Staunton, Sept. 11 – Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s decision to block Belarusians living abroad from renewing their passports unless they return to Belarus to do so is adding impetus to international discussions about the need to revive a system widely used in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s for those who had fled Soviet power.
That system, which consisted in the distribution of what became known as Nansen passports, was operated by the League of Nations between 1922 and 1938 and provided an identity and travel document for those who were deprived of citizenship by the Soviets or threatened with repression if they returned.
It was created by the League in response to a decision by the Soviet government in 1921 to deprive 800,000 former subjects of the Russian Empire who had moved abroad. (For a useful discussion of these documents, see theconversation.com/the-nansen-passport-the-innovative-response-to-the-refugee-crisis-that-followed-the-russian-revolution-85487.)
Most of those who were given these documents lacked not only legal status but the means for existence, and so the Nansen system involved not only the distribution of documents but the provision of humanitarian and social help, something not being discussed at the present time.
In Important Stories, Boris Grozovsky, editor of the Events and Texts telegram channel, says that “Nansen passports were the salvation not only for Russian emigres.” They were also given to refugees from the Ottoman Empire and to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. In 1926, they were recognized by 26 countries; in 1942, by 52 (istories.media/opinions/2023/09/11/grazhdane-mira-novie-pasporta-nansena-mogli-bi-zashchitit-ostavshikhsya-bez-grazhdanstva/).
“For the majority of people,” he continues, this passport was “a temporary and palliative solution until the individuals involved could obtain citizenship in another country.” But they were critically important in providing international defense and legal status for stateless persons, a category that has exploded in numbers since World War II and thus reduced the willingness of states to extend such identification documents.
But what Belarus has done and what some in Russia are proposing appear to be changing that attitude. According to Grozovsky, “in June, the UN Commission on Refugees began to discuss whether Nansen passports should be revived in the 21st century.” Discussions about that possibility are now ongoing. (See also friendsofeurope.org/insights/statelessness-is-a-big-problem-so-lets-revive-nansen-passports/.)
New Nansen passports, the Russian commentator suggests, “could become a universal solution that would be called upon to help not only Russians and Belarusians but all refugees.” How many countries would agree to that is very much an open question. Indeed, opposition to immigration means that even in Europe, not all states are likely to go along.
But the idea is gaining supporters, and so an old idea may be revived in order in the first instance to help those from Belarus and Russia whose governments have been anything but supportive of those who choose to leave those two countries.