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Refugee passports could end border delays in the Balkans

Migrants warm up by a fire as they wait to cross into Croatia, October 19 2015. Marko Djurica/REUTERS

The latest hellish chapter in the Syrian refugee crisis is currently unfolding at Croatia’s borders. Thousands of refugees were forced to wait in knee-deep mud, as Croatia and Slovenia refuse to allow more than 2,500 people to cross over their border each day.

Solving this refugee crisis will demand not just compassion but creative thinking – though political leaders have so far demonstrated a capacity for neither.

My research on refugee crises suggests that instead of reinventing the wheel, we’d do well to first look backwards for inspiration. How did Europe solve an earlier century’s refugee crises?

While the 1930s offer grim warnings of what can follow when you build borders to shut out the unwanted, the 1920s offer more optimistic history lessons. In particular, the Nansen Passport – a document intended to help refugees travel across international borders – is due a revival.

A model that worked

Nansen Passport. League of Nations

Nansen Passports were invented following a conference in July 1922 at which delegates from 16 governments agreed to issue travel documents that would allow refugees to travel to join family or seek out employment. Named after League of Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees Fridtjof Nansen, the objective was “the admission of refugees to countries where they would be able to support themselves.”

Today’s refugees have – in theory – access to Convention Travel Documents, which are intended to serve the same purpose. However, limited numbers are printed. Costs are prohibitive for many refugees. The application process is opaque. Many CTDs are not compliant with international standards requiring machine-readable travel documents, narrowing their use. Many states refuse to admit refugees traveling on CTDs, fearing that they will not return back to their state of first asylum.

Nansen would have recognized these problems. In 1926, Nansen complained to an international conference that refugees faced “serious discrimination” in attempting to travel “in pursuit of their livelihood.” Yet the refugee passport system established in the 1920s was nevertheless remarkable. Importantly, refugees themselves financed their Nansen Passports. Frustrated by states’ continued reluctance to provide funds, Nansen issued passport stamps, for which nonindigent refugees were charged five gold francs.

By the 1930s, the Nansen stamp fund was large enough to directly help refugees become self-supporting. In 1934, for instance, the Nansen Office assisted 782 refugees with loans intended to help support businesses – from restaurants to doll factories. Nansen Passports were eventually recognized by some 52 governments and used by 450,000 refugees. They stand as evidence of an approach to refugee protection in the 1920s that saw freedom of movement as a form of burden-sharing.

Further confirmation of the extent to which refugees were viewed as economic migrants can be found in the fact that between 1925 and 1929, the International Labor Office assumed operational responsibility for refugees. ILO operated as a refugee labor exchange, matching refugees with labor needs outside Europe. Refugee exile was thus one part of a broader goal: to tackle global unemployment.

Looking at labor needs

A centralized migration bureau matched receiving countries’ employment needs with refugee quotas, often broken down by occupation. In 1926, for example, many refugees found work as agricultural laborers. 10,000 Ukrainians were placed on Canadian farms. In August 1928, the director of the ILO reported that the number of unemployed refugees had dropped from 400,000 to 200,000 since the office had become involved in refugee work.

Times change. Yet refugee crises have changed remarkably little in the intervening century. It is still economic destitution that fuels irregular migration across Europe. Governments are still reluctant to unlock refugees’ human capital, despite labor market gaps and demographic need.

Refugees’ journeys from the camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon across Europe are not just a search for sanctuary. Onward movement is also about economics and inequality. Onward movement is about refugees deciding that it is not enough to wait in a camp, their saved life a slowly rotting one. And this crisis will not be solved without recognizing the complex connections between asylum and migration, between political safety and economic security.

So imagine if – in time for their centenary – the international community renewed refugees’ Nansen Passports. In parallel, a revolving fund and employment service could be established. Nansen Passports could be issued for a minimal fee, and used to travel on regular airlines and ferries – breaking smugglers’ strangleholds. Refugees would be responsible for meeting the costs of their own onward migration from the place they had first claimed asylum – but they could travel legally and would be assisted in finding employment.

Nansen Passports alone will not solve Syria’s refugee crisis. But they could ensure that no refugee is criminalized for jumping a fence or hiding in a train out of desire for more than mere survival. They could offer refugees dignity, autonomy – and hope of a better life. Faced with intractable war and immeasurable loss, we should at least be able to offer that.

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