Nansen’s passport is a refugee document. Listed for use in 1922 on Nansen’s proposal (under the auspices of the League of Nations). Provides temporary regulation of the legal status of refugees
Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen was a famous Norwegian polar explorer and politician. He allowed stateless people (after the end of World War I), including writer Vladimir Nabokov and composer Igor Stravinsky, to start a new life
The current refugee crisis is the largest the world has ever seen, but it is not unprecedented. One hundred years ago, the revolution in Russia and the genocide in the Ottoman Empire left millions homeless. They were forced to seek asylum in war-torn countries.
Determined to avert disaster, researcher Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people with one piece of paper: Nansen’s passport.
Nansen’s passport never became proof of citizenship, this document protected those who possessed it. It protected people from deportation and allowed them to cross borders and find work. Many experts think this would be the best solution today.
Nansen was a zoologist and celebrated as a polar explorer. In 1888 he led the first expedition to cross Greenland on skis. In 1892 he crossed the Arctic by deliberately letting his ship freeze in the iceberg. When he could no longer go on adventures, Nansen began to pursue politics and humanitarian work. He first represented Norway in solving problems with Sweden. He was later Ambassador of Norway to London.
Horrified by the horrors of World War I, Nansen did everything in his power to prevent such things from happening again. His hope was the League of Nations, a newly formed peacekeeping organization. The League of Nations gave Nansen the task of repatriating prisoners of war and helping millions of political refugees. 1922 Nansen is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in favor of displaced victims of World War I.
Nansen arranged for the return home of hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war from 26 countries that had previously been in Germany and Siberia.
“I have never been in touch with so much suffering in my life,” he said in a speech before the League of Nations in 1920, urging member states to “prevent such things once and for all”.
In December 1921, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin abolished citizenship of anyone who left the country during the October Revolution. Thus, 800,000 people were left homeless, scattered throughout Eastern Europe. Their legal status was unclear. Most had no means of subsistence, no protection at all.
Countries that have gone through their own conflicts have refused to accept tens of thousands of poor stateless persons. Political persecution, imprisonment and execution would await them in the Soviet Union.
The League of Nations has entrusted this unsolvable problem to Nansen. She was named High Commissioner for Russian Refugees. He first advocated repatriation, holding that states should be made to accept their citizens. Yet when he explored the problem better, he changed his mind.
A small group of refugees sent from Bulgaria to the USSR were most likely killed. This did not prevent Bulgaria from continuing its deportations for fear of communism. A group of 250 people embarked on a smaller boat across the Black Sea. In the USSR they refused to receive them. The ship then turned to Turkey, which also did not want them. Many refugees began to jump overboard in panic. Wherever he went, Nansen met stories like this – about scared states that feared foreign influence and jobs, and more scared refugees who just wanted to live somewhere.
Nansen initially mediated the achievement of individual agreements. He sent several groups to Czechoslovakia and the USA. He provided clothing and supplies to refugee centers. He asked universities in the countries belonging to the League of Nations to commit to accepting Russian students. The problem went beyond this kind of action. What the refugees needed was a way to create a life for themselves: to travel and work to acquire new homes. For this they had to have some kind of identification document.
In March 1922 at the League of Nations Council, Nansen proposed a passport that would allow refugees to travel and protect them from deportation. The document was simple – it contained only the owner’s identity, nationality and race. He served his purpose. Those who owned it could travel from state to state, looking for work or family members.
“It was the first time that stateless people had any legal identity,” Anemari Samartino wrote in the study “Impossible Borders: Germany and the East 1914-1922.”
This solution was not perfect. Unlike the regular passport, Nansen’s passport did not provide citizenship or guarantee the possibility of returning to the country which issued it. Over time, however, it was increasingly accepted. He was more of a help to those who had him. By 1923, it had been accepted by 39 governments. In 1943 it was accepted by 52 governments. Also, Nansen’s passport could have had Armenian, Assyrian and Turkish refugees. The sale of “Nansen stamps”, which were renewed annually, raised funds for further assistance to refugees.
Nansen died in 1930 from a heart attack caused by the flu after he went skiing despite a doctor’s warning. Immediately after, the League of Nations established the Nansen International Refugee Office, which in 1938 received the Nobel Peace Prize. By then, Nansen’s passport had 450,000 homeless people. Among them were: writer Vladimir Nabokov, painter Marc Chagall, photographer Robert Kapa, composer Igor Stravinsky and ballerina Ana Pavlova.
“There is no doubt that Nansen’s confirmation was the best thing that could have happened to a refugee. He was restoring his lost identity,” journalist Dorothy Thomson wrote in 1938.
Today, global conflicts, human rights violations and climate change have created tens of millions of refugees worldwide. The Nansen testament exists in the form of the UN Refugee Commissariat. Refugee travel documents (“Geneva passport”) are issued by 145 countries. This does not seem to be enough yet.