Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter April 18, 2013

Putting Refugees in Their Place

  • Peter Gatrell EMAIL logo
From the journal New Global Studies


Attempts by the new United Nations and member states to address post-1945 population displacement culminated in the 1951 Refugee Convention that made explicit reference to events in Europe, overlooking major crises in other parts of the world whose contours and outcomes are discussed. The article discusses debates within the UN and among international lawyers and non-governmental organisations about the right of refugees to seek protection from persecution, and how broader notions of rights foundered on the rock of state sovereignty. These historical examples indicate that choices were made and actions were circumscribed in relation to population displacement.


Amrith, Sunil. 2011“Reconstructing the ‘Plural Society’: Asian Migration between Empire and Nation, 1940–1948.”Past and Present Supplement 6:23757.Search in Google Scholar

Bayly, Christopher, and TimHarper. 2005Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan.Harmondsworth: Penguin.Search in Google Scholar

Bem, Kazimierz. 2004“The Coming of a ‘Blank Cheque’: Europe, the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol.”International Journal of Refugee Law16(4)>:60927.Search in Google Scholar

Boltanski, Luc. 1999Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9780511489402Search in Google Scholar

Borgwardt, Elizabeth. 2005A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Chatterji, Joya. 2001“Right or Charity? The Debate Over Relief and Rehabilitation in West Bengal, 1947–1950.” In The Partitions of Memory, edited by SuvirKaul, 74–110. Delhi: Permanent Black.Search in Google Scholar

Chatterji, Joya. 2007“‘Dispersal’ and the Failure of Rehabilitation: Refugee Camp-Dwellers and Squatters in West Bengal.”Modern Asian Studies41(5)>:9951032.10.1017/S0026749X07002831Search in Google Scholar

Cohen, G. Daniel. 2011In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Post-War Order.New York: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Daniel, E. Valentine. 2002“The Refugee: A Discourse on Displacement.” In Exotic No More: Anthropology on the Front Lines, edited by JeremyMacClancy, 270–86. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Search in Google Scholar

Fassin, Didier. 2012Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present.Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.10.1525/9780520950481Search in Google Scholar

Search in Google Scholar

Gaines, David P.1966The World Council of Churches: A Study of Its Background and History. Peterborough, NH: Richard R. Smith Co.Search in Google Scholar

Garcia-Mora, Manuel. 1956International Law and Asylum as a Human Right. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press.Search in Google Scholar

Gatrell, Peter. 2011Free World? The Campaign to Save the World’s Refugees, 1956–1963. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Glynn, Irial. 2012“The genesis and development of Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention.”Journal of Refugee Studies25(1)>:13448.10.1093/jrs/fer054Search in Google Scholar

Goodwin-Gill, Guy. 2001“Asylum 2001: A Convention and a Purpose.”International Journal of Refugee Law13 (1–2):115.10.1093/ijrl/13.1_and_2.1Search in Google Scholar

Grillo, Ralph. 2005“‘Saltdean can’t Cope’: Protests Against Asylum-Seekers in an English Seaside Suburb.”Ethnic and Racial Studies28(2)>:23560.10.1080/01419870420000315834Search in Google Scholar

Haddad, Emma. 2008The Refugee in International Society: Between Sovereigns.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Harding, Jeremy. 2012“Europe at Bay.”London Review of Books34(3)>:311.Search in Google Scholar

Harrell-Bond, Barbara. 2002“Can Humanitarian Work with Refugees be Humane?”Human Rights Quarterly24(2)>:5185.10.1353/hrq.2002.0011Search in Google Scholar

Helton, Arthur, Arthur C.Helton, OscarSchachter, LouisHenkin, and Anne F.Bayefsky. 2000“Protecting the World’s Exiles: The Human Rights of Non-Citizens.”Human Rights Quarterly22(1)>:28097.10.1353/hrq.2000.0009Search in Google Scholar

Hoehler, Fred K.1946Europe’s Homeless Millions.New York: Foreign Policy Association.Search in Google Scholar

Holborn, Louise W.1956The International Refugee Organization: A Specialized Agency of the United Nations, Its History and Work, 1946–1952. New York: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Holborn, Louise (1975), Refugees: a Problem of Our Time. The Work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1951–1972, Metuchen: Scarecrow Press.Search in Google Scholar

Kévonian, Dzovinar. 2003Réfugiés et diplomatie humanitaire: les acteurs européens et la scène proche-orientale pendant l’entre-deux-guerres.Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne.10.4000/books.psorbonne.46121Search in Google Scholar

Kushner, Tony. 2006Remembering Refugees: Then and Now.Manchester: Manchester University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Lauterpacht, Hersch. 1950International Law and Human Rights.London: Stevens.Search in Google Scholar

Loescher, Gil. 2001The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path.Oxford: Oxford University Press.10.1093/0199246912.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Loizos, Peter. 2002“Misconceiving Refugees?” In Therapeutic Care for Refugees: No Place Like Home, edited by RenosPapadopoulos, 41–56. London: Karnac Books.10.4324/9780429483875-3Search in Google Scholar

Maritain, Jacques. 1949Human Rights: A Symposium.London: Allan Wingate.Search in Google Scholar

Mark, Chi-Kwan. 2007“The ‘Problem of People’: British colonials, Cold War Powers and the Chinese Refugees in Hong Kong, 1949–1962.”Modern Asian Studies41(6)>:114581.Search in Google Scholar

McNeill, Margaret. 1950By the Rivers of Babylon: A Story of Relief Work Among the Displaced Persons of Europe.London: Bannisdale Press.Search in Google Scholar

Moyn, Samuel. 2010The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Pickett, Clarence. 1953For More than Bread: An Autobiographical Account of Twenty-Two Years’ Work with the American Friends Service Committee.New York: AFSC.Search in Google Scholar

Pupavac, Vanessa. 2006Refugees in the “Sick Role”: Stereotyping Refugees and Eroding Refugee Rights. New Issues in Refugee Research, no. 128, Geneva: UNHCR.Search in Google Scholar

Rahman, N. Mahbubar, and Willemvan Schendel. 2003“‘I am Not a Refugee’: Rethinking Partition History.”Modern Asian Studies37(3)>:55184.10.1017/S0026749X03003020Search in Google Scholar

Rao, U. Bhaskar. 1967The Story of Rehabilitation.Delhi: Department of Rehabilitation.Search in Google Scholar

Read, James M. 1951, revised 1953Magna Carta for Refugees.New York: UN Department of Public Information.Search in Google Scholar

Reinisch, Jessica. 2008“‘We Shall Rebuild Anew a Powerful Nation’: UNRRA, Internationalism and National Reconstruction in Poland.”Journal of Contemporary History43(3)>:45176.Search in Google Scholar

Reinisch, Jessica. 2011“Internationalism in Relief: The Birth (and Death) of UNRRA.”Past and Present Supplement 6:25889.10.1093/pastj/gtq050Search in Google Scholar

Ruthström-Ruin, Cecilia. 1993Beyond Europe: The Globalization of Refugee Aid.Lund: Lund University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Salvatici, Silvia. 2011“From Displaced Persons to Labourers: Allied Employment Policies in Post-War West Germany.” In The Disentanglement of Populations: Migration, Expulsion and Displacement in Postwar Europe, 1944–49, edited by JessicaReinisch and ElizabethWhite, 210–28. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.10.1057/9780230297685_10Search in Google Scholar

Sen, Sarbani. 2003“Paradoxes of the International Regime of Care: The Role of the UNHCR in India.” In Refugees and the State: Practices of Asylum and Care in India, 1947–2000, edited by RanabirSamaddar, 396–442. New Delhi: Sage.Search in Google Scholar

Shacknove, Andrew. 1985“Who is a Refugee?”Ethics95:27484.10.1086/292626Search in Google Scholar

Skran, Claudena. 1995Refugees in Inter-War Europe: the Emergence of a Regime.Oxford: Clarendon Press.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198273929.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Talbot, Ian, and Gurharpal, Singh. 2009The Partition of India.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

UNRWA. 1951From Camps to Homes: Progress and Aims of UNRWA in the Middle East.Beirut: UNRWA.Search in Google Scholar

Vernant, Jacques. 1953The Refugee in the Post-War World.London: Allen and Unwin.Search in Google Scholar

Virdee, Pippa. 2011 “‘No Home But in Memory’: The Legacies of Colonial Rule in the Punjab.” In Refugees and the End of Empire: Imperial Collapse and Forced Migration in the Twentieth Century, edited by PanikosPanayi and PippaVirdee, 175–95. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.10.1057/9780230305700_8Search in Google Scholar

Weis, Paul. 1947New Homes for Displaced Persons: Britain’s Share in the International Refugee Organisation. Central Office of Information, S.6624, ECO 371, copy in Weis Papers, Social Sciences Library, University of Oxford.Search in Google Scholar

Weis, Paul. 1954“The International Protection of Refugees.”The American Journal of International Law48(2)>:193221.10.2307/2194371Search in Google Scholar

Weis, Paul. 1972“Human Rights and Refugees.”International Migration10 (1–2):2037.10.1111/j.1468-2435.1972.tb00884.xSearch in Google Scholar

Wildenthal, Lora. 2008“Human Rights Activism in Occupied and Early West Germany: The Case of the German League for Human Rights.”Journal of Modern History80(3)>:51556.10.1086/589590Search in Google Scholar

Zamindar, Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali. 2007The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, and Histories.New York: Columbia University Press.Search in Google Scholar

  1. An earlier version of this article was presented at the conference “Law and Human Rights and Global History,” held at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, in March 2012.

  2. 1

    I use “refugee regime” in broad terms to encompass legal provisions, government policies, relief work by NGOs in refugee camps, etc., including the representations (in all senses) made by and on behalf of refugees.

  3. 2

    A. Loveday, Director, Economic, Financial and Transit Department to H.F. Schoenfeld, State Dept, 17 July 1945, Fonds Nansen, Geneva, Box C1771, doc. 1771–1.

  4. 3

    This summary does not do justice to complex issues of class and gender, as well as the differential pattern of population displacement in Bengal, where migration was a much more protracted process than in Punjab (Talbot and Singh 2009).

  5. 4

    Separate provision was made for those – primarily Tibetan refugees and refugees from Sri Lanka – whom the Indian government recognised as prima facie refugees, rather than as “foreign nationals temporarily residing in India” (Sen 2003, 412).

  6. 5

    See ongoing work by Ilana Feldman on the issue of “eligibility.”

  7. 6

    Phillips Talbot, Assistant Secretary of State, to Senator Stuart Symington, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 13 September 1961, NARA, RG 59, Department of State Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, Office of the Country Director for Israel and Arab Affairs, Records relating to Refugee Matters, 1957–1966, Box 1, folder UNRWA 1961, Letters to Congress.

  8. 7

    UNHCR Records and Archives, Records of the Central Registry 1951–1970, Fonds 11 Series 1, 15/2/1. A preliminary version stated that, “It is the firm opinion of the Mission that it is an untenable position not to extend help to hundreds of thousands of intelligent, active people living in misery on account of their political opinions.” Hambro referred to the basic principle of the UN to promote “universal respect for and observance of human rights … It would seem quite clear that no organisation based on such ideals can ignore the fate of the Chinese refugees living at present in the congested territory of Hong Kong.” This was music to the ears of the Nationalists in Taiwan.

  9. 8

    India’s stance is puzzling. India’s delegation feared that a “broad definition would make a satisfactory solution of certain problems connected with refugees less probable.” France initially supported the broad definition but then came round to the American view, partly because it feared an influx of refugees and expellees from Germany (Loescher 2001, 49; Bem 2004, 614).

  10. 9

    Article 33 stipulates that “1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. 2. The benefit of the present provision may not, however, be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.”

  11. 10

    UNHCR Records and Archives, Records of the Central Registry, 1951–1970 Fonds 11, 4/0 Voluntary agencies – general, 1950–1952. Cohn’s memo is dated 29 May 1951. The UNHCR statute was agreed before the Convention was signed, and it made no explicit reference to chronological restriction.

  12. 11

    Colin Bell, “Toward human rights for refugees,” AFSC Bulletin, December 1951, copy in AFSC Archives, Philadelphia, Foreign Service 1951 – Displaced Persons Services – commissions and organisations.

  13. 12

    H.C. Kapur to Gilbert Jaeger, Interoffice memo, 5 May 1961, Fonds UNHCR 11, Records of the Central Registry, Series 1, Classified Subject Files, 1951–1970, 15/71 Korean refugees, 1958–1963.

  14. 13

    Memorandum on the “Eligibility under the [1951] Convention of refugees who left Hungary because of the events of 1956,” 2 September 1959; P. Weis to M. Pagès, 9 January 1957, Fonds UNHCR 11, Sub-fonds 1, file 6/1/1 HUN – Protection – General – Hungarian refugees.

  15. 14

    Algeria, a Cry of Need: a Study Devoted to the Problems of Algerian Refugees Published in Recognition of WRY (Brussels, World Assembly of Youth, 1960).

  16. 15

    James Price to Auguste Lindt, 6 April 1960, Fonds UNHCR 11 Records of the Central Registry 1951–1970, Series 1 Classified Subject Files, 15/64–15/74 (Box 271), “Moslem refugees” [sic].

  17. 16

    Mustafa Amier, JAI International, to ICWRY executive and delegates, Geneva, 4 November 1960, as above.

  18. 17

    Fonds UNHCR 11 Records of the Central Registry 1951–1970, Series 1, 1/1/71 “Good offices policy,” 1967–1970.

  19. 18

    Manuel Garcia-Mora wrote that “any system designed to protect human rights on the international plan will be significantly incomplete unless the right of a person to seek and to be granted asylum is equally guaranteed” (Garcia-Mora 1956). Note also the assessment made by the former High Commissioner for Refugees from Germany, James G. McDonald: “governments, when dealing with refugees, have almost invariably taken the short view of national interest and have ignored or played down the interests of mankind … The record [of inaction] tells its own bitter story and underlines its own timely and imperative moral. The work of the UNRRA has been made incomparably more difficult by this attitude of statesmen and governments” (foreword to Hoehler 1946, 5–6).

  20. 19

    J.R. Ross, Home Office, 29 September 1959, Christian Aid Archives, SOAS, University of London.

  21. 20

    Resolution passed by LWF Assembly, Hannover, July 1952, in LWF Archives, Geneva, Box 36, Newspaper clippings, Folder labelled “Refugees, General, 1948–1957.”

  22. 21

    There is a large literature on the expellees in the FRG. Wildenthal (2008) explores contemporary debates in Germany around their rights.

  23. 22

    Speech to the Standing Conference of Volags working for refugees, 5 November 1953, ACUA Archives, Collection Series 3, Box 170, NCWC/USCC Office of the General Secretary (OGS)/Executive Department, Office of UN Affairs, Folder 39 (Refugees: Memos 1949–1960).

  24. 23

    As above, Box 176, Folder 24 (International Catholic Migration Commission 1951–1969).

  25. 24

    Papal Encyclical (“Ad Petri Cathedram: On Truth, Unity and Peace,” 29 June 1959), Archives of UNOG, Geneva, 55/0088 File 063, Newspaper reports, Holy See; also Pius XII and International Migration, Pamphlet no. 46, Committee on Social Questions of the Catholic Association for International Peace, 1959.

  26. 25

    Elfan Rees, “The Refugee Problem Today,” statement to the WCC Assembly, Amsterdam, August 1948. He added that any failure to act on behalf of the expellees risked political instability.

  27. 26

    Pickett was referring to work done by Read and Colin Bell, director of Friends International Centre in Geneva (both representing Friends World Committee for Consultation), in writing into Convention the article on the right to religious freedom.

  28. 27

    Correspondence in Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Files of the President’s Committee for Hungarian Relief, 1957, Miscellaneous Material, Box 8, Folders 1–3.

  29. 28

    Compare Hannah Arendt’s observation: “the more they were excluded from rights in any form, the more they tended to look for a reintegration into a national, their own national community” (cited in Cohen 2011, 85, my emphasis).

Published Online: 2013-04-18

©2013 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin / Boston

Downloaded on 3.6.2023 from
Scroll to top button