first-nansen-passport

The First Nansen Passport: The League of Nations and Those Whose State Disappeared.

With the need to increase legal protection for the increasing number of refugees in the world, it is useful to recall the first Nansen Passport created by Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930).


The leader of a Nordic-North Pole exploration

Fridtjof Nansen was thought of as a Norwegian, although he was born before the creation in 1905 of an independent State of Norway.  His family had historically been living in Copenhagen, Denmark, before his grandfather moved to Norway, then a part of the Kingdom of Denmark.  His family were traditionally lawyers, often involved in diplomacy. 

Fridtjof, however, as a young man, was not interested in law but rather in the “great outdoors” and the natural sciences.  From 1893 to 1896, he was the leader of a Nordic-North Pole exploration. His account of the North Pole became a “best seller”  and gained for him international recognition.

An Independent Norway

         Although he was never interested in participating in electoral politics, he was a strong supporter of an independent Norway separate from the Kingdom of Sweden, an independence which was granted in 1905. In 1906, he was appointed as Ambassador of Norway to London to negotiate a treaty of guarantees for the independence of Norway, thus setting out on a path of diplomacy which he never left, although in the public mind he was always the North Pole explorer.

         The First World War −1914-1918 − saw the disappearance of two major multi-ethnic empires: the Ottoman Empire and the Austria-Hungarian Empire, leaving millions of people “Stateless” − their States having disappeared.  They were usually unwelcome minorities in the States created  by the break up of the two empires. 

In addition, there was the 1917 Russian Revolution, which led to civil wars which lasted at least until 1922. There was also an issue of prisoners of war from the First World War stranded in Russia unable to be repatriated and at least a million refugees from Russia scattered all over Europe. 

The Origins of Totalitarianism

The break up of the Ottoman Empire led to war between the newly created Turkey and Greece in 1922 with a massive exchange of populations. There was also some 300,000 Armenians displaced by the 1915 genocide.  As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism “Once the refugees had left their homeland, they remained homeless, once they had left their State they became Stateless, once they were deprived of their human rights, they were rightless.”

         The League of Nations Secretariat, encouraged by the International Committee of the Red Cross, turned to Fridtjof Nansen in 1921 and said “Do something”, giving him the title of High Commissioner for Refugees but very little money to “do something”.  Nansen depended heavily on the funds and expertise of private voluntary organizations.  In 1922, he set up an Advisory Committee consisting of 16 private organizations which helped draw up a number of plans to solve  the refugee issues and to encourage non-governmental action.

The Nansen Passport

         Due to the lack of legal protection which negatively affected most refugees from Russia, in July 1922, Nansen created a special certificate of identity for Russian refugees, commonly called the “Nansen Passport.” The document, valid for one year, certified that its holder was a Russian national by origin. 

It contained no general definition of a refugee and no specification of the motivation for flight.  It served as a form of “certification” that provided the refugee with enough legal status to enable its holder to travel to countries where he or she would be more likely to find work.

The individual refugee and the Nansen certificate

In 1924, the Nansen passport was made to cover Armenian refugees as well and then in 1928 to Assyrian refugees from the former Ottoman Empire.  As the US journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote in her book Refugees “ There is no doubt that by and large, the Nansen certificate is the greatest thing that has happened for the individual refugee. It returned his lost identity.  The refugee could never be sure whether he would get a labor permit by means of the Nansen certificate, but he could be sure that without the Nansen certificate he would never get it.”

The Nansen Office

         Nansen died in 1930. The title of High Commissioner for Refugees was abolished.  However the work continued under the title of the Nansen Office. It operated until 1938 and the effective end of the League of Nations.  The title of High Commissioner  for Refugees was re-established in 1951 when it became clear that refugees would continue on the world scene.

         Nansen’s outstanding personality and his strong and creative leadership have left a lasting impression on world refugee policies as well as a foundation for cosmopolitan thought. 

Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens

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