number of people arrested as well as the particular cases that have been documented.
When Second World War broke out in September 1939, the exodus to France of Germans and Austrians, many of them Jewish, began. They were posted to the same concentration camps occupied few months ago by the Spanish exiles. In the following months, thousands of Jews from countries annexing the German army (Poland, Belgium and Holland) reached the French territory fleeing the Nazis.
In June 1940, Germany also occupied France. Immediately some rulings were dictated in order to have them localized and expel them from administration and economics. A law from October 1940 authorized police prefects to arrest the Jews in their departments and assign them to a house under surveillance or expel them out of French territory.
Between 1940 and 1941, an estimated 40,000 Jews went to the free zone and settled in the southern departments that were not under German control. But staying in Vichy France was no guarantee of security because they kept confiscating Jewish properties, blocking their accounts and obliging to register in each fitted city council record.
Already in 1939, the first Jews started to arrive in Spain in an occasional manner. Most of them had their documents in order to go through custom controls. The lack of some of the requirements could mean immediate arrest and expulsion.
As soon as 1942 started, the situation changed. On 2nd January, it was decreed that Jews arrived in France after 1936 were incorporated to company workers or placed in special centres. To this end, detention centres were created, some of them next to the Spanish border.
In July, a persecution of residents in the south of France began. Between 20th July and 5th August, the Vichy government gave orders to end exit visas and promised to extradite the Jews to Germany. In that situation, those who wanted to flee only had two choices: going to Switzerland or Spain.
At that time, there was an increase in counterfeit documentation, but many of them decided to escape without documents.
Given the danger and driven by the instinct to survive, many Jews decided to desperately flee, encouraged by the apparent proximity of Spain and thus cross the Pyrenees.
The massive influx of Jews to Spain was concentrated in the period between October 1942 and January 1943. Many of them that could afford it took advantage of their good contacts and managed to pass through Spain without incidents. The rest had to face the painful return policy and the problems involved in crossing the Pyrenees with elderly and children. Once in Spain, families were often separated and taken to different shelters.