PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT predicted in October 1939 that "when this ghastly war ends there may be not one million but ten million or twenty million men, women and children, belonging to many races and many religions, living in many countries and possibly on several continents, who will enter into the wide picture -- the problem of the human refugee." [i] If we regard as refugees all those who have had to leave their homes because of military operations or persecution, through fear or under compulsion, then even the higher figure mentioned by the President has already been exceeded.

The most numerous refugee group consists of those who have had to flee before advancing armies. In China alone there are said to be fifty million of these. There must be almost as many Russians who have been evacuated or have escaped from Germanoccupied territory. Two million Indians who had long been settled in Burma have found their way to India. No reliable figures are available on the Poles who fled to Soviet Russia or on those who fled from Russian Poland into German Poland and the Vilna territory, but the number must run into the millions. When the Low Countries and France were invaded, the stream of refugees blocked the roads, and although most have now returned, thirty thousand civilians and many more soldiers -- Belgians, Dutch, Poles, Czechs and other nationalities -- escaped to Great Britain alone. So it has gone all over the world -- in Greece, Jugoslavia, Malaya and the East Indies. In most of the cases mentioned the number of refugees has been limited only by the means of escape.

The movement of labor from occupied territories into Germany, or within those territories, is of a somewhat different character. Some of it, no doubt, has been voluntary but many have had to move under coercion. Then there are the transfers of populations as a result of cessions of territory. Rumania, perhaps, has suffered most in this way; two hundred thousand persons are said to have moved from Transylvania alone to the remaining parts of Rumania. Most revolting of all in its deliberate brutality has been the mass expulsion or deportation by the Nazis of whole classes of people, especially the Jews. Four hundred thousand persons were expelled from Greater Germany before the war, and the same policy and methods have been extended to countries that have come under the German heel. The Vichy Government also adopted the same practices. Since the war began, not only have there been mass deportations of Jews into Poland and western Russia, but Jews have been collected locally and segregated in central ghettos.

These examples by no means exhaust the list of population movements, but they will suffice to show that when the war ends millions of persons will be scattered over the face of the globe, separated from their homes, many of them with no homes to return to and some with no government willing to protect them. This is a bare statement of the problem in its most simple form. As for a solution, all that can be attempted here is to break down the problem into its main elements and to suggest two or three basic principles which should be followed in trying to deal with them.


First let us distinguish between the short-term and the longterm problem. "Short-term" must for the time being remain undefined. But we can say that though it is not likely to be less than five years from the cessation of hostilities, beyond that it will approach what we can call long-term. The immediate problem will be that of relief, using the word in a wide sense; and the objective should be not merely to relieve privation and want but to get as many persons as possible back to their own countries, and, where feasible, to their own homes. Relief will include many activities beside the feeding of the needy, although this in itself will be a colossal task, involving the production, collection, financing, transportation (often overseas) and distribution of supplies so that they are in the right quantity in the right place at the right time. Relief will also include supplying medical needs, coördination of private efforts in such matters as the special care of children, and the organization and control of transport so that masses of people will move in accordance with the ability of the countries of destination to absorb and maintain them.

The difficulties are sure to be greatly increased by the sudden closing down or contraction of war industries, which will throw many out of employment. They will be further complicated by the problems presented by two large groups of persons of which as yet no mention has been made -- men and women under arms, and prisoners of war. The military forces of the defeated enemy will break up. Those of the United Nations will have to be demobilized. Prisoners of war must be cared for and repatriated. It will be natural and necessary to give some measure of priority to the needs of men who have fought. Furthermore, cessation of the main hostilities may not bring an end to strife. Secondary wars may follow, as they did in 1918 and 1919, and in some countries internal revolution may precede the formation of stable governments. Some time must elapse, also, before the civil administrations can be expected to be in smooth operation. For this reason, as well as because of military requirements, the work of relief will at first have to be carried out by the armies of occupation.

The picture is a somber one. There is, however, one factor which will help solve a problem which would otherwise be almost insoluble. This is the homing instinct. The great mass of displaced persons will turn instinctively to their own countries. Moreover, where stable governments exist or as they come into existence, they will normally wish to have their own nationals back and they may be expected not only to coöperate fully with international or Allied agencies in accomplishing the tasks involved, but to utilize their own resources to as great an extent as possible. The difficulty in most cases will not be to persuade people to return to their own countries, but to regulate the movement.

But although the vast majority of exiles will wish to return home, and will be welcomed by their governments, there will be a residuum of whom this will not be true. Some will be unable to return for reasons other than physical -- either because their governments will not be prepared to receive them or because they themselves will refuse, in view of past events, to incur the fresh risks that might be involved. We cannot estimate today how large this residuum may be, but since the total of displaced persons is already many millions even a small percentage will present a formidable problem. These persons will be true refugees in the sense in which the word has hitherto been used in international authority and practice. In this sense a refugee may be said to be a person who, for other than physical reasons, is unable to return to his own country and to enjoy there the protection of the government. The obstacles in his way are usually found either in the system or policy of a government which practices some form of political, racial or religious persecution, or in changes in state boundaries, usually as a result of military conquest. Often the refugee has been deprived of his nationality and is stateless. The common use of the word "refugee" to denote not only persons of the class just described, but also those who, for temporary reasons, are unable to get back to their own countries or to their own homes, is confusing, since the two classes will present different problems which will have to be dealt with by different agencies. It is necessary to distinguish between them, and for convenience I will refer to the temporary exiles as short-term refugees and to the others as long-term refugees.

Some of the postwar problems will be common to both groups. Both, for example, will need relief of their physical distress in the period immediately following the end of hostilities. The United Nations are understood to have this problem already in hand and it may be assumed that there will be an allied organization which will undertake the relief measures mentioned. It may also be assumed that, so far as the relief of privation is concerned, this body will make no distinction between nationals and strangers or between short-term and long-term refugees, and that the sole test will be the necessity for relief. The same standards should be applied to all, and this requires that the responsibility for relief, so far as it is of an international character, should be vested in a single agency. To attempt to set up one international authority to relieve the physical distress of nationals and another for non-nationals would lead to confusion, conflict and variation in standards, and would cause a great deal of unnecessary suffering. Still more confusion would result if attempts were made at that stage to distinguish between short-term and long-term refugees. Indeed, it will not be possible for some time to make a final classification of non-nationals as short-term or long-term refugees. Some groups will at once come within the long-term category. In other cases it will be necessary to wait to classify them until future conditions in their countries of origin become clear and until their own attitudes have been determined. Much will depend on whether or not former state boundaries are restored. Here again the facts will not be evident at once, and premature assumptions regarding the long-term status of particular groups are therefore to be deprecated. The initial object should be to return as many willing persons as possible to their own countries as soon as possible. We know that there will be at once some groups which cannot be returned, however, and it is probable that similar groups will emerge later. They will constitute the problem of the longterm refugee, and it is with this that I am primarily concerned.


Experience in the 20 years since the last war, and particularly the expulsion by the Nazis of whole classes of Germans, has left no doubt that the refugee question is of international concern. On the humanitarian side, it has outstripped the resources of private benevolence; politically and economically it affects so many states that it calls for concerted action; while the causes that create the refugee can only be prevented by international sanctions. If, therefore, a solution is to be found, there must be an international organization competent to deal with the problem's many aspects. I will call this organization the International Refugee Authority.

At present two international organizations are concerned with refugees. The older is the League of Nations, acting through a Commission. Since Dr. Nansen became High Commissioner in 1921 there has been no time when the League has not had definite responsibilities for particular groups of refugees. The responsibilities and the groups have varied, but the League's record of experience and service is a continuous one. The League has consistently given special attention to the political and legal protection of those groups which from time to time have been brought within its mandate.

The Intergovernmental Committee -- the other international organization concerned with refugees -- came into being at the conference held at Evian in July 1938 on the initiative of President Roosevelt. Its specific object was to find a solution of the involuntary emigration of nationals from Greater Germany. The hope was that a long-term program might be arranged in collaboration with the German Government and within the framework of the existing immigration laws and practices of the various governments concerned. The coöperation of the German Government would have made possible an orderly system of emigration which might have been financed largely from the assets of the emigrants themselves. Some prospects of this hope being achieved still existed when the outbreak of war created an entirely new situation. The Intergovernmental Committee has devoted itself particularly to examining and encouraging schemes of permanent settlement.

Each of these two bodies has limited functions, has a mandate restricted to particular groups of refugees, and has strictly defined the financial responsibilities. Neither would be able, then, in its present form, to deal effectively with the postwar problem. Either one could, however, be adapted and developed for the purpose. I do not wish to make any suggestion along this line, but prefer to outline what I conceive to be the functions of a single International Refugee Authority, capable of dealing with the main questions that will arise.


The Authority's mandate should extend to each group of longterm refugees as soon as it is satisfied that the group as a whole is of this character. Thus immediately after the war it might thus be concerned with only a few groups -- for example, refugees from Greater Germany and the so-called Nansen refugees (who now include the Russian and Armenian refugees from the last war) and perhaps the Spanish refugees. It would enlarge its mandate as the long-term character of other groups became evident. It would, therefore, have to be fully informed of the facts of the changing political and economic situation. It would be concerned with all matters affecting the interests of refugee groups which required international action or assistance and which were not the responsibility of some other international agency. Thus, if the immediate relief of physical distress after the war were the function of an Allied relief organization, the Refugee Authority would not have to participate in that task except in areas where the relief organization was not operating or where, by agreement with that body, there was reason for it to do so.

But physical distress is only one question. The Refugee Authority would deal with all questions affecting the long-term refugee which are outside the scope of a relief organization -- always keeping in mind its essential purpose of discovering a final solution for the groups within its care. This purpose cannot be emphasized too strongly. The world has become so accustomed to refugees that there is a tendency to regard them, if not as a permanent incubus, at least as an unavoidable incident of modern society. As a result, even the refugees themselves sometimes attach more importance to the palliatives than to the cure. The legal and political protection of the stateless person, for instance, is a matter of great importance which will continue to demand international action, but it is only a stage toward the real goal, which is to furnish the stateless person with a home and a nationality so that he ceases to be stateless -- a counsel of perfection perhaps, but one which has to be borne constantly in mind.

In the discharge of this primary duty the Authority will have to undertake many auxiliary functions, among them the following: to influence governments to adopt humanitarian principles in their attitude toward refugees, and to secure so far as possible a common code of rights in such matters as criminal and civil justice, education, health and state relief; to encourage the acceptance of appropriate forms of travel documents and passports of stateless persons; to develop and coördinate humanitarian assistance from international, state and private funds; to advise on, and, if necessary, to assist schemes of training and re-training to fit refugees for available employment and increase their economic value to the countries of reception; and to carry out or assist surveys of areas for settlement, and of particular industries for development by refugees. In general, the Authority will seek to convert refugees into citizens, either by their return to their own countries, or by their absorption within the country of refuge, by their normal emigration to other countries, or by large-scale settlement. These duties would relate primarily to long-term refugees, but, as after the last war, long-term problems may also arise in connection with persons who have returned to their own country and are technically no longer refugees but who nevertheless have to be resettled on a scale so large as to require international assistance. The International Refugee Authority might be a suitable agency to carry out such schemes.

It would be incumbent on the Authority to work in the closest coöperation with all states concerned, especially with the countries of temporary asylum, and to encourage each to take its full share in developing the final solution. It should work through and with the state authorities so far as possible, and where assistance was necessary it should give it freely. Similarly, it should coöperate with and encourage voluntary organizations working in the same or related fields. In the past, these have taken the foremost part in refugee work, and no praise is too high for their devotion and achievements. Both during the period immediately after the war and later, the voluntary workers can make a valuable contribution toward the relief of distress and the solution of refugee problems. They bring to their work a human element sometimes absent from official agencies; they are not fettered to the same extent by rules and regulations; and they establish individual contacts which a busy official has not the time to make. They are usually economical in their methods, and the reputation they have established enables them to tap private sources of revenue which can supplement state or international funds.

At the same time, it may be desirable, especially during the early period, to coördinate the efforts of the private agencies and the work of the International Refugee Authority so as to avoid overlapping, confusion and waste. The volunteer bodies could relieve both the Authority and the foreign offices of the countries concerned of a large part of the great mass of case work, that is to say, the hundred and one questions of detail which arise regarding individuals. Otherwise the Authority and the governments concerned would have to maintain large staffs for that purpose. Before the war, almost all the organizations were entirely dependent on private finance. They could not sustain the burden and in some countries they are now aided by the government. While private charity will no doubt continue to flow freely, it can provide only a part of the necessary funds. The voluntary bodies will have to be assisted from international or state funds; but any aid given will be more than repaid in the form of work done which would otherwise fall on public authorities.


Many of the issues that will have been suggested to the reader in the course of the preceding summary of a vast and complicated problem cannot be dealt with here; but there is one about which something must be said. How are new homes to be found for the refugees? I have mentioned four methods -- return to their own countries; absorption in the countries of temporary asylum; normal emigration; and large-scale settlements. In the past, emigration was by far the most successful way of handling refugee movements. It was the normal remedy before countries of immigration found it necessary to impose restrictions. Even so, it took care by infiltration of at least 85 percent of the 250,000 refugees from Greater Germany who were permanently settled before the war. It will, no doubt, continue to play an important part; but we would be foolish to shut our eyes to certain facts.

After the war some time is likely to pass before the ebb and flow of migration reverts even to prewar conditions (in which it will be recalled, many restrictions were in operation). In ordinary circumstances, emigration provides outlets for the overflow of populations by spreading it over countries where it can be put to use economically, with benefit to all. This presupposes a reasonable degree of stability in the countries of reception, a factor likely to be absent or uncertain immediately after the war. Employment may be difficult; the absorption of demobilized men and women into civil work will take time; the change-over from war to peace industry will not be easy; and the prospects in the various primary industries, such as agriculture, will not at once be clear. Some countries may be reluctant to open their doors until the future -- particularly of their own people -- can be forecast with some accuracy. These factors may be offset by others more favorable. The ravages of war may convert a previous excess of population in some European areas into a shortage; repair of the ravages of war may dispel the specter of unemployment; new financial and economic policies may produce rapid results.

However this may be, we would be unwise to assume that either the capacity or the will of countries to receive immigrants will be unlimited in the years immediately following the end of the war. To find homes for the refugees we shall certainly have to resort to all the four methods mentioned. Every effort will have to be made, too, to keep the number down to manageable proportions. This can be done in two ways. First, as many as possible of the persecuted should be enabled to return to the countries from which they were expelled; second, causes which might otherwise lead to an immediate exodus of a new host of refugees should be removed.

As regards the first, compulsory repatriation is out of the question. The persecuted must go back of their own free will. At the best, they will not do so unless they are reasonably certain that they can live the lives of citizens with the rights of citizens, and with full protection of life and property. As for the second, there are now countries in Europe where whole classes of the population, and especially the Jews, are suffering every form of persecution that a diabolical ingenuity can devise. There are millions who would escape tomorrow if they were able to do so. No wonder that many regard these countries as places in which they cannot live in the future. There is grave danger of a new rush outward as soon as the opportunity occurs -- a centrifugal movement which would go far to cancel the homing instinct of others, and which would superimpose on the long-term problem a new refugee problem which would make the whole intractable and insoluble.

It must be the business of the United Nations to see that this does not happen. In imposing terms of peace they must at once annul all discriminatory legislation and end all administrative measures of discrimination. They must restore to the affected classes the rights of citizens and guarantee them safety and protection of life and property. These measures must have the sanction of military force. True, this alone will not wipe out the legacy of hatred and prejudice which Nazism will leave behind. Time is the only real solvent. But conditions must meanwhile be made at least tolerable, and the principle enforced that it is the first duty of a government to protect its own nationals. It is not only the fate of the millions of persons now directly affected that is at issue. If the flagrant breach of this principle by the Nazis is condoned, then sooner or later other countries will inevitably adopt the same evil methods. The refugee problem, which will otherwise yield to treatment, would then have to be designated as beyond solution.

[i] Address to members of the Executive Committee of the Intergovernmental Committee dealing with refugee problems, Washington, October 17, 1939.

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  • SIR HERBERT EMERSON, High Commissioner for Refugees, League of Nations, and Director of the Inter-Governmental Committee on Refugees
  • More By Herbert Emerson