This week–on November 11–marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I. In terms of refugee law, the Great War is usually eclipsed by WWII, which gave rise to the Refugee Convention (in 1951). The Convention forms the basis for our international and domestic humanitarian law up until today.
But the First World War was also foundational to our current refugee regime, and so it’s too bad that WWI developments in refugee law get short shrift. Upwards of 10 million people were displaced by the War and the subsequent rise of the Soviet Union. Many would never return home and would permanently resettle in other countries. This mass movement of civilians led to political, cultural, and social changes, and predictably, to a backlash against refugees (as a security, economic, and health threat) that sounds all-too familiar today.
Probably the most prominent figure in post-WWI refugee resettlement was a Norwegian wunderkind named Fridtjof Nansen. Mr. Nansen was born in 1861. He was a record-breaking skater and skier. He studied zoology in university, and went on to become a world famous artic explorer. In 1888, he led the first expedition to cross Greenland, and in 1895, he came within 4 degrees of the North Pole, the furthest north anyone had traveled to date. After his career in the Artic, he turned to science, where he made important contributions to the fields of neurology and oceanography. Mr. Nansen served as a diplomat and advocated for separation of Norway and Sweden (which had been united since 1814). Norway became independent in 1905.
Norway was neutral during the First World War, and during those years, Mr. Nansen was involved in organizing his nation’s defense. In 1917, he was dispatched to Washington, where he negotiated a deal to help alleviate a severe food shortage in his country.
After World War I, Mr. Nansen successfully helped advocate for Norway’s involvement in the League of Nations, and he served as a delegate to that body. He became involved in the repatriation of prisoners of war, and between 1920 and 1922, led the effort to resettle over 400,000 POWs in 30 different countries. In 1921, Mr. Nansen became the League’s High Commissioner for Refugees and helped resettle two million Russians displaced by the revolution. At the same time, he was working to relieve a massive famine in Russia, but had trouble securing international aid (due largely to suspicion of the new Marxist government). He also assisted Armenian refugees after the genocide there, and devised a controversial population exchange between Turkey and Greece, which resolved a Greek refugee crisis, but also resulted in the expulsion (with compensation) of Turks from Greece.
Mr. Nansen created the “Nansen” passports in 1922, a document that allowed stateless people to travel legally across borders. By WWII, 52 nations recognized the passport as a legal travel document. Nansen passports were originally created to help refugees from the Russian civil war, but over 20 years, they were used by more than 450,000 individuals from various countries (including a number of well-known figures, such as Marc Chagall, Aristotle Onassis, G.I. Gurdjiieff, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and Igor Stravinsky). The passports served as a foundation for a clearly-defined legal status for refugees, and some scholars consider the creation of the Nansen passports as the beginning of international refugee law.
In 1922, Mr. Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee cited “his work for the repatriation of the prisoners of war, his work for the Russian refugees, his work to bring succour to the millions of Russians afflicted by famine, and finally his present work for the refugees in Asia Minor and Thrace.”
Mr. Nansen continued his involvement in the League of Nations through the 1920s, and he flirted with Norwegian politics, though he seems to have no major ambitions in that direction. In 1926, Mr. Nansen came up with a legal definition for refugees from Russia and Armenia, and his definition was adopted by several dozen nations. This marked the first time that the term “refugee” was defined in international law, and it helped set the stage for later legal developments in the area of refugee protection.
Fridtjof Nansen died on May 3, 1930. After his death, a fellow delegate from the League of Nations eulogized, “Every good cause had his support. He was a fearless peacemaker, a friend of justice, an advocate always for the weak and suffering.”
Even after his death, Mr. Nansen’s work continued. The League of Nations established the Nansen International Office for Refugees, which helped resettle tens of thousands of refugees during the inter-War years. The Nansen Office was also instrumental in establishing the Refugee Convention of 1933 (now, largely forgotten), the first international, multilateral treaty offering legal protection to refugees and granting them certain civic and economic rights. The 1933 Convention also established the principle of “non-refoulement,” the idea that nations cannot return individuals to countries where they face persecution. To this day, non-refoulement is a key concept of international (and U.S.) refugee law. For all this work, the Nansen Office was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938.
Fridtjof Nansen’s legacy lives on in many ways. There are geographic features named after him in the Artic, Antarctic, and various places around the globe. In space, there is a crater on the moon named in his honor, as well as an asteroid. The oldest ski club in the United States is named for Mr. Nansen, and there is a species of fish that bears his name (Nansenia). A museum in Armenia documents his scientific and humanitarian achievements. And each year, the United Nations bestows the Nansen Refugee Award on an individual or organization that has assisted refugees, displaced or stateless people. For me, though, Mr. Nansen’s most enduring achievement is his pioneering work to help establish international refugee law, a legal regime which protects us all.