Iraq, 1930: The Humanitarian and Political Dimensions of Nansen Passports

Al Gat'a Bridge, Baghdad, 1930. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In November 1930 a man named Nicholas Haliutine, identifying himself as the president of an organisation called the “Russian House” in Baghdad in the mandated territory of Iraq, wrote a letter of complaint to the Russian Section of the League of Nations. In his letter Haliutine described how the “Nansen passports” issued by police authorities in Iraq (pictured in the image below) on behalf of the League of Nations were causing significant problems for any displaced Russians within Iraq needing to leave the country. According to Haliutine these “passports”, which cost five rupees (equivalent to five postage stamps), were “typewritten on a plain piece of paper with no heading or marks” and were consequently met with distrust when presented to state or border apparatus outside of Iraq. Haliutine stated that this had resulted in “many instances” where “foreign consuls [had] refused to consider it as a passport or a valid certificate of identity.” The difficulties encountered with Nansen passports by Russian refugees attempting to leave Iraq is just one example of a much wider narrative of how interwar methods of identification were imbued with both humanitarian sentiment and increasingly narrow conceptions of citizenship and statehood.

Russian refugees living in Iraq in 1930 represented one small grouping amongst the millions who left Soviet Russia between 1917 and 1922. The dramatic period of revolution and the collapse of the four dynastic empires of the Ottomans, Romanovs, Hapsburgs, and Hohenzollerns generated mass displacement across the area today known as the Middle East, as well as Asia and North Africa. Russians represented the largest group numerically. Historian Peter Gatrell estimates that in the early 1920s there were up to 1.5 million Russians scattered across the world, clustering in major cities from Paris and Berlin to Constantinople and Harbin. Of these millions just 8,000 Russian refugees made their way to Iraq after 1918 compared to the approximately 65,000 in neighbouring Lebanon and Syria; by 1930, when Haliutine wrote his letter, their numbers had decreased to just over 2,000, whilst numbers in Syria and Lebanon increased to 90,000. These figures reflect the general difficulties Russian refugees faced in negotiating access to rights in Iraq.

In February 1921, the International Committee of the Red Cross spearheaded appeals to the League of Nations to appoint a commissioner to coordinate displacement responses. In the climate of early interwar enthusiasm for international cooperation, these calls led to the appointment of Norwegian adventurer-turned-humanitarian Fridjtof Nansen as High Commissioner for Russian Refugees on 22 August 1921. One of the most pressing issues facing Nansen when he commenced his activities as High Commissioner was that of passports, as many refugees lacked the identity papers that were increasingly necessary to traverse post-war border apparatus. Wartime controls had breathed new life into bureaucracies governing mobility, and despite calls from some economists, politicians, and diplomats to return to “pre-war conditions”, by 1929 many countries worldwide had standardised their national passports and established corresponding border apparatus, thus restricting the movement of those without “valid” documentation.

British issued Nansen passport issued to a Russian Jewish refugee. Huddyhuddy [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1922, representatives of sixteen states signed up to an intergovernmental arrangement that offered a potential solution to refugee mobility issues in the form of “Nansen passports”. The issuance of Nansen passports was extended to Armenians in 1924 and then to Assyrians, Assyro-Chaldeans, and “assimilated refugees” in 1928. Named after the High Commissioner, these identity documents were not technically passports but rather non-legally binding Titre de Voyages, which is the French term given a travel document specifically, which is not considered a passport. Nansen passports were technically valid for twelve months as evidenced in the image above, but this was dependent on individual state authorities who issued Nansen passports on behalf of the High Commissioner. One result of Nansen passports being issued by state authorities such as the police or a government agency was that they lacked a standard form. Although the 1922 Arrangement outlined a standard material form for Nansen passports akin to national passports, in reality the High Commissioner’s office had little control over the material format of these documents, resulting in a variety of forms, from booklets issued by French police to the informal pieces of paper distributed by police in Iraq.

Whilst by 1935 more than fifty states worldwide had signed up to the first arrangement addressing the needs of Russian refugees, many less subscribed to the 1924, 1926, and 1928 Arrangements that extended the scope and responsibilities attached to Nansen passports. The unwillingness of individual governments to sign up to the later arrangements is indicative of the tensions between humanitarian motivations and more pragmatic concerns arising from understandings of citizenship and associated rights. The same spirit of internationalism which made Nansen passports possible developed contemporaneously with exclusive forms of nationalism which sought to distinguish between “insiders” and “outsiders”. Provisions for civil and political rights such as the right to work and to basic healthcare offered through rising welfare state systems were increasingly seen in the context of citizenship, with étrangers, foreigners that included refugees, sitting at the bottom of the hierarchy of rights.

In this context, Nansen passports rendered displaced people “legible” to the scrutiny of state apparatus, which was then able to limit their exercising of civil and political rights as non-citizens. In theory, Nansen passports enabled bearers to travel to a third country in order to look for work but did not guarantee either their right to a job or a place to live. In addition, the narrow eligibility of which groups could apply for Nansen passports allowed state apparatus to absolve themselves of responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of displaced people who did not fit the strict categorisations laid out in the arrangements. Groups such as the 9,000 Ruthenes in Czechoslovakia and 10,000 Hungarians in Romania were therefore unable to exercise the same mobility rights as those with Nansen passports.

The sometimes self-serving motivations behind the issuing of Nansen passports were counterbalanced by more humanitarian and idealistic impulses. These concerns were visible in the universalist rhetoric Nansen used in his speeches to the League of Nations. He argued for the “rightful treatment” of individuals, asserting that people should be seen as human beings ahead of any political imperatives. Nansen also argued that the inhumane living conditions of displaced Russians demanded action that went beyond nation states and their legal systems. Rebecka Lettevall asserts that the idea of “moral cosmopolitanism” which rests on the idea of “moral universalism” that all humans are created equal is visible in the attempt to offer a form of “neutral citizenship” through Nansen passports. Lettevall also notes that Nansen passports demonstrated a degree of legal creativity, which Gatrell argues is “sorely lacking” in today’s responses to displacement. The mobility enabled by Nansen passports is at odds with contemporary emphases on preventing displaced people from leaving their country of origin, or keeping them in their first country of asylum.

The tensions between humanitarian sentiment and the pragmatic concerns of states were clearly evident in the circumstances that led Nicholas Haliutine to write his letter to the League of Nations in 1930. Although the pioneering Nansen passports technically gave Russian refugees in Baghdad the right to travel across Iraqi borders, lack of standardisation combined with increasingly strict state apparatus arising from hardening national borders created practical challenges to mobility. As Lettevall notes, the pioneering nature of Nansen passports rendered it difficult to foresee the range of challenges that would arise when individual bearers tried to exercise their right to travel using this document in 1922. These challenges still figured prominently in 1930 Baghdad.

Further Reading

Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Rebecca Viney-Wood holds a BA (Hons) in International History and Politics and an MA in Modern History from the University of Leeds. After completing an MA in Humanitarianism and Conflict Response at the University of Manchester in 2016 she was awarded an ESRC NWDTC Studentship with the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute. Her PhD investigates displacement in historical perspective, focussing on technologies of identification, apparatus and assemblages. Rebecca was a participant of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy 2018.