Malobi Philip-Ikpo
Aug 11, 2018 · 9 min read

Installment 1 of: The Making of the Modern Internment Regime

Bulgarian refugees, 1912–1913 (Voynov, H, 2016)

P rior to World War I, protection was offered to “individuals only by the state to which they belong as a national.” (Islam, 2014) This means that displaced persons were dependent on the good will of asylum granting states, which could dispossess them at any given time. Individuals fleeing their homes to escape life threatening situations “found themselves totally bereft of protection under international law.” (Islam, 2014) After the First World War (1914–1918), the inhumane conditions faced by the mass of people who were forced to cross borders in search of security began to be addressed by the post-war international community, which stressed the necessity to create a protection regime to contend with a broad refugee crisis. Thus began the development of “international refugee law as a means of institutionalizing societal concern for the well-being and protection of refugees.” (Islam, 2014)

Displaced Populations Before WWI

Before World War I commenced, religious persecution, ethnic differences, and other conflicts between empires caused many people to flee, creating large refugee populations. They received minimal support and protection under international law. (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2014)

Map of Europe before World War I (Olson-Raymer, G, 2014)

1854- Crimean War à Orthodox Christian Bulgarian peasants flee after reprisals by Ottoman troops. Bulgarian refugees settle in Greece and Romania.

1873- Orthodox Christian merchants and peasants who lived in Bosnia and feared for safety and extreme hardship, sought refuge in Hapsburg ruled Croatia. They demanded protection while there.

1875 — Croatian activists start an uprising against Ottoman rule. Hapsburg officials deemed refugees insurgents who were to be repatriated. 100,000 ottoman subjects flee to Austria-Hungary from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

1877- Russia-Turkey War causes 2 million to flee

1913-Anti-Ottoman partisans inflict violence on Muslim landlords and merchants in Macedonia causing influx of refugees of 180,000 muslims to Contantinople and other towns.

Displaced Populations During WWI

In the early part of the 20th century, the Hapsburg, Romanov, Ottoman and Prussian empires fell victim to the “pressures and conflicts that accompanied the transition from imperial social and political orders to successor nation states.” (Betts, Loescher, 2011; Zolberg, 1983) World War I catalyzed the disintegration of these multi-ethnic empires into states that excluded numerous people from citizenship on ethnic or religious grounds.

As a result, a regime needed to be set in place to contend with the displaced persons so as to maintain a functional international system of states. (Betts, Loescher, 2011)

Post WWI: The Inter-war Regime

Map of Europe after World War I and the disintegratinon of empires (Olson-Raymer, 2014)

After WWI, European states were faced with massive refugee populations. Millions were left stateless and without passports by virtue of the fact that the polities they came from had been dismantled. That, or they were rendered stateless by ethnic or religious persecution. Half a million Russians fled during the Russian Revolution, for example. Armenians fled genocide in Turkey, and Jews tried to escape persecution across Europe. After the war, the majority of these dispossessed populations could not move across borders because they did not havevalid travel documents. (Betts, Loescher, 2011) (Gatrell, 2013) A new category of human emerged: the ‘stateless’ person.

The European states, however were more concerned with their own national interests and territorial sovereignty than with the determination of who was to be granted refugee protection. “The consideration of tight fiscal conditions and high unemployment in these states prevailed over that of refugee plight and economic policy benefits that could accrue from accepting the flow of displaced persons in the economy.” (Islam, 2014)

A memorial for Les Apatrides or Stateless persons at Camp Du Vernet, France (2018)

This shift in the European balance of power post World War I led to the creation of the Inter War regime under the League of Nations, between 1921 and 1939. European governments established protective barriers and sent thousands of people across national frontiers. (Simpson, 1938) According to Sir John Hope Simpson, who worked with refugee and relief services in China and Greece,

“Such government reaction resulted in large refugee populations which threatened regional security in Europe and compromised the limited resources of private or public international agencies and individual European governments.”(John Hope Simpson)**

In order to reduce the tension between states that these actions generated, in 1921 members of the League of Nations appointed a High Commissioner for Refugees who would be responsible for the Russian, Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian and Armenian refugees who were left stateless by the war.

In order to qualify for refugee status under the commission’s auspices, “claimants needed to have been outside and without the protection of, their state of origin. The international community of states protected those displaced persons as refugees who were denied de jure protection by their state of origin.” (Islam, 2014)

Subsequently, with the rise of Nazism, the international community also began to consider the absence of de facto protection in granting asylum to Jews and others who had been persecuted or denied German nationality. These events led to the development of the Convention Regarding the Status of Refugees Coming from Germany in 1938. “The Convention extended protection to those persons who possessed or used to possess German nationality and who had been deprived of, in law or in fact, the protection of the German government.” (Islam, 2014)

Henceforth, a refugee would granted that status on on an individual basis — by virtue of specific actions directed against them — rather than as a member of a group denied protection. The Inter-Governmental Committee of Refugees was created to “facilitate the involuntary migration of German stateless persons residing within Germany, who were also accorded the refugee status.” (Islam, 2014)

The Introduction of the Nansen Passports

One of the most notable achievements in refugee protection during the inter war regime was the creation in 1922 of so-called Nansen Passports. These were “internationally recognized identity cards entitling hundreds of thousands of stateless people and refugees to travel to a country that would allow them to integrate.”(Betts, Loescher, 2011).

Nevertheless, problems persisted. Many refugees were also forcibly repatriated to persecuting states. After World War I, some states hid or denied the circumstances of mass displacement, particularly if these presented them in an unfavorable light.

Since the goal of the League of Nations was to aim for universal membership, it focused on providing legal assistance to refugees without delving into “root causes of refugee problems.” (Gattrell, 2013) Moreover, because no states wanted to be subject to a universal definition of the term ‘refugee,’ ambiguity marked a refugee crisis that all preferred to treat as ‘temporary.’ This was wishful thinking. The postwar refugee population continued to increase, as did the pleas for help and for places for resettlement. Some countries, like the United States, Australia and Canada, did not wish to take in more displaced persons and sought to delimit the powers of the refugee regime as a result. The U.S., in particular, adopted a policy “… that an international agency, if needed should be given an explicit mandate confined to its assigned functions.” (Loescher, G. 2001; Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2014)

The Decline of the Interwar Regime

In reality, a majority of refugees simply could neither return home, nor settle elsewhere to find a new home. “A solution to their problem had to be found in the prevailing political, economic, and social climate of the interwar period in Europe.”( Loescher, G. 2001) During this time the world’s statesmen were simply not effective in confronting Europe’s dictators. The reaction to the refugee crisis by governments and international organizations was inevitably politicized and selective. Only certain groups could temporarily provide assistance and protection. Furthermore, over the 1930’s the League of Nation became increasingly ineffective, until it could no longer deal with refugee problems. The failure of this nascent protection regime result in the horrific conditions under which refugees were forced to survive, in France’s internment camps and elsewhere. At the same time, it is also true that the League established for the first time the notion that refugees were victims of human rights violations and that the world therefore had a responsibility to come to their aid. Their initial efforts to define that responsibility laid the foundations on which the modern refugee regime would build. (Gattrell, 2013)

Barbed Wire and Memorials from Camp Du Vernet and Rivesaltes (2018)

Block Quote Sources

  • * John Hope Simpson as cited in (Gattrell 2013)



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The Making of the Modern Internment Regime

The 60-year history of a French internment camp and the development of the present refugee regime.

Thanks to Daniel Bertrand Monk

Malobi Philip-Ikpo

Written by

The Making of the Modern Internment Regime

The 60-year history of a French internment camp and the development of the present refugee regime.

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