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Refugees (Living the Twenties #AtoZChallenge 2020)

People had never had problems to cross borders. Before WWI, when a person wanted to go from one country to another, they simply did. There was no need for any documents. Only very few people actually used passports. 

But WWI closed all borders. When passports became of common use, the question fo the refugee arose. 

Refugee were people fleeing from their country, not just in search of a better life, but because they were in danger, for one reason or another. Their country may even consider outlaws and very unlikely it would provide a passport for them. 

The aftermath of WWI produced an unprecedented number of people leaving their country in this way. When this became a serious issue, especially in light of the high numbers of Russian Jews and Armenians fleeing Russia, the League of Nations started to help these people.

In fact, it was the League that first defined who a refugee is and to provide them with alternative travelling papers. 

Before WWI, people travelled from one country to another without need for any documents. When WWI closed all borders, the question fo the refugee arose #history #WWI #refugees Share on X

The Nansen Passports

Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) was a Norwegian, explorer and cosmopolitan. He was one of the founders of the League of Nation, and in 1920, he took up the difficult task to solve the problem of the many people displaced by the war.
Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian, explorer and cosmopolitan. He was one of the founders of the League of Nation, and in 1920, he took up the difficult task to solve the problem of the many people displaced by the war. Very many of these people couldn’t or wouldn’t go back to their country and therefore became stateless. 

The situation became even worse when thousends of people flee Soviet Russia.

When Nansen took up the Russian refugee problem, he soon discovered it to be a thorny one. Refugees were killed if repatriated, and neighbouring countries often refused to take them in, fearful that they would rob their citizen of the already few jobs. Stateless as they were, these people had no one who protected them. 

Nansen soon realised that the solution wasn’t in offering help (though he initially did), but in giving them the protection and acknowledgement they needed, so that they could move to other countries as any citizen and create a life of their own. 

This is exactly what the Nansen Passports did in 1922. These were travelling document provided by the League of Nations to people who’s lives were in danger should they return to their country. 

Russian Jews and the White Russians

What created the refugee emergency in the 1920s were the thousands of people who fled Russia for different reasons. 

The Russian Jews had been fleeing Russia for decades. Of all the ethnic and national groups that lived under the rule of the Russian czars, the Eastern European Jews were the ones that had suffered the harshest treatment. Isolated by the rest of the Empire by barriers of language and faith, often segregated in small villages called shtetls or in urban ghettoes, they also suffered brutal laws against them and inhuman treatment by the Russian people. Most of them never considered themselves Russians. 

White Russian Refugees of the Russian Civil War

But in the 1880s the situation became even worse when the Russian Empire started a massacre against them known as pogroms. The victims were in their thousands. It was also the last straw. Thronghs of Jews fled Russia, even if the Empire tried to stip them. They reached the German ports, and from there they reached America, where they arrived in unprecedented numbers. Very few of them ever went back to Russia.

Another stream of Russian refugees started after the Revolution, but toward China. 

These refugees were members of the armed forces, nobles or pro-establishment public figures who had often be part of the White Army who supported the Empire (as opposed to the Red Army that supported the Revolution) and were therefore known as the White Russians. 

Most of them headed first to Harbin, which had been a pseudo-Russian colony since 1898, then moved towards Hong Kong and Shanghai where they created numerous communities. Although wealthy Chinese family often employed them as bodyguards because of their army experience, they never integrated into Chinese society. They were stateless people often considered among the lowest in society. 

The Armenian Genocide

The world at the beginning of the XX century was an uncertain one. Life was changing, and not just in the Western World. Many old empires were crumbling, even before WWI. What the war did was make this uncertain situation more uncertain and often unsettle the balance to a breaking point. 

Armenian Genocide

In many respect, Armenians were to the Ottoman Empire what Jews were to the European nations. A small percentage of the entire population, they were nonetheless very wealthy, very educated and considered alien because cosmopolitan. Their ‘otherness’, the fact that they were Christian inside the Muslim Empire and that they were after the independence of their ancestral land, created the perception that they were an extraneous element in the Ottoman society and sooner or later would become traitors. 

This sentiment escalated during WWI. The Ottoman Empire allied itself with Germany, but many Armenian communities who lived close to the Russian Empire chose to side with them. It was treason for the Ottoman Empire that ordered Armenians arrested or deported. 

It was just the beginning of what it would become the first genocide of the contemporary era. 

In the following year, Armenians were brutalised in their own communities and almost a million were killed. Many among who survived fled the Empire, often heading to America. At least until the US didn’t shut their doors to all immigrants.


The Nobel Prize – Nansen International Office for Refugees
EurekAlert! – The League of Nations created the definition of refugee
Britannica – Armenian Genocide
1914-1918 Online – Refugees (Russian Empire)


  • Tasha Duncan-Drake
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 10:11

    How is it humans manage to inflict such atrocity on their fellows? I did not realise that passports only really became a thing after WWI. I suppose with increased access to travel over long distances, such things started to become important.
    Virginia’s Parlour – The Manor (Adult concepts – nothing explicit in posts)
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    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2020 at 08:06

      Me too. I never realised passports are such a ‘new thing’. But then, WWI caused a lot of changes in the life of people.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 10:40

    Humanity has done so many incredibly dark things… :(

    The Multicolored Diary

  • Linda Curry
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 12:03

    I suppose they were lucky America (USA) was accepting refugees at that time. It is not good to be a refugee now as nobody seems to want them. The sheer numbers make it impossible for any one country to accept them all. The Covid-19 virus must be causing havoc in refugee camps and stopped any orderly movement to a new country.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2020 at 08:45

      I suppose it’s always hard when you don’t have a place you can call home. Everybody may clame you ‘don’t belong’.

  • Birgit
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 15:49

    I do hope that, one day, Turkey will own their responsibility in this genocide that wiped out a huge population of the Armenians plus I wish this would be studied in school. So many Russians had to flee their homeland and all they cherish after that revolution. My mom escaped from the East to the West (Germany) after the war and she got her papers. In 1950, after her dad was released by the Russians(again), it was decided to get him out so my mom, who defied death and kept going back home bringing food etc…, took my Opa out and escaped to the West. 6 months later, when the Russians eased up watching my Oma, my Uncle got her out. For 2 years my mom lived with her parents, first in a. Tent and then in a barn when they were hired to work it. They finally got their papers thanks to my Uncle who became friends with an official. In times now, when we complain that we can’t go to the park or shop, I just think of the times my mom dealt with and know we really don’t have it bad at all.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2020 at 08:53

      Thanks for sharing this story, Birgit.
      I was talking with a friend the other day, saying that our grocey is now rationed like in war time. She said that this may help us better understand what our grandparents and parents went through.
      And it’s true. I hope this will make us a bit more compassionate.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 16:30

    Horrible. Interesting about passports, though.

    An A-Z of Faerie: Red Caps

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2020 at 08:54

      I learned a lot of new things researching this post :-)

  • Anne Nydam
    Posted April 21, 2020 at 18:14

    I like the idea of passports issued by the world, as it were, instead of just one country. Does the UN do anything comparable to the Nansen passports?
    (Click the Blog link on the second row) : R is for Rock-a-bye

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2020 at 08:59

      Here’s what I’ve found:
      “The Nansen International Office for Refugees was awarded the 1938 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to establish the Nansen passports.
      While Nansen passports are no longer issued, existing national and supranational authorities, including the United Nations, issue travel documents for stateless people and refugees, including certificates of identity (or “alien’s passports”) and refugee travel documents.”

  • msjadeli
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 00:30

    Horrific acts of evil that go unpunished :(

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2020 at 09:11

      And isn’t it horrible that often we don’t even know about it? I only learned of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, for the centenary. I had never heard of it before.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 22, 2020 at 00:35

    It’s an absolute disgrace Turkey continues to deny the Armenian Genocide to this day. Shamefully, the government of Azerbaijan also denies it.

    It’s no wonder so many White Russians set up colonies in Europe and China, since the U.S. passed those xenophobic, racist quotas in 1921 and 1924. Though I would’ve loved to have visited Hamilton Heights in New York City when it was a majority Russian enclave.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2020 at 09:14

      So sad that there is always a genocide to remember. Though I htink it’s good if we agree to remember. There’s hope that we won’t do it again.
      But those who refuse to – not even remember, but admit it. I’m scared of those people.

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