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Refugees in Inter-War EuropeThe Emergence of a Regime$

Claudena Skran

Print publication date: 1995

Print ISBN-13: 9780198273929

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198273929.001.0001

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The Emergence of Refugees as an Issue in International Politics

The Emergence of Refugees as an Issue in International Politics

(p.13) 1 The Emergence of Refugees as an Issue in International Politics
Refugees in Inter-War Europe

Claudena M. Skran

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter initiates with an argument regarding why refugees first emerged as an international issue after the First World War. A large number of refugees were created in the wake of the First World War after the fighting has finished. The main reason behind the refugee problem can be found in the very nature of the international system. The chapter also analyses the immigration restrictions imposed worldwide which were viewed as an obstacle for resolving refugee problems. The chapter also studies the refugee problem in detail and also new hopes for its solution.

Keywords:   refugees, international issue, First World War, refugee problem, immigration restrictions


PEOPLE who flee their homes to seek safety elsewhere are not new to the twentieth century: they have existed since the dawn of time. Yet the application of the term ‘refugee’ to people who flee their home countries for another is only as old as the international state system—about 400 years old. According to the OED, the term ‘refugee’ was first applied to the French Huguenots, victims of religious persecution who fled France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1695—only one group among the many victims of religious persecution of the early modern period. A century later the same term was applied to British loyalists after the American Revolution. In the nineteenth century political exiles from Tsarist Russia, known by the fashionable term émigrés, populated the cities of Europe. The forced population movements of the early twentieth century brought the word ‘refugee’ back into popular use, partly because it became the preferred term used by the vast array of international and national relief agencies.1 The term has continued to be used for the millions uprooted in the post-1945 period.

Despite the long history of forced migration, twentieth-century refugee movements significantly differ from earlier ones in this important respect: they attracted the attention of political leaders and became international issues.2 Modern-day refugees drew the attention of policy-makers because they numbered millions, not thousands. These mass movements were, in turn, the result of (p.14) broad political and social changes that affected the entire international state system, not simply developments within a particular country. Once in existence, refugee movements became the focus of international attention because of the problems they created. After 1919 the rapid development of immigration controls world-wide made it difficult for refugees to find new, permanent homes. Some found locating a temporary place of asylum virtually impossible. For the refugees who did find a new country, some of the same factors which forced them to flee in the first place often made it difficult for them ever to return to their home countries, or to fully integrate into the ones that offered them asylum. In addition, increased governmental support for social welfare meant that societies became reluctant to take on financial obligations to non-citizens, including refugees. For these reasons, refugees posed unique problems for policy-makers in the twentieth century.

The Origins of Mass Refugee Movements

In terms of size and scope, refugee movements in inter-war Europe dwarfed all previous ones. They were mass migrations that significantly affected both the refugee-producing countries and the refugee-receiving ones. Included in these movements were such diverse ethnic groups as Germans, Poles, Baltic peoples, Magyars, Russians, Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, Armenians, Jews, Czechs, Italians, and Spaniards. The refugees sought safety in every country in Europe, and in many other countries around the world. Inter-war refugee movements contrasted sharply with previous European experiences with refugees. Although from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century the European continent experienced large movements of religious refugees, the nineteenth century was relatively free from such troubles.3 During this period the typical refugee was a revolutionary exile. Exiles from Poland after 1830, (p.15) from Germany and Italy after 1848, from France after 1871, and from Tsarist Russia throughout the century could be found in London, Berlin, Geneva, Paris, and other major cities. These refugees numbered thousands and were relatively affluent; consequently, they did not constitute a relief problem.4 Among the refugees were such distinguished persons as Louis Philippe, Prince Metternich, Victor Hugo, Karl Marx, and Lenin. Despite strong socialist and anarchist leanings among some refugees, they had little trouble finding new countries because the liberal states of Western Europe welcomed them.5

In the nineteenth century large population movements took place in the form of emigration to the New World. Even though some of these migrants—particularly Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms, and Irish escaping the potato famine—exhibited some of the characteristics of modern refugees, they were labelled as immigrants. As long as the United States and other countries of immigration accepted virtually everyone, European governments did not have to deal with their own refugees. Large population movements also took place during the First World War. These flows, however, were temporary and did not create lingering problems; after the war, most refugees simply returned to their homes. In the Inter-war Period Europe once again began to experience mass refugee movements. In order to understand the causes of these movements, they need to be analysed at three different but interconnected levels: those of the individual, the state, and the international system.6

At the level of the individual, there are as many reasons for mass movements as there are refugees. A refugee leaves his or her (p.16) home voluntarily, albeit under compulsion from outside forces. The decision to flee, rather than to fight or die, is a personal one. The 1951 Refugee Convention identifies a refugee as a person who is outside his or her home country because of a ‘well-founded fear’ of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.7 This definition identifies persecution, rather than economic breakdown or violent conflict, as the major reason why a refugee leaves his or her home country. In fact, a combination of political, economic, and personal factors actually contribute to a refugee's decision to flee. Although there are many reasons for an individual refugee's flight, our primary concern here is to determine why individuals flee certain states more than others.

Since the beginning of the modern state system in the late seventeenth century, certain types of states have produced more refugees than others. In the words of Sir John Hope Simpson, director of the comprehensive refugee survey undertaken by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in the 1930s, ‘the cause of every refugee movement is tyranny of one kind or another, but the forms of tyranny differ’.8 In the inter-war years a popular explanation for refugee movements blamed the rise of totalitarian governments, those which demand the total allegiance of people to their states. Simpson, for instance, identified the National Socialists in Germany and the Communists in the Soviet Union as two such governments.9

This particular explanation, however, has some significant drawbacks. In the case of the Soviet Union, most of the Russian refugees fled during the Russian Civil War, before the Bolsheviks gained full control of the country. After 1922 Soviet authorities virtually stopped emigration.10 The major human-rights violations of the Stalinist period—including the liquidation of the kulaks, forced collectivization, and the Great Purges—resulted in the deaths of approximately twenty million but produced very few refugees, (p.17) primarily because the Soviet government maintained a no-exit policy.11 Nazi Germany's persecution of political dissidents and Jews did create a mass exodus before the outbreak of war in 1939, but the same was not true of other Fascist governments. Mussolini's Italy produced relatively few refugees and, ironically, Italy became a haven for German Jewish refugees until 1938. After Franco's rise to power in Spain, 400,000 people did leave the country, but they did so primarily as a result of their defeat in the Civil War. The actual historical record, then, contradicts the simple explanation that links totalitarianism and refugee flows.12

A better explanation of the above refugee flows is that revolutionary changes and major political upheavals within a country have become more likely to produce a mass exodus because a larger percentage of the country's people participate in them. In the nineteenth century autocratic governments repressed challenges to their authority, but usually forced only a small number of revolutionaries to leave the country. The development and proliferation of modern military technology has meant that ‘violent clashes over the social order’, as well as interstate war, have the potential for extreme destruction.13 Military conflict itself can affect both soldiers and civilians. Numbered among the refugees from the Russian Revolution and Spanish Civil War were ‘cross-fire refugees’, people fleeing from two opposing sides in a conflict. Moreover, if economic breakdown takes place as a result of conflict, famine and drought victims may join the refugee flow. In this sense, the victims of the Russian and Ukrainian famines of the early 1920s are not unlike the Ethiopians who fled civil war and famine in the mid-1980s.

(p.18) While the theory regarding factors internal to particular countries partly explains the resurgence of mass refugee movements, it fails to explain the largest refugee movements of the Inter-war Period—the approximately two million refugees produced between Turkey, Greece, and Bulgaria. Nor does it explain the numerous refugees created in the wake of the First World War, after the actual fighting had stopped. The most important cause of these refugee flows cannot be found solely in the internal politics of any of these countries, but rather has to do with changes in the very nature of the international system. During the twentieth century the nation-state system, begun in Western Europe more than three hundred years ago, expanded and became global. One feature of this process has been the break-up of empires into independent nation-states. After the Second World War, for instance, decolonization brought an end to the British, French, and other European empires and created numerous new states. This process of nation-state formation has not been entirely peaceful. Aristide Zolberg, a specialist in international migration, argues that ‘massive refugee flows are most prominently a concomitant of the secular transformation of a world of empires and of small self-sufficient communities or tribes into a world of national states’.14 Although Zolberg's primary concern is with explaining refugee movements in the developing world, he stresses that it would be a mistake to conclude that ‘the persecution of victim groups is a peculiar by-product of the formation of nation-states in non-Western societies’.15 Instead, he argues that Europe has experienced the same phenomenon twice previously. The first took place during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the state system first established itself in Western Europe. In this era, religion, rather than nationality, was the foundation of the state; as a result, religious minorities often became refugees. The second took place during the Inter-war Period, when the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman Empires collapsed and nation-states replaced them.

(p.19) In explaining the refugee-producing process, Zolberg emphasizes the role of the nation-state, a legal and political unit which incorporates a nation inside its territorial boundaries.16 In the case of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, it proved impossible to organize the ethnically mixed region into viable, homogeneous political units: ‘The yawning gap between the formula and social realities generated enormous tensions’, out of which emerged two groups of victims: minorities and the stateless.17 Minorities are people who lived in one nation-state but associated themselves with a different nationality, usually the dominant nationality in some other state. Some Magyars, for example, lived in Romania but associated themselves with Hungary. Of course, minorities had previously existed; but after the creation of nation-states they became ‘political misfits’. The stateless are people without ties to any established nation-state. The most prominent stateless group of the twentieth century was the Jews but there have been others, including Armenians and gypsies. The stateless faced the greatest risks because they had no nation-states to defend their rights or to receive them if they fled from their countries of residence.18

According to Zolberg, mass refugee flows are a likely, but not automatic, result of the creation of nation-states. In fact, governments can create homogeneous states using a variety of methods. First, governments can attempt to assimilate minorities or to contain them. The United States, for instance, practised both policies by encouraging the ‘Americanization’ of European immigrants and sponsoring the placement of American Indians on reservations. A government also may provide minorities with some degree of autonomy. The minorities treaties of the League of Nations, for instance, attempted to give special protection to minority groups. On the other hand, governments can suppress, expel, or even exterminate minority groups in order to achieve homogeneity (p.20) quickly.19 If a government follows one of these strategies, all too often a refugee flow will result.

Zolberg details a process by which people in victimized groups become refugees. The starting-point is usually ‘triggered by a change of internal or external circumstances; the initial stage takes the form of a generalized political crisis, in the course of which victim groups are especially likely to emerge’. He also points out that the ‘formation of nation-states out of the debris of empires usually also entails the abolition of the ancien régime, a partial or thoroughgoing revolution, in the course of which entire social strata may come to be viewed as obstacles in the same sense as cultural minorities’. Ironically, Zolberg notes, ‘refugees may be the more fortunate segment of the original target, others of whom may be subjected to a worse fate, including not only immobilization but even murder’.

The nation-state formation process also has an international component. Because the process takes place within a region, ‘the tensions it generates within any given country interact with those simultaneously experienced by others. The result is heightened tensions between states, often leading to international conflict, which in turn exacerbates the refugee-producing conditions in each state of the region.’20 If the nation-state formation process leads to interstate war, this too may produce refugees.

What is particularly insightful about Zolberg's analysis is that it explains how internal and systemic forces interact in producing refugee movements. While a specific government may persecute a particular ethnic group, this persecution should be seen as part of a broader historical process affecting many countries. Nazi Germany, for instance, practised particularly brutal policies towards Jews and gypsies, ranging from discrimination to persecution and extermination. But the Nazis were not alone in their pursuit of policies aimed at ridding themselves of what they considered to be undesirable ethnic minorities. These groups comprised a large percentage of the refugees of the 1920s and 1930s.21 This conclusion is disturbing because it means that refugee movements cannot simply be blamed on non-democratic governments. Instead, it (p.21) implies that a key component of the international system—the belief that the nation-state is the ideal political unit—contributes to the creation of mass refugee movements. At the same time it indicates that the same factor which led to the creation of refugees—the desire to create ethnically homogeneous nation-states—complicates the solutions to refugee problems.

Immigration Restrictions as an Obstacle to the Resolution of Refugee Problems

Although the scale of refugee movements increased in the Inter-war Period, this alone did not generate the perception among policy-makers of a refugee crisis. Larger population movements had taken place with little fanfare in the previous two hundred years. Migration peaked between 1845 and 1924, when fifty million people, primarily Europeans, travelled to the western hemisphere, at a time when the world's population was only about one billion.22 In the years immediately preceding 1914 over one million Europeans emigrated annually to the United States alone. For these people, migration was a relatively easy task whether they left because of violent conflict, religious persecution, or rural overpopulation: they simply travelled to the New World. If the United States and other countries of immigration had continued to absorb surplus European labour at this rate in the 1920s, the story of inter-war refugees would have been very different. In fact, people forcibly uprooted probably never would have been called refugees at all. But this was not to be the case. Instead, the development of immigration restrictions world-wide erected a new obstacle to the resolution of refugee problems. John Stoessinger sums up the problem in this way: ‘What distinguishes the refugee of the twentieth century is the immense difficulty, and often impossibility of finding a new home.’23

The abrupt end to the relatively free immigration of the nineteenth century began in the United States and spread elsewhere. (p.22) As a result, migrants found themselves subject to increasing government regulation. The most visible sign of this was the requirement that all international travellers carry a passport, a device for controlling movement across frontiers. Originally introduced as a temporary measure in the First World War, the use of passports continued after the war. Other signs included border controls and the requirement that aliens register upon landing. In addition to these bureaucratic measures, many governments sharply restricted immigration, in terms both of the number and of the ethnic background of those who would be allowed to enter.

In this regard, the United States led the way with the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924, both of which constituted a sharp departure from past immigration policy. Although the United States had excluded Chinese immigrants as early as 1882 and Japanese immigrants after 1907, in other respects the United States maintained open borders. The laws of 1921 and 1924 changed existing policy by establishing a quota system designed to limit total immigration to the United States and to ensure a certain ethnic composition. The 1924 quota limited European immigration to only 150,000 people per year, and blatantly favoured immigrants born in northern and western European countries at the expense of those born in southern and eastern European ones: the former received 85 per cent of the quota, and the latter only 15 per cent. The new system gave Great Britain the largest quota, 77,000, while Germany garnered the next largest, 68,000. In contrast, people born in Russia had to emigrate under the Russian quota of 2,300. Greece and Turkey had even smaller quotas—100 people each.24

At about the same time the British Dominions enacted immigration restrictions aimed at keeping their population British. Australia restricted immigration for non-British migrants, especially Asians, and promoted emigration schemes to bring British settlers to Australia.25 By the Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Act of 1919, New Zealand prohibited the entry without a special permit of all persons not of British birth or parentage. In Canada, immigration policy distinguished between immigrants from ‘preferred’ countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, the (p.23) Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries) and those from ‘non-preferred’ countries (Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, the Baltic states, and Russia). A law of 1923 specified that immigrants from non-preferred countries would only be admitted as agriculturalists with means, as farm workers, and as domestic servants.26 Canada, however, made special provisions to accept Russian refugees with agricultural skills, primarily Mennonites who joined existing Mennonite communities in western Canada.27

In Latin America, countries also developed restrictive immigration policies. Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and others wanted immigrants, but only those willing to be agricultural colonists. Moreover, these countries often sought out immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Portugal, countries with similar cultural traditions.28 At the same time Latin American governments restricted the entry of certain groups, especially Jews.29

For the countries of Europe, the imposition of global immigration restrictions meant that they could not easily export their surplus populations, including refugees, overseas. This majority would have to stay in Europe, even though few countries there welcomed immigrants. In Britain, for instance, the Aliens Order of 1920 required that an alien demonstrate that he could support himself and his family before he was allowed to enter.30 This law, like its American counterpart, signalled a major departure from past practices. For most of the nineteenth century Britain maintained an extremely liberal policy. No immigrant could be prevented from landing, and before 1890 an immigrant did not even have to inform the government of his or her arrival. British law did not recognize expulsion to be legal without extradition treaties; expulsion was, in fact, very rare. Although the 1905 Aliens Act should be considered a retreat from British liberalism, the exception made in the Act for political refugees lessened its effect in practice. It is interesting to note that, at the time of the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks Litvinov and Chicherin lived in London, (p.24) while in 1929 an escaping Trotsky could not gain permission to enter Britain.31

In Europe, only France served as a country of immigration. The Great War had taken a heavy toll on French manpower, creating a post-war labour shortage. In the early 1920s the French government encouraged immigration to facilitate reconstruction and to supply a labour force for its growing industrial and agricultural sectors.32 At the end of 1926 the French government reversed this policy in response to an unemployment crisis. This new policy resulted in the practical suspension of all immigration for workers, except those needed in agriculture.33

In the 1930s immigration controls that were already tight grew even tighter. In response to the economic conditions of the Great Depression, governments around the world moved to prevent the entry of labourers. In 1931 State Department officials announced that the United States government would begin strictly to enforce the provision in the immigration laws that prohibited the admission of persons likely to become a public charge. This policy was remarkably effective. Within five months immigration from Europe had been cut by 90 per cent. In the entire decade, the United States admitted only about 500,000 people. At a time when thousands tried desperately to leave Germany, only one-quarter of the quota for northern and western Europeans was filled.34

Other countries with a tradition of welcoming immigrants followed the lead of the United States. In 1931 a Canadian law limited admission to American citizens, British subjects, and agriculturalists who were unlikely to become public charges.35 In Australia, the government restricted immigration by requiring a landing permit.36 Brazil, Colombia, and other Latin American countries also adopted quota systems and other restrictive policies37 Argentina, for instance, required that entry permits be given only (p.25) to those with no irregularities in their papers including a police certificate of good conduct.38 Taken as a whole, these immigration policies resulted in ‘setting up an elaborate network of restrictions which practically froze intercontinental migration for the years from 1930 through the end of the Second World War’.39 Although restrictions loosened somewhat after 1945, strict governmental control over both emigration and immigration remains a reality.40

A number of factors combined to bring about this end to the relatively free global migration of the nineteenth century. One of the most important was the development of nationalist doctrines—ideas which, as we have seen, also contributed to the creation of refugee movements in inter-war Europe. As mentioned above, the United States, Canada, and other countries adopted immigration policies reflecting racist and ethnocentric thinking that were designed to maintain a specific ethnic or racial composition. These policies can be seen as an attempt to maintain a given culture, increase ethnic homogeneity, and prevent the entry of ‘undesirable’ ethnic minorities. In the United States, for instance, debates about immigration quotas reflected a desire to keep out southern and eastern Europeans, including Italians, Greeks, and Jews, who, restrictionists believed, were from inferior races.41

Although nativism accounts for immigration policies that tried to ensure an ethnic make-up, this notion alone does not explain why governments restricted the overall level of immigration. In the case of the United States, the 1924 immigration law reduced the number of European immigrants to about 15 per cent of the pre-1914 level. Reductions in the the level of immigration were primarily due to changes in the domestic economies of particular states. In the case of the United States, the largest recipient of immigrants prior to 1914, the industrial revolution brought about the mechanization of industry and agriculture. This greatly reduced the need for manual labour, which traditionally had been provided by immigrants.42 Newly formed trade unions used their influence to protect domestic labourers from new immigration they (p.26) believed would drive down wages.43 In addition, much of the ‘free land’ that had been available in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand was already taken by the time of the First World War. During the 1930s unprecedented levels of unemployment spurred governments to restrict immigration of new workers even more. These policies reflected the prevailing belief among government officials, labour leaders, and the public that immigration caused unemployment and that foreign workers took jobs from natives. Despite contemporary evidence to the contrary, this belief underpinned virtually all the restrictive legislation of the 1930s.44 In addition, this same belief influenced governments to restrict or prohibit the employment of foreigners already within the country. France, for instance, established a quota on the number of foreign workers who could work in specific industries. Such legislation hit refugees especially hard because they usually had few assets and had to rely heavily on their ability to earn money to support themselves.

Other changes in society made countries both inside and outside Europe less willing to accept newcomers. In European countries, in particular, governments increasingly accepted responsibility for the social welfare of their inhabitants. If a government agreed to admit an immigrant, it faced the prospect of financially supporting that person and perhaps his or her entire family. By the 1920s Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom had compulsory pension schemes. These same governments also provided a variety of other programmes, including insurance against unemployment, accident, and sickness.45 In the Great Depression this situation worsened because the needs of both the local population and refugees increased at a time when the revenues of governments decreased. Consequently, governments felt even more reluctant to allow the entry of indigent foreigners.

(p.27) Governments also hesitated to admit foreigners because they considered them to be potential political threats. Generally, governments viewed refugees with even greater suspicion than normal migrants because of the refugees' allegedly dubious loyalty. British restrictions on aliens, for instance, were prompted during a bout of spy-fever during the First World War.46 After the Russian Revolution American business leaders feared that admitting immigrants from Russia would spread Bolshevism in the United States, and they abandoned their traditional support for an open immigration policy.47 Similarly, Argentina adopted immigration restrictions specifically to keep out radicals from the Spanish Civil War beginning in 1936.48 In 1933 a League of Nations report warned that ‘the existence of many thousands of unprotected and unassisted refugees might well prove fertile soil for subversive propaganda and unrest’.49 Even Simpson, a refugee advocate, warned that a politically uprooted refugee ‘may sink into the underworld of terrorism and political crime’.50 This intense distrust of refugees contrasted sharply with nineteenth-century attitudes towards political exiles. In that era governments generally welcomed refugees and treated them with higher regard than that extended to ordinary migrants.51

Clearly, governments exaggerated the danger of politically active refugees to their societies, and unjustly interned aliens during the Second World War.52 But, in regard to the political implications of assisting refugees, policy-makers reacted to a real danger. In the Inter-war Period, refugees had become tools of foreign policy. Just as invading armies sometimes forced people from their homes in order to hinder opposing military forces, some governments did the same in a political sense. Hannah Arendt contends that early Nazi persecution of the Jews can be seen less as an attempt to get rid of the Jews than as an attempt to spread anti-Semitism in western Europe. Furthermore, she stresses that the (p.28) ability to denationalize refugees and render them stateless was a powerful weapon of totalitarian politics.53 Vera Dean argues that Nazi Germany hoped to use refugee expulsions as a way to extract money from western European governments.54 Studies of refugees and foreign policy since that time indicate that the use of refugees as tools of foreign policy continued after the inter-war years.55

Thus, the spread of nationalist doctrines, combined with the economic, social, and political changes mentioned above, meant that refugees of the Inter-war Period faced difficult obstacles in their quest for new countries and new lives. In only a very few cases did the adoption of immigration policies which favoured specific ethnic groups make it easier for refugees to find new countries. These policies facilitated the immigration of refugees with ethnic ties to a national state: the Greek refugees who settled in Greece are a case in point. But the same policies worked strongly against refugees without direct ties to a nation-state, such as Armenians and Jews, and against those deemed to be from the ‘inferior’ races of southern and eastern Europe. Overall, immigration restrictions had a disproportionately negative impact on refugees. At the time, virtually no countries made a distinction between economic migrants and refugees: that is, the immigration laws of most countries treated refugees—people who had fled their home countries because of persecution or violent conflict—as being the same as other migrants, primarily people who left their home countries to improve their economic position.56 Immigration laws in the United States, for instance, exempted refugees only from the literacy test, despite an American tradition of asylum.57 Moreover, refugees usually faced even more obstacles than ordinary migrants. Because of the circumstances of their flight, refugees often had meagre resources. Consequently, many were rejected on the grounds that they were likely to become public charges. Many lacked valid travel documents, and some had been rendered (p.29) stateless by denationalization laws. In addition, refugees could not always choose an opportune time for departure or wait for months for admission to a particular country. For refugees, emigration was not simply an economic issue, but a personal imperative.

The Refugee Problem and New Hopes for its Solution

From the point of view of governments, refugees are a problem because they do not fit within the normal parameters of a world of nation-states. In the Inter-war Period, mass refugee movements were by-products of efforts to achieve ethnically pure nation-states and ideologically homogeneous political systems. These same causes prevented the refugees from returning home without danger of persecution. In addition, the New World no longer acted as a safety-valve for Europe's forced migrants because of the imposition of immigration restrictions there. Consequently, the refugees primarily had to be re-established in Europe. This solution, however, created its own problems. Most refugees still found themselves to be an unwanted minority in a host country, without legal protection or the means of earning a livelihood. In reflecting on their situation, Hannah Arendt describes the refugees' world in graphic terms: ‘Once they had left their homeland they remained homeless; once they had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth.’58

Although new obstacles to the solution of refugee problems emerged in inter-war Europe, the international attention focused on refugees also generated new hopes. To begin with, refugees after 1914 had a much better chance of survival than those of previous eras. In the nineteenth century a few relatively affluent revolutionary exiles found their way to the capitals of western Europe, but others were not so fortunate. Michael Marrus describes the harsh realities facing pre-twentieth-century refugees: ‘Thrust unexpectedly on a society usually indifferent to outsiders of any sort, many refugees would quickly succumb to hunger, disease, or exposure. Large masses of people simply could not (p.30) move from place to place supported by meagre social services. Winters, generally, would finish them off.’59

The creation of a large number of international philanthropic organizations changed this situation. During and after the First World War the number of agencies engaged in refugee assistance mushroomed. These agencies provided on-the-spot, emergency relief to refugees and others in need. For the first time, large groups of homeless people could be kept alive pending some solution to their predicament. International agencies also helped refugees to become self-supporting and to find new, permanent homes.

While the First World War accelerated the development of new methods of destruction, it also brought new demands for peaceful co-operation between countries. In 1919 forty-two governments formed the League of Nations, an international, intergovernmental organization, ‘in order to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security’.60 Within a very short time governments and private organizations called on the League to deal with a variety of social and political problems: epidemics in eastern Europe, prisoner-of-war repatriation, and refugee assistance. The League took up the role of refugee advocacy and attempted to help refugees find new homes and become self-supporting, despite immigration restrictions and unfavourable economic conditions.

In addition, governments around the world began to respond to the plight of refugees. Gradually, the idea that refugees should be considered a special kind of migrant gained acceptance. Through the development of international law, many countries took on special responsibilities towards refugees. Some also modified their immigration policies to favour refugees. Writing in 1938, Sir John Hope Simpson optimistically noted these changes: ‘New means of rapid communication have meant for the refugee that to a certain extent the world is his asylum and the world is concerned with his fate.’61 What Simpson was referring to is the development of an international regime, a concept that will be explored in Chapter 3.


(1) Paul Tabori, The Anatomy of Exile (London: Harrap, 1972), 24.

(2) Louise Holborn, The International Refugee Organization, a Specialized Agency of the United Nations. Its History and Work: 1946–1952 (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), 4–5; and Michael R. Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 14.

(3) The best-known refugee group of this period were the 200,000 French Huguenots who left Catholic France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Other refugees left neighbouring countries. In 1492 Catholic Spain expelled approximately 120,000–150,000 unconverted Jews. Beginning in 1609, the Spanish deported approximately 275,000 Muslims to North Africa. Spain also forced out Protestants from the Spanish Low Countries (now Belgium). From 1577 until the 1630s about 115,000 people, or fourteen per cent of the entire population, emigrated to what is now the Netherlands. Similarly, in England, the Crown also expelled religious minorities, including Puritans, Quakers, and Irish Catholics. Aristide Zolberg, ‘The Formation of New States as a Refugee-Generating Process’, Annals, 467 (May 1983), 31–4. On religious refugees throughout history, see Frederick A. Norwood, Strangers and Exiles: A History of Religious Refugees, i–ii (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969).

(4) Marrus estimates that 5,000 Polish insurgents fled to France in 1831, at least 20,000 Germans and Italians became refugees after the revolutionary upheaval of 1848, and 45,000 fled the Paris Commune for England and Belgium. The Unwanted, 15–26.

(5) On the British response, see John Slatter (ed.), From the Other Shore: Russian Political Emigrants in Britain, 1880–1917 (London: Frank Cass, 1984).

(6) This typology draws heavily on the analysis of the causes of war given by Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).

(7) ‘United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951’, UNTS 189/2545, art. 1 (2), 152.

(8) Sir John Hope Simpson, The Refugee Problem: Report of a Survey (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), 5.

(9) Ibid. 5–6. Holborn, The International Refugee Organization, 1, supports this conclusion.

(10) Alan Dowty, Closed Borders: The Contemporary Assault on Freedom of Movement (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987), 69.

(11) Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 485–6.

(12) This explanation, however, remained a popular one in the Cold War period. Until 1980 the United States government officially defined a refugee as a person fleeing ‘from a communist dominated country or area’. This attitude was still reflected among American policy-makers even after the repeal of the law in 1980. During his tenure as Vice-President, George Bush identified ‘the Soviet Union, its sympathizers, or its clients’ as major causes of refugee movements world-wide. George Bush, ‘Remarks on United States Refugee Policy’, in Joseph M. Kitagawa (ed.), American Refugee Policy: Ethical and Religious Reflections (New York: Presiding Bishops Fund for World Relief, The Episcopal Church, 1984), 23.

(13) This term was coined by Zolberg et al. in their comprehensive study of the causes of refugee movements in the developing world. Aristide Zolberg et al,, Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

(14) Zolberg, ‘The Formation of New States’, 30. In a later work, Escape from Violence, Zolberg revises his thesis to add ‘violent changes over the social order’ as the other main cause of refugee movements. Unless otherwise noted, the ideas for this section are derived from the original article.

(15) Ibid., 31.

(16) Hugh Seton-Watson, Nations and States (London: Methuen, 1982), 1. See also Alfred Cobban, The Nation State and National Self-Determination (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1969).

(17) Zolberg, ‘The Formation of New States’, 28.

(18) Zolberg credits Hannah Arendt for inspiring much of his analysis. See Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951), esp. 269–90. Both Zolberg and Arendt define the term ‘stateless’ in a different way from its common usage in international law. In international law, a stateless person is one ‘without nationality’. See L. Oppenheim, International Law: A Treatise, i (London: Longmans, Green, 1905), 366.

(19) Raymond Pearson, National Minorities in Eastern Europe, 1848–1945 (London: Macmillan, 1983), 9–11.

(20) Zolberg, ‘The Formation of New States’, 27–31.

(21) See Joseph S. Roucek, ‘Minorities: A Basis of the Refugee Problem’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 203 (May 1939), 1–16.

(22) Between 1500 and 1960 the number of Africans and Asians who moved, either freely or by force, is estimated at only fifteen million. Jonas Widgren, ‘International Migration and Regional Stability’, International Affairs, 66/4 (1990), 752.

(23) John G. Stoessinger, The Refugee and the World Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956), 6.

(24) William S. Bernard (ed.), American Immigration Policy: A Reappraisal (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), 25–7.

(25) Michael Blakeney, Australia and the Jewish Refugees, 1933–1948 (Australia: Croom Helm, 1985), 29–30.

(26) Bernard, American Immigration Policy, 210–13.

(27) Gerald E. Dirks, Canada's Refugee Policy—Indifference or Opportunism? (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1977), 38–9.

(28) Bernard, American Immigration Policy, 219.

(29) Simpson, The Refugee Problem, 273.

(30) Sherman, Island Refuge: Britain and Refugees from the Third Reich: 1933–1939 app. (London: Paul Elek, 1973), ii: ‘Immigration Regulations’, 273.

(31) Bernard Porter, ‘The British Government and Political Refugees, c. 1880–1914’, in Slatter (ed.), From the Other Shore, 24–5.

(32) Tom Kemp, The French Economy 1913–39: The History of a Decline (London: Longmans, 1972), 94.

(33) League of Nations, ‘Report of the Director’, International Labour Conference, Tenth Session, ii (Geneva: ILO, 1927), 145.

(34) Robert A. Divine, American Immigration Policy, 1924–52 (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), 77–90.

(35) Dirks, Canada's Refugee Policy, 44.

(36) Blakeney, Australia and the Jewish Refugees, 39.

(37) Samuel Guy Inman, ‘Refugee Settlement in Latin America’, Annals, 203 (May 1939), 187–91.

(38) Olga Elaine Rojer, Exile in Argentina, 1933–1945: A Historical and Literary Introduction (New York: Peter Lang, 1989), 79.

(39) Bernard, American Immigration Policy, 228.

(40) This is the thesis of Dowty, Closed Borders.

(41) On the nativist tradition in American politics, see John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860–1925 (New Brunswick, N J: Rutgers University Press, 1955).

(42) Divine, American Immigration Policy, 9.

(43) Vernon M. Briggs, Jr., Immigration Policy and the American Labor Force (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 42.

(44) For refutations of this belief, see Bernard Ostrolenk, The Economics of an Imprisoned World: A Brief for the Removal of Immigration Restrictions', Annals, 203 (May 1939), 194–201; Dorothy Frances Buxton, The Economics of the Refugee Problem (London: Focus Publishing, 1939).

(45) Peter Flora and Jens Alber, ‘Modernization, Democratization, and the Development of Welfare States in Western Europe’, in Peter Flora and Arnold J. Heidenheimer (eds.), The Development of Welfare States in Europe and America (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1981), 59.

(46) David French, ‘Spy Fever in Britain, 1900–1915’, Historical Journal, 21/2 (1978), 366.

(47) Bernard, American Immigration Policy, 18.

(48) Rojer, Exile in Argentina, 78.

(49) League of Nations, ‘Russian, Armenian, Assyrian, Assyro-Chaldean and Turkish Refugees: Report of the Sixth Committee to the Assembly’ (1933) [A.39.1933], 1.

(50) Simpson, The Refugee Problem, 9.

(51) Marrus, The Unwanted, 15.

(52) Jacques Vernant, The Refugee in the Post-War World (London: Allen & Unwin, 1953), 18; Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939–1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 88–108.

(53) Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 269, 278.

(54) Vera Micheles Dean, ‘European Power Politics and the Refugee Problem’, Annals, 203 (May 1939), 24.

(55) Michael S. Teitelbaum, ‘Immigration, Refugees, and Foreign Policy’, International Organization, 38 (Summer 1984), 437–41.

(56) For a review of the refugee policies of major countries, see Simpson, The Refugee Problem, 262–96.

(57) Read Lewis and Marian Schibsby, ‘Status of the Refugee under American Immigration Laws’, Annals, 203 (May 1939), 74.

(58) Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 266. Emphasis added.

(59) Marrus, The Unwanted, 5.

(60) ‘Preamble, Covenant of the League of Nations’, reprinted in Inis Claude, Swords into Plowshares (New York: Random House, 1984), 453. For a list of members of the League of Nations see F. P. Walters, A History of the League of Nations (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), 64–5.

(61) Simpson, The Refugee Problem, 10.