News Release

The League of Nations created the definition of refugee

Book Announcement

University of Helsinki

The definition of "refugee" and the international refugee aid system were created a hundred years ago, in the 1920s and 1930s, thanks to the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization. Dedicated travel documents for refugees were adopted at the same time, allowing people fleeing from danger to move across international borders. Harri Sallinen's dissertation, the first comprehensive historical overview of the topic, will be examined in the University of Helsinki on Friday, 15 November.

The First World War and its aftermath resulted in an unprecedented refugee problem. Europe witnessed a veritable flood of refugees, particularly from Armenia and Russia – the number of Russian refugees has been estimated to have totalled more than one million.

"The UN's predecessor, the League of Nations, has been considered a failure since it could not maintain peace, but the introduction of a system of administration for refugee affairs was undeniably a victory for the League and for the ILO as well," states Harri Sallinen.

"The League of Nations continued to operate throughout the inter-war period without interruption, and it formed the foundation for the UN's refugee aid system, which was established after the Second World War."

The discussion of the time featured dissenting opinions suggesting that the issue of refugees should not be the task of an organisation such as the League of Nations. For example, the workers' movement may have wanted to oppose the international mobility of refugees, which increased competition for jobs. In the 1930s, one strong opponent of all work for refugees was Nazi Germany, as most of the refugees originated from there.

Correspondingly, France was a strong supporter of the organisations drafting the system for helping refugees, as it housed a great number of refugees.


Before the First World War, passports were not commonly in use, and many countries required no travel documents from people intending to cross their borders. The war closed all borders. Once countries began to issue passports to their citizens, refugees who had fled from, and consequently forfeited the protection provided by, their countries posed a problem. They were often dissidents to those in power in their home countries, which made the refugee question a highly political one.

At this point the League of Nations began to help refugees attain official travel documents. The status of the refugees was examined according to instructions and definitions from the League of Nations. Passports were still issued to refugees by national authorities, but the task was carried out under instructions from the League of Nations. The criteria for qualifying as a refugee were defined based on the country of origin, but determining features were the need for protection and threats on the person's life or wellbeing. In this way the Nansen passport separated true refugees from people who left their countries in hopes of a better livelihood or other less compelling reasons.

The Nansen passports received their name from Fridtjof Nansen, High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations and well-known cosmopolite.

Currently a global set of criteria for refugees exists, but many international agreements on the status of refugees were created in the very beginning of refugee work, nearly a century ago.

"The problem continues to be the fact that no organisation is very good at motivating authorities and monitoring that they comply with the agreements," Sallinen points out.

"The treatment of refugees is ultimately up to individual states and their officials, such as border control employees."


MA Harri Sallinen's dissertation "Intergovernmental Advocates of Refugees: The Refugee Policy of the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization in the 1920s and 1930s" will be examined at the University of Helsinki Faculty of Social Sciences on 15 November at 12.00. The field of the dissertation is political history.

Contact information for the doctoral candidate: Tel. +358 40 729 7450,

Thesis abstract:

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