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Putting Refugees in Their Place

Peter Gatrell
Published Online: 2013-04-18 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ngs-2013-001


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.

Keywords: refugees; United Nations; resettlement


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About the article

Published Online: 2013-04-18

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.

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.

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.

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).

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).

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

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.

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.

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).

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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].

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

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

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).

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

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

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

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).

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

Citation Information: New Global Studies, ISSN (Online) 1940-0004, ISSN (Print) 2194-6566, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ngs-2013-001.

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©2013 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin / Boston. Copyright Clearance Center

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