Embedding international refugee protection in national historical narratives (completed)

Hans Leaman

The 1951 Refugee Convention framed refugee status around the fear of being persecuted.  In this, it followed language in the Constitution of the International Refugee Organization (IRO), written five years earlier.  But even though persecution was not an element in prior international refugee protection treaties, the focus on persecution was not a novel product of the Cold War years.  Rather, it built upon antecedents in British and American immigration laws. In the early twentieth century, both the United Kingdom and United States, when enacting restrictions on immigration, made exemptions for persons emigrating from their home countries in order to escape religious persecution—largely in response to Jewish humanitarian organizations’ concerns for Jews experiencing violence and discrimination in the Russian Empire. In the Congressional and Parliamentary debates over these exemptions, political leaders anticipated many of the important aspects of “persecution” that are now recognized in the UNHCR guidelines for determining refugee eligibility.

This project models how historians can identify antecedents for international refugee protection in individual nations’ histories of accommodating foreigners. Recent elections in Europe and the United States have shown that when asylum is perceived to be an obligation of international law rather than an expression of a nation’s own tradition of hospitality, it is more likely to breed populist resentment as an imposition from a “globalist” class of people who do hold their countries’ interests to heart.  This project aims to bridge the gap by embedding the history of international refugee protection in religious and humanitarian values commonly expressed at the national and local level, as well as historic perceptions of state interest.


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