Eras Journal – Burgess, G: “Into the Protecting Arms”

Into the Protecting Arms: The League of Nations and the Extension of International Assistance to Unprotected Persons in the Middle East and Europe, 1926 – 1928.

Greg Burgess
(Melbourne University)

The refugee dilemma in Europe in the years between the two world wars had a number of aspects: humanitarian, political, and diplomatic. It raised questions of migration, questions of international law, and questions of the fate of hundreds of thousands of individuals. Refugees were visible from the very last days of the war and remained a matter of serious international concern even beyond the outbreak of war again in September 1939. The refugee dilemma in Europe was, firstly, a humanitarian crisis because the size of the refugee population was without precedent. It was also a political problem because national governments had to contend with questions about the refugees’ legal status and their legitimacy under national and international law, as well as balance humanitarian concerns with national political interests. The humanitarian and political aspects together created a crisis for the international community newly united in the League of Nations. One of its first great acts-to take these refugees into its protective care-was not even prescribed for it in its Covenant. But the refugee crisis facing Europe was so great that member states were united in the belief that the League had been established precisely to undertake a task of this kind.


Typical estimates put the number of refugees in interwar Europe at nine to ten million.[2] They appeared in large, distinct waves. By some estimates two million refugees fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. The vast majority originated from the collapse of the White Russian armies in southern Russia in March 1921.[3] During the 1920s, it was claimed, every city of Central and Eastern Europe had a colony of Russian émigrés struggling to preserve the remnants of the culture they had formerly enjoyed; they were from all sectors of Russian society, a “whole nation in miniature”. [4] Several large groups of refugees also emerged in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the assertion of a virulent nationalism in the new Turkish Republic: Armenians, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Greeks and Bulgarians.[5] Greek and Bulgarian refugees could readily turn to other nations where they were welcomed as compatriots. Most tragic, however, was the fate of the Armenians. There were 2,000,000 Armenians in Turkey before 1914; by 1919, only about 400,000 remained. From 1915, an estimated 1,600,000 Armenians in Eastern Anatolia were subject to forced removal. Some 250,000 escaped to Russian Armenia; another 40,000 women and children converted to Islam or were taken into harems or into slavery. The rest were massacred or deported. Approximately half the deportees survived. In 1919, some 600,000 Armenian refugees were dispersed about the French mandated territories of Cilicia in southern Turkey and Syria, and in the British mandated territories of Palestine, Persia and Iraq. A second migration followed after France entered into a treaty with Turkey in 1921 to restore to it Cilicia and parts of the Syrian territory. A third migration followed the Turkish capture of the Greek region around Smyrna in 1922, when 100,000 Armenians followed almost 2,000,000 Greeks in flight, with many thousands fleeing to Constantinople and compounding the refugee problem in that city already crowded with many thousands of Russian refugees.[6] The Assyrians and Chaldeans also found themselves unwelcome in the Turkish Republic and dispersed into neighbouring countries or sailed to France.

In response to the refugee dilemma, the League of Nations established a High Commission for Refugees in September 1921, and proceeded to negotiate the Intergovernmental Arrangements relating to Russian and Armenian Refugees of 1922 and 1924. These Arrangements are commonly understood as measures taken to address the lack of diplomatic protection of these refugees because they were unable to return to their homelands.[7] Because the terms of both Arrangements were the same, they were combined into a single instrument in 1926 [Annex 1]. Yet the interpretation of these Arrangements, and the League’s role in the protection of refugees, is too often made in terms of a retrospective assessment of the League’s own institutional weaknesses, or by anachronistically applying present approaches to international refugee law to a vastly different political and diplomatic context. The major studies of refugee law by James Hathaway, Guy Goodwin-Gill and Atle Grahl-Madsen, among others, each trace the present refugee regime under the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees and international refugee law to the international instruments adopted by the League of Nations. [8] For them, the interwar years represent the first attempts, as Hathaway asserts, to deal with the reality of the forced international movements of peoples.[9] The experience of refugees in interwar Europe is considered, in this legal context, as the first step towards the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees; therefore, the measures adopted for the assistance of refugees between 1922 and 1939 are too readily criticised as brave but flawed attempts in the evolutionary process towards a regime of international refugee law. This view is compounded by the reference in Article 1A(1) of the 1951 Convention to these early international instruments [Annex 2], implying a continuity between the interwar and post-Second World War refugee regimes. It also implies a similar conception of refugee protection in these two distinct eras. This suggests that the refugee regime of the interwar years was based on a similar understanding of a rupture in the political relationship between the individual and the authorities of the state from which the individual had fled.[10]Assumptions of political, racial and religious persecution, which are the key defining principles of the 1951 Convention, are therefore easily but wrongly imposed on the interwar Arrangements, clouding our understanding of these earlier instruments.

The League of Nations in fact rejected the proposition that the lack of diplomatic protection was sufficient to define a refugee, and rejected any general definition that could be applied to all refugees. As the 1922 and 1924 Arrangements pertained separately to Russian and Armenian refugees, and the 1926 Arrangement merely combined these two Arrangements into a single instrument, there was no need for them to provide anything other than an empirical description of those refugees to whom they applied, based on nationality or former nationality. The Arrangements themselves did not offer protection. Rather, they instituted a regime of certificates of identity because the refugees had been deprived of the common forms of protection and entitlements that flowed from their nationality. Most importantly, they were deprived of passports.

The Arrangements, therefore, made no inferences as to why the refugees had lost the diplomatic protection of their national governments, and questions of racial, religious or political persecution did not arise in the diplomatic domain in which they were negotiated. For that matter, questions of cause were seldom discussed in formulating the Arrangements and were not implied in their terms, leading to the criticisms of omissions that undermined their effectiveness. Since they were descriptive rather than prescriptive, offering as a definition of the refugee, for example, no more than the enumeration of national groups, they extended no guarantees of protection.[11] The specificity and empiricism of the definitions themselves have also been identified as a reason why the League of Nations failed to effect a lasting solution to the refugee problem in interwar Europe. Instead of adopting a general, abstract meaning of the term “refugee” to address the problem in its totality, the League persisted with narrow, empirical definitions that could not be adapted to changing circumstances to ensure a comprehensive and effective regime of refugee protection.[12] The political scientist Claudena Skran argues that the narrow definitions of refugees arose from the League’s aim firstly to formalise, through intergovernmental conferences, a political consensus already reached in the League’s Council and Assembly about the groups that should be given refugee status, and secondly to assist governments and private organisations in determining which individuals qualified as members of a given group. [13] More pessimistically, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt argues that these Arrangements suited the needs of states in helping to solve their refugee problems by making the refugees deportable, leaving open the accusation that the League’s member states only sought to protect their self-interest.[14]

The refugee crisis in interwar Europe certainly revealed serious failings in the international system. Yet the need to reach general conclusions to explain these failings has caused less attention to be paid to important details of the League’s role in the provision of international refugee assistance during the 1920s. An interpretation of how the refugee problem was conceived and responded to, within its contemporary political and diplomatic contexts, more accurately highlights the nature of an international system that failed this serious test. Why did the Council refuse to countenance a general expansion of its measures for international refugee protection? Why did it resolve that the lack of diplomatic protection was insufficient to define a refugee, and what did it offer in its place? It is necessary to recall, for example, that in 1927 the League was asked to consider the extension of the measures taken in favour of the Russian and Armenian refugees to peoples of all nationalities in Europe without the diplomatic protection of their countries of origin. This recommendation illustrates that weaknesses and omissions were already apparent. Why did the League then not respond? A study of the diplomatic sources on the League Council’s refusal to adopt a general approach to the refugee crisis will help to explain the conceptual framework the Council brought to the subject of refugee protection. It will also highlight weaknesses within the institution free of retrospective assumptions based on the League’s own failure.

Certificates of Identity

Refugees were anomalous to the political and legal order of interwar Europe. Collapse of the pre-war empires and the creation of new nation-states left many thousands of individuals without a recognised legal status in any country. This was not a problem anticipated in the Paris peace conferences of 1919 and therefore the protection of unprotected persons was not incorporated into the role of the League of Nations, although supervision of the extensive minority treaties was seen as central to its role as arbiter of the peace.[15]

In 1920 the American Red Cross estimated that there were almost two million Russian refugees in Europe. Russian aid agencies estimated just over one million in 1921. [16] Circumstances in Constantinople in particular, where as many as 170,000 Russian refugees faced poverty, starvation and disease, led Gustav Ador, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, to seek the assistance of the League of Nations in February 1921. [17]Ador told the League’s Secretary General, Sir Eric Drummond, that it was “impossible” so many individuals could be unprotected “by any legal organization recognised in international law”.[18] Following Ador’s recommendations, the League pursued three strategies: the co-ordination of relief and welfare activities undertaken by private organisations; the resettlement of refugees, either by repatriation or their placement in third countries; and the definition of their legal status. Success in each of these strategies, it was believed, would lead to a definite resolution of the refugee problem.[19]

The Swedish scientist, polar explorer and diplomat, Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, was appointed the League’s High Commissioner for Refugees in September 1921. No additional funding, however, was provided for him to take full responsibility for the refugees. The League’s mandate in fact restricted his role to the co-ordination of the relief efforts of private organisations and the facilitation of repatriation and resettlement. The failure of a repatriation scheme launched by Nansen immediately after assuming his post, however, left the vast majority of these refugees with an undetermined legal status and uncertain asylum. An organised scheme for the repatriation of the refugees to the Soviet Union was abandoned after suspicions on all sides made the program inoperable: Nansen’s officials insisted on monitoring resettlement to ensure that conditions of a Soviet amnesty were upheld, the Soviet government feared infiltration by its enemies, while the refugees themselves feared that successful voluntary repatriation would lead inevitably to forced repatriation.[20] The question of resettlement was in turn seriously hampered by the refugees’ lack of passports. Without them, they could not gain admission to other countries. Most of Nansen’s attention therefore fell onto the third of these strategies. The 1922 Intergovernmental Arrangements for Russian Refugees instituted a certificate of identity for Russian refugees, which became commonly known as the “Nansen Passport”. These provided refugees with a recognised document to allow them to move from one country to another to settle and obtain employment. The success of the certificates of identity for refugees led to their adoption in 1924 for the Armenian refugees.[21]

In the legal void into which the refugees appeared, the states in which they had found sanctuary extended protection in an ad hoc way and significant variations across states were apparent. Generally, the various domestic pressures throughout the decade, from post-war reconstruction at the start of the decade to the deteriorating economic conditions as the 1920s drew to a close, brought about restrictive practices highly prejudicial to the refugees’ welfare and security. Importantly, immigration restrictions in the United States, followed soon afterwards by restrictions in other countries in the Americas, closed off these traditional outlets for the unwanted of Europe. The lack of passports had prevented the refugees from travelling to join families or to pursue opportunities for employment in other countries, and thereby to reclaim their fractured lives. However, both the High Commission and the International Labor Organisation found only resistance to pleas for these countries to assist in refugee settlement. Negotiations with Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, for example, found that none would facilitate refugee immigration without imposing stringent conditions, since they all favoured the colonisation of remote agricultural regions ahead of immigrant settlement in the cities.[22] Within Europe, only France had a real demand for foreign labour.[23]

As the League struggled to come to terms with the refugee problem, refugee protection was described in empirical terms that focused on practical measures to effect the provision of identity certificates and resettlement. This resulted in a narrow perception of the refugee problem, which originated from the belief within the League of Nations that a “definite settlement” would be quickly achieved, and there would then be no further need for intervention. [24]

Extension of Refugee Assistance

It was increasingly apparent to some figures within the League that the causes of refugee movements and the extent of the refugee problem were much more profound than they had seemed in 1921. Ruptures in the political, social and economic order of a great many states in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East after the First World War broke down the relationship between certain groups and their national governments for political, racial and religious reasons. In some instances this amounted to political and racial persecution. This was implicitly recognised in the adoption of the refugee Arrangements.[25] But it was the recognition that there were a number of other persecuted groups who did not benefit from these Arrangements that turned attention on to the broader refugee problem.

In 1926, Belgian Foreign Minister, Louis de Brouckère asked the League of Nations Assembly why refugee assistance should be restricted to the Russian and Armenian refugees. “I need not remind you”, he declared, “that there are, unhappily, many other refugees … in a similar position”. They were without protection and desirous of the League’s assistance. [26] Although de Brouckère thought there was no need to spell out who these “many other refugees” were, British Foreign Minister, Sir Austen Chamberlain, was one member of the Council who needed to be reminded about their existence, asking who were these other refugees “to whom it was suggested that the same measures might be applied”.[27] The Council was the League’s executive body, responsible for implementing resolutions from the Assembly, in which all member states had equal voice and equal vote. This resolution of the Assembly to broaden the League’s interest in the refugee situation demanded the Council’s attention even though it was at first reluctant and somewhat confused about its implications. To learn fully of the problems to which de Brouckère’s resolution alluded, and their implications on the League’s refugee work, the Council asked Nansen to report on the “character” of these other refugees, the size and distribution of their populations, and whether any measures should be taken for their assistance. [28]

Nansen had received several appeals from a number of different international organizations, such as the Comité Unifié Juif, the Congrès de la Fédération des Ligues des Droits de l ‘Homme (FLDH), the Berlin based Verband der Staatenlosen; and from League of Nations’ Unions across Europe, all requesting that the measures adopted for the Russian and Armenian refugees be extended to other unprotected groups. He had also received pleas for assistance from these refugees themselves.[29] Based on the information provided in these submissions, Nansen reported to the 1927 Assembly that the following groups had sought the League’s assistance and legal protection. [30]

Assyrians: 150 in Marseilles. They had been forced to abandon their homes near Mt. Ararat in 1922, and moved successively to Novorossisk, Constantinople, Smyrna and finally Marseilles. They were destitute, required to leave France and requested passports to allow them travel and financial assistance to enable them to resettle.

Assyro-Chaldeans: 15,000 in the Caucasus, and 4,000 in Greece. They had fled from regions south of Lake Van in eastern Anatolia. It was impossible for them to establish themselves and they required travel documents to facilitate their employment in other countries.

Ruthenians: 6,000 in Austria, and 4,000 in Czechoslovakia. They were originally from Polish Galicia and fled to Austria and Czechoslovakia during and after the war.

Montenegrins: an unknown number resident in France unable to return to the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

Jews in Romania: 16,000 in Bukowina, Bessarabia and Transylvania, regions Romania had acquired under the 1919 Treaty of Trianon. They were unable to obtain Romanian nationality and required papers and assistance to enable them to emigrate.

Turkish (“Friends of the Allies”): 150 in Greece and the Near East, proscribed by the Turkish Government under the Protocol of Lausanne, 24 July 1923.

Hungarians: 10,000 living in Austria, France and Romania, identified by the FLDH as being desirous of emigrating but lacking the documents to do so.

The composition of these groups disclosed some of the chaos surrounding minorities and the displaced in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East following the collapse of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires. The FLDH, confronting the problem in its generality, advocated a radically different approach to that of classifying refugees by their origins. In addition to requesting assistance for the 10,000 Hungarians identified above, it went on to claim that there were as many as 100,000 refugees in Central and Eastern Europe without protection. The FLDH suggested that there should be no distinction made between groups based on their nationality or former nationality but instead urged the extension of the League’s measures to all refugees who desired to emigrate but were unable to do so because they lacked passports.[31] Under this framework refugees would not so much be defined as specific classes of individuals who had lost their juridical nationality but rather as individuals without the protection of a national government and who therefore required protection from the international community.[32]

Analogous Refugees and Analogous Conditions

The main work of the Assembly was done in its six committees, in which issues were raised and discussed, and resolutions for the full Assembly were drafted. Each committee was responsible for distinct aspects of the League’s work: Budgets and Finance, Social and Political Questions, Minorities, General and Humanitarian Questions. De Broukère’s resolution was discussed and redrafted on a number of occasions during the 1926 session of the Assembly in the Fifth Committee, which was responsible for humanitarian questions and in which all refugee related matters had first been raised. De Broukère’s original resolution was vague and ambiguous both in its wording and intent. It stated simply that the League should “consider how far the measures already taken to give protection to, to provide employment for, and to afford relief to Russian and Armenian refugees could be extended to other analogous categories of refugees”.[33] Much rested on the term “analogous”, yet it was a poor description of who these other refugees were.

The original draft from the Fifth Committee did not include “analogous”, stating instead “other categories of refugees”.[34] The word was inserted later (its source is not noted in the records of debates), an amendment de Broukère supported because “it was the similarity of the situation of various categories of refugees which had been the inspiring motive of the resolution”, and because it had “no more effect than to underline the sense of the original text”. [35] For de Broukère, then, the term “analogous” more clearly expressed precisely those whom he had envisaged to be the beneficiaries of the extension of the measures for international refugee assistance. This implies that his intention was to extend assistance to those refugees who, like the Russian and Armenian refugees, were without the diplomatic protection of the governments of their countries of origin.

The Assembly’s resolution, however, remained vague because no clear statement of intention was made. This suggests a serious diplomatic failure, since the language of diplomacy depends on precise meanings and the avoidance of ambiguity and misunderstanding. This ambiguity could be attributed to the belief that, as the subject related to matters very much in the minds of the politicians and diplomats meeting in Geneva, it did not warrant further elaboration. But Chamberlain’s comment suggests that it was not so prominent in the minds of at least some important figures. More likely, it can be explained by the ad hoc nature of the League’s measures for refugee assistance, which had created an incomplete regime whose legal forms and principles were themselves highly fluid, and whose shifting frameworks were open to ambiguity and misinterpretation.

As a consequence, the League Council understood the term “analogous” quite differently from de Broukère. In its thinking, the analogy between refugee groups lay not in their recognisable common characteristics but in the aims of the international measures of assistance. The Council therefore emphasised the broader objectives of the League’s refugee work, stating that the question for it to consider was whether there was a need “to give protection to, to provide employment for, and to afford relief to” any new refugee groups. For the Council, the existence of such a need was the point of commonality between the refugee groups included in the international Arrangements and these other groups. It was not the lack of diplomatic protection that distinguished refugees, but the conditions they endured after their alienation from their countries of origin.

Nansen himself observed that the Council’s resolution altered the Assembly’s original intentions. Consistent to all the refugee groups named above, Nansen noted, was their dispersal outside their countries of origin, their inability to settle elsewhere, and their lack of definite legal status. These factors were all consistent with the definition of the Russian and Armenian refugees adopted in the 1926 Arrangement. Nansen concluded that this Arrangement “would appear to leave little doubt as to the categories of persons entitled to take advantage of the resolution of the Assembly and Council”: those who no longer enjoyed the protection of the governments of their national homelands.[36]

The question of the extension of international assistance had implications beyond the manner in which the refugee groups were categorised and their need for assistance was recognised. The submission of the FLDH that assistance be extended to refugees “in general” in Central and Eastern Europe implied the indefinite extension of international refugee assistance, the framing of an abstract definition of the refugee rather than the enumeration of national groups, and the establishment of a permanent international refugee organisation financed by the League’s member states. For the FLDH, such innovations were fundamental to European traditions, as it was the duty of each state not only to recognise the right of asylum, but also to create a juridically stable legal status for refugees and equitable conditions for all political emigrants whose national governments had deprived them of their liberties.[37] Yet Nansen was highly conscious of the limitations that the League had placed on its refugee work. He recalled the narrow role it had assumed when it took responsibility for Russian refugees in 1921, deciding then that a general recognition of refugees would have unexpected and long term consequences. “All the other classes of refugees”, Nansen recalled the decision of the time to refuse this general recognition, “who hitherto have had no means of subsistence, and are unable in their present position to obtain any, will come within the sphere of activity of the permanent organisation on the League of Nations”.[38]

Neither the Assembly nor the Council were prepared to enter into debate on this broad, abstract proposal of the FLDH, preferring instead to deal with the refugee question on purely empirical grounds and to confine it to specific narrow issues. The Council supported the Assembly’s resolution to extend refugee assistance; yet the stipulation that any extension of measures be to groups of refugees living under conditions analogous to the Russian and Armenian refugees rejected the principle that refugees were identified as those who were without diplomatic protection and who had an undetermined legal status. It affirmed instead the refugees’ inability to move to establish themselves in third countries. Indeed, the Council rejected out of hand the proposition that the lack of protection of a national government was of itself sufficient to classify a person as a refugee, “for on that theory, all classes of persons without nationality and persons of doubtful nationality would have to be included”. [39] The fear was that if this were accepted the League’s refugee work would expand without limits and have no definite and attainable objective.[40]The Council went one step further in limiting the applicability of its measures for the international assistance of refugees. It stipulated that refugees who were to benefit from international assistance should require it “as a consequence of the war and of events directly connected with the war, and [be] living under analogous conditions” to the Russian and Armenian refugees.[41]

Of the various refugee groups identified by Nansen, the Council agreed that Assyrians, Assyro-Chaldeans, Montenegrins and Turks, “are actually refugees, and … come within the class of refugees who are in a condition analogous to that of Russian and Armenian refugees”. [42] They were considered to be living in analogous conditions as a consequence of the war because they had been alienated from their countries of origin by events set in sway by the war, and because their lack of definite legal status made it impossible for them to establish themselves in other countries. The Council decided that there was insufficient information for it to reach the conclusion that these circumstances also applied to the other identified groups and therefore set aside the question of their need for international protection.[43]


The classification of the Russian and Armenian national groups for the purposes of the 1926 Arrangement was straight forward, as the definitions contained in this Arrangement applied to groups already clearly defined in public consciousness and in political discussion. It became evident, however, when the League’s attention turned to extending these same measures to other refugee groups, that the classification of identified national groups was anad hoc expression of a predetermined conception of which refugees warranted international assistance and protection. [44] No clear juridical categorisation consistent to all groups was possible because of the unique characteristics of each. Accordingly refugee definitions took different forms as they encompassed these predetermined conceptions.

This was brought into question at the intergovernmental conference on the legal status of refugees in June 1928, which sought to draw up an arrangement to extend the measures for refugee assistance to the Assyrians, Assyro-Chaldeans, Montenegrins and Turks, a complex mix of various national groups for whom no single national classification could be made. While it was acknowledged that the Russian refugees included non-Russian nationalities-Ukrainians and Tartars, for example-the collective designation of Russian refugees was applied to all minority nationalities of the former Russian Empire since it was considered that the only sure basis for the formulation of a sound definition was the refugees’ original juridical nationality.[45] In the case of the Armenians, however, this approach was highly dubious, since under the Treaty of Sèvres they were considered to be both a distinct nationality without a state and an unprotected national minority in the Turkish Republic. The 1926 Arrangement addressed this special character with the term “subjects of the Ottoman Empire” to describe their former national origins.

The question of definition was further complicated by the confusion of race, nationality, and unformulated borders, which all acted against making a clear and unambiguous categorisation of these newly recognised refugee groups. One delegate found that formulating a definition was so difficult that it would have been better to limit the scope of international assistance to any new refugees than risk undermining the benefits the Russian and Armenian refugees already enjoyed.[46] The Assyrian and Assyro-Chaldean refugees were identified by their Christian backgrounds, their former wartime support of the allies against Ottoman Turkey, as well as by their lack of diplomatic protection from the Turkish Republican Government. Yet they were distinct peoples from different geographical regions. Other ethnic minorities-Syrians and Kurds most notably-could also be discerned among them. Too narrow a classification of national groups at this stage, it was feared, would deny assistance to these sub-groups whose claims to international protection were as valid as the larger groups among whom they were classified.[47] The outcome was a composite categorisation that stressed the consistent feature of the Assyrians, Assyro-Chaldeans, and the ethnic subgroups within these groups. Like the Armenians, they were all former subjects of Ottoman Turkey who were denied the diplomatic protection of the Turkish Republican Government. The Syrian and Kurdish minorities were incorporated into these groups as “assimilated” refugees, classifying them as Assyrian and Assyro-Chaldean in the same way that Ukrainians were considered, juridically speaking, to be Russians [Annex 3].


While humanitarian concerns for the welfare of refugees justify special arrangements for their protection and assistance, political factors determine the nature of this protection and assistance. Even today, the protection and assistance needs of refugees are brought into question by distinctions made between “true” and “false” refugees, or in other words between those who are deemed to merit protection and those who do not, and states seek to limit their responsibilities even when they are prescribed in international treaties. National self-interest would seem to dominate the humanitarian interests of refugees, as Hannah Arendt claimed was the case in the interwar years. But does Arendt’s claim help to explain why the League Council would not countenance a broad extension of refugee assistance? Countries certainly used the League’s Arrangements to help refugees depart; in turn other countries refused their entry. But national self-interest was not the only reason why the League could not resolve this impasse. The League, it must be remembered, did not have responsibility for refugees mandated to it in its covenant, but had adopted this work with a view of alleviating a pressing international situation. Its response to demands by new refugee groups was consistent with this temporary responsibility. The resolution that only those who were refugees “as a consequence of the war and of events directly connected with the war” would benefit from international assistance not only set temporal limits, it also effectively constrained refugee assistance to allies of the victorious powers. By limiting recognition to those who became refugees as a consequence of the war, contemporary political controversies were avoided. Was not Romania’s refusal to extend citizenship to Jews inhabiting its acquired territories a consequence of the war? The general use of the term “refugees” to describe certain national or minority groups was a potential source of embarrassment to the League because they were the product of the policies of member states. [48]

But then, why did the League not change its position when it was apparent that the refugee problem was much more profound than envisaged in 1921? Quite simply, too many influential figures chose to set the limits of the League of Nations’ refugee work as narrowly as possible. When the Council had adopted measures for the assistance of the Assyrian and Assyro-Chaldean refugees, British Foreign Minister Sir Austin Chamberlain expressed his hope that it would not be necessary to make any further extensions to other categories of refugees and that it might be possible to bring to a close the League’s refugee services, which “had unfortunately lasted already longer than had been originally anticipated”.[49]

Constraints on the League’s refugee work contained costs, restricted the size of the bureaucracy responsible for refugees, and limited the responsibilities of national governments. General assistance to all unprotected refugees would have become a responsibility far greater than resources would have allowed and would have committed national governments to assist unlimited numbers of refugees, as yet of unknown origins. The limitation of its responsibilities was also consistent with the League’s assertion that a definite settlement of the refugee problem was possible. Criticisms, such as Claudena Skran’s, of the League’s failure to affect a lasting solution to the refugee problem are certainly borne out. But this misinterprets the nature of the work the League had assumed for itself. The importance of the refugee question in interwar Europe is its revealing insights into the very weaknesses of the international system established to preserve the peace. The League of Nations failed to perceive the true extent of the problem of refugees and unprotected minorities as well as the consequences of the breakdown of the political and social structures of the nation-state that normally protected individual rights.

Annex 1

Arrangement relating to the Issue of Identity Certificates to Russian and Armenian Refugees, 5 July 1926.*

(2) The Conference adopts the following definitions of the term “refugee”:

Russians : Any person of Russian origin who does not enjoy or who no longer enjoys the protection of the Government of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics and who has not acquired another nationality.

Armenians: Any person of Armenian origin formerly a subject of the Ottoman Empire who does not enjoy or who no longer enjoys the protection of the Government of the Turkish Republic and who has not acquired another nationality.

(No. 2004, League of Nations Treaty Series, Vol. 89, 1929.)

* This Arrangement combined the previous Arrangements, for Russian refugees in 1922, and for Armenian refugees in 1924. The definitions here were unchanged from these earlier Arrangements. Back

Annex 2

Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 28 July 1951.

Article 1

Definition of the term “Refugee”

A. For the purposes of the present Convention, the term “refugee” shall apply to any person who:

(1) Has been considered a refugee under the Arrangements of 12 May 1926 and 30 June 1928 or under the Conventions of 28 October 1933 and 10 February 1938, the Protocol of 14 September 1939 or the Constitution of the International Refugee Organization. Decisions of non-eligibility taken by the International Refugee Organization during the period of its activities shall not prevent the status of refugee being accorded to persons who fulfil the conditions of paragraph 2 of this section.

(2) As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. Back

Annex 3

Arrangement Concerning the Extension to other Categories of Refugees of Certain Measures Taken in Favour of Russian and Armenian Refugees, 30 June 1928.

(1) The measures taken on behalf of the Russian and Armenian refugees in virtue of the Arrangements of July 5, 1922, May 31, 1924, and May 12, 1926, shall be extended to Turkish, Assyrian, Assyro-Chaldaean and assimilated refugees;

(2) For the purpose of defining these refugees, the Conference adopts the following definitions:

Assyrian, Assyro-Chaldean and assimilated refugees.
Any person of Assyrian or Assyro-Chaldaean origin, and also by assimilation any person of Syrian or Kurdish origin, who does not enjoy or who no longer enjoys the protection of the State to which he previously belonged and who has not acquired or does not possess another nationality;

Turkish refugee.
Any person of Turkish origin, previous a subject of the Ottoman Empire, who under the terms of the Protocol of Lausanne of July 24, 1923, does not enjoy or no longer enjoys the protection of the Turkish Republic and who has not acquired another nationality.

(No. 2006, League of Nations Treaty Series, Vol. 89, 1929)Back

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[1] Member states responses to the question of the League’s assuming responsibility for refugees were published in the League of Nations Official Journal (hereafter LNOJ), July-August 1921, Annex 6. Back

[2] Michael Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century , Oxford University Press, New York, 1985, p.51. Back

[3] C. A. Macartney, Refugees: The Work of the League, The League of Nations Union, London, 1930, pp.8-11. Back

[4] C. A. Macartney, Refugees: The Work of the League , pp.8-9. Back

[5] Sir John Hope Simpson, The Refugee Question: Report of a Survey, Oxford University Press, London, 1939, provides a comprehensive summary and analysis of the main refugee movements, their causes, their dispersal, and national responses. Back

[6] Christopher J. Walker, “Armenian Refugees: Accidents of Diplomacy or Victims of Ideology?”, in Anna C. Bramwell (ed.),Refugees in the Age of Total War, Unwin Hyman, London, 1988, pp.47-53 describes the Armenian migrations from 1915. Back

[7] “The first refugee definitions were formulated in response to the international legal dilemma caused by the denial of state protection”. James Hathaway, The Law of Refugee Status, Butterworths,Toronto, 1991, p.3. Also S. Prakash Sinha, Asylum and International Law, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague,1971, p. 96; Atle Grahl-Madsen, The Status of Refugees In International Law, Vol 1,Refugee Character, A. W. Sijthoff, Leyden, pp.95ff; and Guy S. Goodwin Gill, The Refugee in International Law, 2nd Edition, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996, p. 4 and pp.207f. Back

[8] James Hathaway, The Law of Refugee Status, Butterworths, Toronto, 1991; Guy S. Goodwin-Gill, The Refugee In International Law, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1983; Atle Grahl-Madsen, The Status Of Refugees In International Law, A. W. Sijthoff, Leyden, Vol.1, 1966, Vol.2, 1972. Also S. Prakash Sinha, Asylum and International Law, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1971; Louise W. Holborn, Refugees, A Problem of Our Time: The Work of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 1951-1972, Vol.1 The Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, 1975; and Frédéric Tiberghien, La Protection des réfugiés en France, 2e Édition, Economica, Paris, 1988. Back

[9]James Hathaway, The Law of Refugee Status, p.2. Frédéric Tiberghien, La Protection des réfugiés , pp.49-57, lists 10 separate international instruments pertaining to the international protection of refugees between 1922 and 1952.Back

[10] Claudena Skran, Refugees in Interwar Europe: The Emergence of a Regime, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995, pp.110-1.Back

[11] Claudena Skran, Refugees in Interwar Europe, pp.110-1. Back

[12] Tommie Sjöberg, The Powers and the Persecuted: The Refugee Problem and the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (IGCR), 1938-1947, Lund University Press, Lund, 1991, pp.37-8. Back

[13] Claudena Skran, Refugees In Interwar Europe, p.111. Back

[14] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 1973, p.284.Back

[15] On the question of minorities and the League of Nations, see C. A. Macartney, National States and National Minorities, Oxford University Press, 1934; and André Mandelstam, “La protection des minorités”, Recueil des cours de l ‘Académie de Droit International, Vol.1, 1923, , A. W. Sijtohoff, Leyde, 1962, pp.365-519 Back .

[16] Sir John Hope Simpson, The Refugee Question, p.82. Simpson’s own calculation of numbers shows that both figures were highly overstated, putting the total himself between 653,600 and 755,200. Back

[17] C. A. Macartney, Refugees: The Work of the League, The League of Nations Union, London, 1930, pp.13-3. In November 1920, Constantinople accommodated 170,000 Russian, 75,000 Turkish and 155,000 Greek and Armenian refugees. League of Nations Document (hereafter LND) A.30.1923.XIII, 4 September 1923, p.1. Back

[18] LND, C.M.21/41/32, Annex 168, p.118, Memorandum from Gustav Ador, 20 February 1921. Back

[19] LND, C.M.21/41/32, p.118. Back

[20] LND, A.30.1923.XIII, 4 September 1923, pp.14-7. Elena Chinyaeva, “Russian Émigrés: Czechoslovak Refugee Policy and the Development of the International Refugee Regime Between the Two World Wars”,Journal of Refugee Studies , Vol. 8, No. 2, 1995, p.147. Back

[21] Simpson, The Refugee Problem, Appendix IV, p.558. Back

[22] LND A.41.1925.XIII, 10 September 1925, Annex II, p.7. Back

[23] LND A.41.1925.XIII, 10 September 1925, Annex II, p.35. Back

[24] LNOJ , July-August 1921, pp.485-6.Back

[25] André N. Mandelstam, “La Protection internationale des droits de l‘homme”, Recueil des Cours de l‘Académie de Droit International, Vol. 38, A. W. Sijthoff, Leyde, 1931, pp.161-2.Back

[26] League of Nations Official Journal, Special Supplement (hereafter LNOJSS), 49, 1926, Plenary Meeting, 25 September 1926, Item 74, p.138. Back

[27] LNOJ , February 1927, Minute 1852, p.155. Back

[28] LNOJ , February 1927, Minute 1852, p.155. Back

[29] LND, C.558(b).M.200(b).1927.VIII, 22 November 1927, Annex 2, p.44; Marc Vichniac, “Le statut international des apatrides”, Recueil des cours de l‘Académie de Droit International, Paris: Sirey, Vol 43, No. 1, 1933, pp.203-4, note.Back

[30] The following categories and descriptions are taken from LND, A.48.1927.VIII (XIII), 5 September 1927, Annex V.Back

[31] LND, A.48.1927.VIII (XIII), 5 September 1927, Annex V. The FILDH, however, did not name these other refugees or provide details of the general conditions that they faced. Back

[32] Marc Vichniac, “Le statut international des apatrides”, p.204, note. Back

[33] LND, C.716.1926.XIII, 9 December 1926.Back

[34] LNOJSS, 49, 1926, Fifth Committee, 22 September 1926, Item 26, p.35. Back

[35] LNOJSS, 49, 1926, Fifth Committee, 24 September 1926, Item 38, pp.41-2. Back

[36] LND, A.48.1927.XIII, p.7. Back

[37]Marc Vichniac, “Le statut international des apatrides”, p.204, note. Back

[38] LND, A.48.1927.XIII, p.7. Nansen quoted directly from the report by French Foreign Minister Hanotaux dated 27 June 1921 in which the possible outcomes of a permanent refugee organisation were considered, LNOJ , September 1921, p.757. Back

[39] LND, C.485.1927.XIII, 14 September 1927.Back

[40] The question of statelessness was also an important, related, issue facing the League of Nations in 1927, but one kept distinct from the refugee problem. The Third General Conference on Communications and Transit held in 1927, for example, considered the adoption of a general travel document for those without national passports, but drew clear distinctions between this proposed document and the certificates of identity for refugees. LND, C.558(b).M.200(b).1927.VIII, 2 November 1927.Back

[41] LNOJ, February 1927, Minute 1852, p.155. Back

[42] LNOJ , October 1927, Minute 2014, p.1138. No further mention was made of the Montenegrin refugees Back.

[43] LND, C.280.1928.VIII(XIII), 5 June 1928;LNOJ, July 1928, Annex 1036, p.1001. Back

[44] As argued by Caludena Skran, Refugees In Interwar Europe, p.111. Back

[45] LND, 1930.XIII.L Documents Préparatoires et procès-verbaux de la conférence intergouvernementale pour le statut juridique des réfugiés, 28-30 Juin 1928 – Arrangement et Accord du 30 Juin 1928, p.154. Back

[46] LND, 1930.XIII.L, p.154. Back

[47] LND, 1930.XIII.L, pp.154-5. Back

[48] J. G. Stoessinger, The Refugee and the World Community, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1956, p.32.Back

[49] LNOJ , July 1928, Minute 2193, p.898. Back

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