Refugee History in 20th Century Europe: A Brief Primer

A lot of smart people are discussing the current refugee crisis stemming from the Syrian Civil War.  Much of this commentary is critical of European states and asserts that Europe should look to a kinder gentler past when refugees were treated with dignity.  One of these commentators is Emily Bazelon of the New York Times. She is a extremely intelligent women, and I find her discussions on Slate’s Political Gabfest to be insightful, especially when clarifying legal issues in the United States Supreme Court.  There are few who can break down such complicated legal arguments and present them to the to the informed layperson.  Nevertheless, I find her recent attempt to delve into the refugee crisis in the New York Times Magazine an oversimplification of history.

Bazelon makes the case that during the 1920s  and after the Second World War the world was much more receptive to refugees.  In the 1920s, she emphasizes the care given to refugees of the Russian Civil War and other unstable regions who were issued Nansen Passports by the League of Nations.  She asserts that those who received these passports were quickly resettled in other countries belonging to the League of Nations (and therefore not the USA).  However, this is a major misinterpretation.  As Jay Milbrandt makes clear in his article Statelessthe Nansen Passports were not identical documents and issued haphazardly, leading some countries to rejected them.  Moreover, the passports had to be renewed every two years or they became invalidated.  As time went on, many states stopped validating the passports and started questioning the motives of those holding them.  In fact, Milbrandt suggests that those designated stateless faced a significant burden:

Although these documents [Nansen Passports] served to facilitate cross-border travel for many refugees, it provided no guarantees of protection from the state in which these individuals settled. In effect, although these individuals were granted increased freedom of movement through the Nansen Passport, they did not assure the protection enjoyed by citizens or nationals of the state in which they settled, such as personal welfare, access to employment, protection against expulsion, and other protections and liberties traditionally preserved through the state.

Therefore, simply because these refugees were permitted to flee their home countries did not mean that they were treated with dignity or accepted.

Next, Bazelon discusses the situation after the Second World War.  She seems to posit that was a period when refugees were gladly accepted by the nation’s of the world, especially the victims of the Holocaust.  However, this is flat out wrong.  In fact, in the case of the United States, the Congress only grudgingly passed legislation to aide postwar refugees.

In 1946, as camps in Germany began to swell, some European countries and the United States did began accepting refugees, but not enough to alleviate the problem. President Harry Truman’s special directive in December 1945 giving Displaced Persons (DPs) the first positions on the annual immigration quotas failed to alleviate the problem; moreover, the quota for Eastern Europe was only 13,000, leaving millions in camps. The situation was further aggravated in 1946 when thousands of Jews fled postwar Poland, following continued discrimination and pogroms.[1]  Unwilling to return home, the DPs presented a significant problem for the occupation forces that demanded a solution.  The result was the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 (DPA) which allowed 200,000 DPs to enter the United States; however, the legislation that emerged from the Congress specified quotas for each nationality, including the Jews.[2]  The DPA’s inherent problems were evident in Truman’s statement that the “bill was flagrantly discriminatory,” “mocks the American tradition of fair play,” and “discriminates in a callous fashion against displaced persons of the Jewish faith.”[3]  But, the bill passed on the last day of the 80th session. Truman only signed it because refusal meant, in his words, “there would be no legislation on behalf of displaced persons.”[4]

Passed in 1948, the DPA lasted for two years and allowed 200,000 DPs into the USA, and was restricted to only 10,000 Jews.  Further, in crafting this bill, the Congress called for strict investigations into refugees backgrounds.  The first step involved certification by the International Refugee Organization (IRO), a United Nations agency created in 1946, which screened refugees.  However, a former IRO official before the Congress described the IRO process as fraudulent stating that employees refused to check documents and were more interested in filling quotas then inspecting an individual’s background.[5]  The second step in the screening process called for an investigation of each individual by the Displaced Persons Committee (DPC), but the DPC delegated its responsibility to the U.S. Army which conducted neighborhood spot checks and examined German military records, UN camp records, and records in the Berlin Document Center.[6]  Eventually the DPA was renewed in 1950 and expired in 1952; however, with thousands of DPs still in camps, the 83rd Congress approved the Refugee Relief Act in 1953 allowing 200,000 more European DPs into the country.  Together, these two pieces of legislation permitted nearly 600,000 immigrants to enter the United States.[7]

As the case of the USA after the Second World War indicates, there was hardly a welcoming of refugees and much debating over quotas, something that Bazelon identifies as a problem in Europe today. After the war, Britain, in fact, sought every means to prevent Jews from migrating to the Palatinate Protectorate.   Yet, these actions demonstrate that not much has changed.  All nations remain protective of their boarders and want to make sure they know who is crossing their borders.  This is particularly difficult in Europe where the Nazi genocide removed the most persecuted minority and the Cold War basically froze borders, making nation-states rather homogeneous.  Yes, countries had minority populations, like the Turk guest workers in Germany, but most states had a dominant majority.

However, the opening of borders, the wealth of the European Union, and opportunities for immigrants has created new problems, leading to the increasing racism and right wing political parties like UKIP in Great Britain and the NPD in Germany.   The problem facing Europe, as many have pointed out, is that for centuries the continent was a net exporter of individuals, but now it’s wealth is making it a net importer.  Furthermore, the Syrian crisis partially stems from Europe and the USA’s decision to remain hands off, even after the use of chemical weapons.  Perhaps the best way to solve the refugee crisis is to solve the crisis, but geopolitical situation grows ever more complicated.

What we are witnessing is Europe coming  to grips with the challenge of being a net importer of individuals, and it will not be easy or simple.  One can criticize Europe and say that refugees were treated better in the past, but this is ahistorical.  One can say that Europe should open its borders and aid refugees, but a commentator must also consider history and domestic politics.  One can point to the acceptance of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, but one must consider the Vietnam War and American’s moral responsibility.  History, especially the history of refugees, is complicated.  Anyone providing a simple narrative has overlooked the extreme complexity and grayness of the past.  Does the crisis need solved? Yes.  Should refugees be treated with dignify? Yes.  But, looking for some romantic past doesn’t solve the current problem.

[1] Jan T. Gross, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, (New York: Random House, 2007).

[2] Leonard Dinnerstein, America and the Survivors of the Holocaust, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 163-182.

[3] Harry S. Truman, “Statement by the President Upon Signing the Displaced Persons Act,” June 25, 1948. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. ws/?pid=12942.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Edward M. Glazek, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Amendments to the Displaced Persons Act, Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 81st Congress, 1st and  2nd Session, February 3, 1950, 490-495.

[6] Allan A. Ryan Jr. Quiet Neighbors: Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals in America, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1984), 20-22.

[7] Ibid., 26.


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