For years, one migration crisis after another has occupied headlines worldwide. International organisations and governments around the globe are struggling to keep up with the flow of refugees and asylum seekers, while anti-migrant sentiment builds and international refugee protections are slipping. Today, American migration policy has led to the illegal detention of thousands of asylum seekers at the U.S.–Mexico border. As the debate rages on over whether or not people are being kept in concentration camps (as many historians argue they are), attention is drawn away from ongoing human rights abuses and the fact that many of these asylum seekers are children, who are now at risk after being separated from their families and held under abusive conditions.
Meanwhile, the nationalist trend in the May 2019 European Parliament election has sparked fears about the future of migration policy across Europe. In Hungary, the authorities have gone as far as denying food to refugees detained at the border with Serbia to encourage abandoning asylum claims. According to a recent report released for World Refugee Day, 34,361 migrants and refugees are known to have died trying to reach the European Union since 1993.
These of just a few examples of the impacts of a global backsliding on rights for displaced people, contrary to international laws offering them protections. The international community was forced to develop legal frameworks to protect refugee rights and provide humanitarian aid as a result of mass displacement after major twentieth century conflicts. These laws have been in place in Europe since the 1951 Refugee Convention, and around the world thanks to its 1967 Protocol. The United States joined the Protocol in 1968, and Hungary signed both the Convention and the Protocol in 1989 – but this hasn’t stopped their anti-migrant policies. Instead, these legal protections are being eroded, undermining international safeguards for refugees and allowing for violations of human rights. In this context, understanding the historical and legal origins of international refugee laws and protections is more important than ever.
The humanitarian impulse that led to these rights developments was originally centred around providing aid for displaced Russians, and later, Soviet citizens. The 1917 Russian Revolution, followed by the end of World War I, saw a pan-European refugee crisis as millions of Russians fled abroad. In 1921, the League of Nations responded, appointing a High Commissioner for Refugees to negotiate the resettlement or repatriation of displaced Russians, and creating the “Nansen Passport” – an international travel document granting them official refugee status.
After World War II, Europe was faced with a refugee crisis once again, as 30 million people were displaced across the continent. Among them were millions of Soviet citizens who had found themselves outside of the USSR, in need of humanitarian aid and a way home. Totalling around 5.6 million, they included prisoners of war (POWs), former Ostarbeiters (eastern workers brought to Nazi Germany as forced labourers) and civilians.
Unlike in the 1920s, when the newly established Bolshevik regime rendered millions of Russians abroad stateless by annulling their citizenship, this time the Soviet authorities were eager to get their citizens back. As early as 1941 the Red Army’s intelligence agency SMERSH (short of smert’ shpionam, meaning death to spies) had been put in charge of establishing filtration camps to screen returnees. Aimed at registering soldiers and civilians returning from enemy territory, these camps also sought to verify their identities, as well as their wartime experiences.
Until repatriation could be arranged, allied militaries and international organisations like the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and later the International Refugee Organization (IRO) worked to provide Soviet displaced persons (DPs) with humanitarian assistance. This was primarily in the form of DP camps that offered food, shelter and medical care.
Insufficient space in the camps led to other facilities being adopted as housing, with nearly two thirds of registered Soviet DPs living outside of these centers. These so-called “free-living” DPs had registered status and still received assistance from UNRRA or IRO assembly centres. Others made the strategic decision of never registering as DPs, thinking that remaining undocumented would allow them to remain in Europe and avoid being handed over to the Soviet authorities for repatriation.
Nevertheless, as a result of the Yalta and Halle Agreements of 1945, millions of Soviet people were returned home. The Soviet authorities were initially given free access to the DP camps, and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) ordered that Soviet citizens identified by repatriation officers be given no option and sent home. But not all of them went willingly – and repatriation campaigns quickly became complicated by resistance from DPs.
Under pressure from the Soviet regime, the Allies adopted policies of forced repatriation, resulting in an estimated 5 million Soviet citizens being returned to the USSR, willingly or not. There, they spent many more weeks and even months living in camps under an intense filtration regime run by SMERSH and the Soviet secret police (NKVD). Returnees were subjected to both medical and political inspections before being allowed to return to their homes. The Soviet authorities feared the epidemiological and ideological risks of returnees “contaminating” other citizens with not only infectious diseases, but also the influence of life abroad.
By March 1946, over 4 million returnees had gone through the filtration process. According to historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, around 280,000 people were then handed over to the NKVD for punishment in the labor camps of the Gulag. While about 1.32 million returnees were drafted into the army or for labor purposes, nearly 60 percent of them – around 2.4 million people – were allowed to return home. Those who returned to their places of residence were, however, met with the challenges of post-war reconstruction, and often faced stigma from those who had spent the war at home, making their reintegration into Soviet society difficult.
Meanwhile, the so called non-returners (nevozvrashchentsy) were taking drastic measures to escape forced repatriation. To avoid going back, many Soviet citizens were living in Europe under assumed names or had lied about their citizenship, claiming to be Polish or citizens of the newly annexed Baltic states. Because these territories were not part of the USSR before the war, the Allies didn’t recognise Polish or Baltic people as Soviet citizens and allowed them to stay in Europe. Some were even more desperate and went to extremes to avoid forced repatriation – a number of DPs and POWs resorted to suicide.
Repatriation became a source of contention between the Allies and the Soviet authorities as war time relations deteriorated and the Cold War emerged. April 1946 marked a turning point in international law when British and American UN delegates created a new definition of refugee, effectively establishing the human right to international asylum. In the words of historian Andrew Janco, “From that point forward, refugees have been defined as people ‘unable or unwilling’ to avail themselves of state protection given a legitimate fear of persecution.” For Soviet refugees, this made it legally possible for them to gain international asylum by rejecting their citizenship and making claims of persecution that international bodies would recognize.
Resistance to repatriation forced the Allies to backpedal on coercive policies. Despite objections from the Soviet Union, forced repatriation gave way to resettlement policies that allowed over a million non-returners to emigrate outside of Europe. Meanwhile, the Soviets continued to push for total repatriation and had authorities working to bring back non-returners well into the 1950s. That being said, this policy, which historian Sheila Fitzpatrick deemed “soft-repatriation,” led to less than 9,000 Soviet DPs being repatriated from July 1947 to June 1952.
Looking back on the repatriation of Soviet DPs, historians working in the 1970s and 1980s concluded that that in an effort to appease Stalin’s regime, the Allies had ultimately violated international norms. They depicted the majority of Soviet DPs as victims of human rights abuses at the hands of the Allies and overstated the extent of repressions against repatriates after they returned to the USSR. Twenty-first century historians, however, have taken a different perspective. Instead of blaming the Allies for violating human rights, they see backtracking on forced repatriation as a stepping stone in the international human rights movement. Ultimately, they argue that the change in the definition of refugee and right to asylum afforded to resettled Soviet DPs paved the way for the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention – an international framework of protections that remains in place to this day.
When the Geneva Convention on Refugees was established in 1951, the USSR and other Eastern Bloc states refused to sign, although many countries in the region acceded after the breakup of the USSR. The Russian Federation signed both the Convention and the 1967 Protocol in 1993, as did Azerbaijan, Armenia and Tajikistan. Kyrgyzstan followed in 1996, while Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all joined in 1997. Turkmenistan signed on in 1998, followed by Kazakhstan and Georgia in 1999. The 2000s saw the addition of Belarus (2001), along with Moldova and Ukraine (2002). Of the former Soviet Republics, only Uzbekistan has yet to sign.
Like the rest of the world, former Soviet states continue to face their own migration challenges. Since the beginning of the war in Donbas in 2014, the Ukrainian government has reported over 1.5 million registered internally displaced people (IDPs), who constituted the ninth largest IDP population in the world in 2017. Moscow recently provoked further controversy in the region by announcing facilitated citizenship processes for residents of Ukraine’s conflict affected Donbas region, although migrants from other former Soviet Republics still face segregation and struggle to gain residency in the Russian Federation.
Elsewhere, the international community is facing numerous migration crises, much like those that drove the development of international refugee rights and protections in the twentieth century. According to the UN Refugee Agency, we are facing the highest level of displacement in almost 70 years, as the number of displaced people worldwide exceeded 70 million in 2018. But instead of embracing and strengthening legal mechanisms to protect these people, we are seeing them undermined by nationalist and anti-democratic forces. With that in mind, the historical context in which international rights for asylum seekers developed offers important perspective on what makes them valuable – and the types of human rights abuses refugees are vulnerable to without them.