Refugees vs. state sovereignty

Russians (1920s), Jews (1930s), non-refoulement (1950s), refugees at sea (2000s)

Date: 1 September 2017, 04:00–06:30

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 397



The central theme this panel wishes to explore is to what extent have refugees, in so far as they have emerged in the early 20th century as a distinctly-defined legal group, managed to qualify, transgress, and at times even limit Nation-State Sovereignty. While the emergence of refugees as a distinct legal category was intimately linked to the collapse of empires (Russian, Habsburg, Ottoman) during WWI, their ultimate protections under UNHCR’s international refugee regime was only attained following the unprecedented ruptures, annihilations and holocaust of WWII.

The panel proposes to explore refugeeness, within four different geographical and socio-cultural contexts, during four different historical periods, thus providing for a broad-based comparative, and global historical perspective for this topic.

Convenor / Chair

Gilad Ben-Nun (University of Verona)


Elizabeth White (University of West England Bristol)

Frank Caestecker (Ghent University)

Gilad Ben-Nun (University of Verona)

Irial Glynn (Leiden University)



Elizabeth White: Russian refugees and the establishment of the High Commission for Refugees

This paper discusses the multi-faceted character of the League of Nation’s Refugee Office created by Fridtjof Nansen, and the conflicts of interests between host countries (such as France and the UK) in their provision of asylum to Russian refugee children, and the direct clash which ensued as this policy was counter-challenged by Soviet authorities following the 1917 Revolution.  Dr. White is an expert of Russian refugees, Russian and Soviet history, with her most recent monograph The socialist alternative to Bolshevik Russia: The socialist revolutionary party, 1921-39 (London: Routledge 2010), and recent articles in Revolutionary Russia.

Frank Caestecker: The West-European experience of the 1930s

This paper discusses immigration policy in the 1930s and how the treatment of refugees from Nazi Germany was by the mid-1930s strongly influenced by intergovernmental cooperation. An emerging international refugee regime which did not last long as by the summer of 1938 the exemptions in admission policies for refugees based on this  international refugee regime were to a large extent cancelled as states felt they were losing control over their borders. Prof. Caestecker is an expert on immigration policies, with his monograph Alien Policy in Belgium, 1840-1940: The Creation of Guest Workers, Refugees and Illegal Immigrants (Oxford: Berghahn 2001) and the recently published volume Refugees from Nazi Germany and the Liberal European States which he edited with Bob Moore (Oxford: Berghahn 2010).

Gilad Ben-Nun: Did the drafters of the 1951 Refugee Convention intend for non-refoulement to serve as a qualifier of state sovereignty?

Based on extensive archival research and uncovering of the drafting materials and Travaux Prèparatoires of the 1951 Refugee Convention, this paper argues that the drafters of the 1951 Refugee convention indeed intended for their newly established NON REFOULEMENT PRINCIPLE to serve as a qualifier of State Sovereignty, and that the delegates at the UN drafting table understood it as such. Dr. Ben-Nun is an expert of the making of the international refugee regime and a scholar of the history of international humanitarian law, with his recent monograph Seeking Asylum in Israel: Refugees and the History of Migration Law (Londo: I.B.Tauris 2016), and several articles in Oxford’s  Journal of refugee Studies (2014, 2015)  and  Refugee Survey Quarterly (2015).

Irial Glynn: Refugees on the high seas as the most recent challenges to state sovereignty: Comparative perspectives from Italy and Australia

The category of “Boat People” now commonly used, serves as the most recent and acute form of State Challenge by refugees who either make it ashore or die at sea, thus serving these States with acute moral dilemmas concerning their asylum and admission policies. Dr. Glynn an expert on migration history, with his most recent monograph Asylum Policy, Boat People and Political Discourse: Boats, Votes and Asylum in Australia and Italy (London: Palgrave 2016) , and a previous edited volume with Olaf Kleist History, Memory and Migration: Perceptions of the Past and the Politics of Incorporation (London: Palgrave 2012)

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