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The Nansen Passport – Time to Revive a Realistic Utopia

The groundbreaking document that helped Europe overcome past refugee crises could help once more, argues Stefan Wallaschek of the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences.

Written by Stefan Wallaschek Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Oslo nansen
An art installation in Oslo, Norway, showing an original Nansen passport. Ivan Vasilev

As the European Union fumbles for a response to the global displacement crisis and the streams of people arriving on its shores, there is a historic answer that is being overlooked. The Nansen passport, created in the aftermath of the Russian civil war in 1922, was an international certificate issued as a substitute for a national passport. It enabled transit for the stateless and refugees and it could do so again.

The brainchild of Norwegian diplomat Fridtjof Nansen, who was High Commissioner for Refugees at the League of Nations, the passport went on to be recognized by 52 countries and help nearly half a million refugees. His initiative, the first legal instrument for the protection of refugees, won Nansen the Nobel Peace Prize.

Amid today’s confusion surrounding national asylum systems and controversies over the status of “safe countries of origin,” the revival of the Nansen passport in a modern form is overdue. It could be the cornerstone of a common European migration and refugee policy, something European leaders have preferred to talk about rather than enact.

The Treaty of Lisbon, the constitutional basis of the European Union, envisages a value-driven community in which there is a spirit of solidarity. In contrast, the Dublin Convention, which governs asylum applications, is not a burden-sharing mechanism – it obliges the first country that asylum seekers enter to deal with them. The Nansen passport would solve this contradiction by relieving the pressure on frontier states such as Greece, Malta and Italy.

The passport could be distributed by E.U. officials to asylum seekers in UNHCR refugee camps. A potential pilot program might involve Syrians who usually get refugee status in any case, but normally have to risk crossing the Mediterranean to obtain it. For refugees it would provide an E.U.-wide ID card, valid for two to three years at first and then offering the freedom to enter any E.U. member state.

If necessary, this could be combined with a mandatory relocation plan throughout the E.U. to relieve the burden on countries receiving disproportionately high numbers of refugees. While regular refugee travel documents are only given to those who have already been registered in a host country, the Nansen passport would provide the displaced people with freedom of movement in Europe right away.

The aim behind the Dublin Convention was to prevent multiple applications from asylum seekers in different countries. This safeguard would be maintained under the Nansen passport; only one asylum application in any E.U. country would be needed. The Nansen passport would also reduce the bureaucratic burden on each E.U. member state in reviewing the applications.

Critics argue that the Nansen passport would be wide open to abuse; this cannot be denied altogether. There is no guarantee that people in UNHCR-run refugee camps have not been influenced by fundamentalists, or that they face a legitimate threat of persecution.

But these weaknesses are common to all systems and ignore the reality that several recent terror attacks have been carried out by people holding E.U. citizenship. People need not go to ISIS-controlled territory to become terrorists – nor do terrorists have to claim asylum in Europe to launch violent attacks. A Nansen passport would not automatically lead to more terrorists coming to the E.U.

It could be implemented on the European level if a strong coalition of member states, supranational institutions and civil society organizations lobbied for it. The southern European states such as Italy, Greece and Malta have borne by far the biggest refugee burden. The passport could relieve this pressure.

Germany and Sweden, currently hosting the highest numbers of refugees in Europe, often argue for a common migration and asylum policy in the E.U. The Nansen passport could be the first concrete step in this direction. Moreover, leftist governments in Italy, Greece, Portugal or France could demonstrate a common position on an E.U. refugee policy by proposing the passport initiative in the Council of Europe. Such a diverse but powerful alliance could push for a qualified majority vote in the council. If they are backed up by the European Parliament and the European Commission as well as pro-refugee organizations all over Europe, the initiative could stand a chance. The European Parliament could demonstrate its potential power in E.U. decision-making processes by supporting this proposal.

Opposition would be formidable, but not necessarily insurmountable. The counter coalition would likely be led by the Visegrad quartet – Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – as well as Britain. But June’s Brexit vote has weakened the voice of the U.K. in this arena.

Brexit could, in fact, have improved the chances of the Nansen passport by weakening the euro-sceptic and migration-sceptic coalition in the E.U. However, national elections in France and Germany in 2017 may change the shape of power in the E.U. – depending on the election results achieved by the Front National and Alternative fur Deutschland, rightwing populists in France and Germany respectively.

The fight against smugglers and human trafficking is an important issue for conservative politicians in the E.U. Introducing the Nansen passport would diminish prospects for the smuggling trade, by providing a legal way of entering the E.U. and hence removing asylum seekers’ need to pay for a risky passage to Europe. So it could potentially be seen as a win for the conservatives and security-focused parties. The securitization of the E.U. border regime could be reduced and the Mediterranean graveyard could finally be closed.

Current political circumstances are clearly not favorable to radical solutions such as the Nansen passport. However, if we think only about what is possible we will lose sight of the need to decide what should really be done. The revival of this old idea is realistically utopian and could elevate current political debates and policies. It is realistic enough to work, given a chance, and utopian in the sense of restoring some justice to future migration policy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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