What we can learn from the revolutionary passport that helped 1920s refugees

The world needs to get better at managing the movement of humans.
The world needs to get better at managing the movement of humans.
Image: Reuters/Alexandros Avramidis
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In recent days, Americans learned that their government has been jailing immigrant children in dismal conditions, and that in private, the Border Patrol agents charged with taking care of them cracked cruel and racist jokes. The heartbreaking image of a father and toddler drowned in the Rio Grande, meanwhile, reminded them of the ever growing immigrant death toll.

This weekend, they are bracing for a series of nationwide raids targeting immigrant families with children.

US president Donald Trump’s unrelenting efforts to block migrants, many seeking asylum, from crossing the US southern border has spurred outrage and calls for his administration to do the humane thing. But demanding he change immigration policy in the name of compassion is unlikely to convince him—or pretty much any other world leader.  

A previous refugee crisis, in the 1920s, suggests that it will take more than altruism for the US and other rich countries to welcome the millions of people who have fled their countries for fear of their lives. Back then, dozens of countries responded by granting “passports” to the refugees, instead of tightening their borders. They didn’t do this out of the goodness of their heart, but mostly because they believed it was in their own best interest.

Those pushing for humanitarian treatment for refugees and other migrants today should take note of that—and incorporate it into their lobbying.

The 1920s solution

In the early 1920s, millions of people displaced after the demise of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires were scattered across the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. They were stuck, many without a nationality.

Much like refugees today, they were often seen as a burden. Still, the then League of Nations high commissioner for refugees, a former polar explorer named Fridtjof Nansen, was able to convince leaders in Europe and elsewhere to open their doors, first to stranded Russians, and later to Armenians and Assyro-Chaldeans, among other stateless people.

Nansen, who had previously helped nearly half a million war prisoners get home, came up with the idea of a one-year passport that allowed people to travel out of the country where they first landed, often to look for work. The number of countries that took in Russians eventually grew to more than 50. More than a dozen countries signed up to accept refugees from the other backgrounds.

Overall, nearly half a million benefited from the Nansen passport.

A win-win scenario

Nansen, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922, is still celebrated as a humanitarian (including in a Google doodle). The motivations of the countries that accepted the Nansen passport, however, were probably less lofty.

For European leaders, the large groups of stateless refugees in legal limbo constituted a breakdown in the still wobbly post-war international order. “Europe was still shaking from the war,” said Stephen Damianos, a University of Cambridge master’s candidate who researches human rights and mobility. “It was terrified of the potential to be pushed back into any type of instability.”

At the same time, the European leaders were worried about the rising power of the USSR, and its potential to spread communism. Granting its shunned citizens a passport was a way of standing up to it, Damianos said.

The refugees also represented cheap labor, which was needed after the war. Those who didn’t find work could return back to the country that issued the passport. “The scheme was relatively flexible and advantageous both to the government in the country of asylum and to refugees,” said Peter Gatrell, a history professor at the University of Manchester.

It also had limits. The Nansen passport wasn’t a blanket protection for stateless people. It was only available for refugees of specific backgrounds—notably those hailing from areas under Soviet influence, Damianos said. And it wasn’t an automatic pass into participating countries, which had the right to deny entry to its holders.

Would it work today?

A flexible, win-win setup is also what has the best chance of working today. Refugee advocates should be highlighting the advantages of regulating the irregular movement of people—and the cons of blocking and restricting it, as the US, Australia, and Europe have chosen.

To be sure, these days migrant allies are facing a less receptive audience than Nansen. There is no common enemy or shared anxiety pushing rich countries to cooperate with each other. Many of their residents feel there aren’t enough jobs for themselves, never mind newcomers—even in cases in which that’s not really true.

But they can still look for inspiration in countries that have adopted a more practical, flexible approach, largely out of necessity. One example is Colombia. Since 2016, nearly 1.3 million Venezuelans fleeing their country’s oppressive regime and disastrous economy have crossed the Colombian border. Taking care of them costs the Colombian government at least $800 million a year in services such as health care and schools, according to a World Bank estimate (link in Spanish.)

But by giving the displaced Venezuelans permits to live and work, the Colombian government ensures they contribute to the economy. Every half a million new Venezuelan workers would boost Colombia’s GDP by .2%, per the World Bank’s calculations.

In Europe, too, some lawmakers are starting to point out the upside in legally acknowledging migrants. Last year, the European Parliament proposed the creation of a humanitarian visa that would allow people to legally travel to Europe to request asylum, instead of crowding into flimsy vessels. Their rationale was not only to help migrants, but to better vet who comes in and reduce migrant-related expenses, such as costly sea rescues.

The European Commission, however, decided not to take up the issue—at least for now.

Paving the road

It may seem like an international arrangement to collectively address the refugee issue like the Nansen passport is a long shot. But refugee advocates should continue lobbying for it. It took years, but a campaign pushing a similarly utopian cause, the ban of landmines, spurred the creation of an international convention to solve the problem. (It also won a Nobel Peace Prize in the process.)

A group of academics and experts has launched a similar effort to promote an international system that protects refugees and other migrants. Last year, they published the Model International Mobility Convention, an international treaty prototype that lays out how the world could manage all types of human movement.

Signatories would agree to certain basic rights they would be obligated to grant under the agreement. Refugees and forced migrants would get the most, including the right to live and work in the receiving country. Visitors would get the least.

Countries would still make the final decision of whether to admit someone or not. But there would be a mechanism under which those that choose not to take in refugees, say, the US, would have to write a check to help those that do, like Colombia, for example.

Michael Doyle, a University of Columbia professor who helped write it, calls it “realistic utopia.” “It takes the world somewhat as it is,” he said. “This is not a treaty for open borders.”

He’s not expecting world leaders to rush in to sign it—so far only Ecuador has shown interest. He estimates it will take a decade or more for voters to get the nativist impulses that contributed to Brexit and the election of anti-immigration leaders like Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Trump in the US out of their system.