Nansen Passport

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The "Nansen Passport" was the name for a series of documents used during the period between World Wars I and II as identification and travel papers for refugees, initially given only to Russians fleeing the civil war that ultimately solidified Bolshevik power, but was eventually distributed to many refugee communities. The passport was named after Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, a chemist and explorer who had been named High Commissioner for Refugees by the League of Nations, and is cited as both founding modern refugee regimes as well as helping to solidify the "monopoly of movement" by states.

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Front Page of French Nansen Passport

The Problem of Statelessness

The rise of the nation-state as the dominant form of governance is generally attributed to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which stipulated that sovereigns held the exclusive right to determine religious practices within their territorial boundaries. A key component of the sovereign power of states, as argued by John Torpey, is the "monopoly of movement", i.e. the ability of the nation-state to control who enters and leaves its territory (and in the case of more controlling regimes such as both Tsarist and Soviet Russia, moves within its territory) (Torpey, p. 7). This monopoly has largely been mediated through the passport, or official documents that typically verify identity and citizenship. While slips of paper, seals, buttons and other forms of documentation had been used in pre-modern Europe to enable and regulate travel between locales, the modern passport required vast bureaucratic and technical advances that did not truly come to fruition until the late nineteenth century. Yet the invention and spread of the passport cannot be seen as merely as the rise of the panoptic and totalizing power of the state, for the passports also entitled citizens to certain rights and claims against the state- such as the right of a citizen to return to their home country. The passport is thus a point of contact between the citizen and the state, the physical substance through which their relationship is mediated.

Prior to World War I the enforcement of passport regimes was relatively lax, and ideals of free movement won out over the "indignities" of carrying passports while traveling. During World War I, however, it became expedient for states to control the emigration of potential labor and draftees, as well as to limit access of their territories to potentially dangerous foreigners. During the interwar period, there were several attempts to do away with the international passport regime and reinstate areas of free movement, but these efforts were thwarted by concerns over security and population control.

Yet the solidification of an international regime of passport controls led to a heretofore unprecedented problem- the presence of the apatride, or the "stateless person". These were individuals who did not lack a nationality- it was often due to their nationality that they had become stateless- but rather had their official relationship with their home state severed through the willful or unintended destruction of their identity and travel documents. While these individuals existed within their home states (notably within Fascist regimes), the problem was acutely felt among emmigrants who could not appeal to either their home or host country for verification of identity and the ability to work or travel. As pointed out by Hannah Arendt, these "legal freaks" were in and after World War II regularly placed in internment camps (Arendt, 278)- following Giorgio Agamben, the apatride were reduced to their bios (biological life) through a literal removal of their zoe (civic life), which was physically manifested in the passports and other documentation that they were denied. Being the embodiment of the state of exception- the outside of the state's judicial inside- the camp is the logical and tragic culmination of this process, for the camp is the spatial containment of bios without zoe.

The presence of the stateless can be seen as the product of a fundamental contradiction in the system of nation-state power. Intrinsic to the concept of the nation-state is that it is finite- there are citizens and non-citizens, territory that is within its grasp and influence and territory without. As argued by Agamben, the nation-state is both defined by and draws its power from these distinctions- the legal is based in the extra-legal. The contradiction lies in the supposed totality of the nation-state system, at least in regards to territorial domination. Stateless persons are an arguably inevitable result of the totality of territorial domination yet the exclusivity of citizenship that accompanies the hegemony of the nation-state. Although alternative measures were imagined that would give territory to the stateless (early understandings of a Jewish state in Palestine or Africa are examples of this), ultimately the space granted to refugees was internal to the state- once again, the refugee camp. The Nansen passport was an attempt to create a legal relationship between the refugee and the host country in the hopes of ultimately normalizing relations, either through naturalization or repatriation.

The Refugee Crisis

The largest flood of document-less refugees of the interwar era were Russians fleeing the civil war and rise of the Soviet Union. Nearly one million refugees were generated by this conflict, flooding both Eastern and Western Europe, as well as way-points such as Constantinople. Initially, many refugees (and their host countries) viewed this situation as temporary, as it was hoped that the Bolsheviks would ultimately capitulate to the Western-backed White Army. As the war developed, and it became apparent that the Red Army would emerge victorious. The status of these refugees was consistently unclear, for not only did many of them not possess proper documentation (the conditions of their flight did not allow them to obtain such papers, or destroyed them in the process), even those who held "valid" passports found their papers useless when the tide of war changed. This situation put an immense strain not only on the refugees, but also on the host countries who- with a few exceptions such as France- were not in a position to absorb the vast number of immigrants that crowded their urban areas. Constantinople in particular was overwhelmed by Russian immigrants, from which the Allied Commander-in-Chief General Harrington stated "we are faced with 28,000 starving Russians on the streets, mostly invalids, women, and children, faced with winter, starvation, and death" (quoted in Skran, 38).

The nationalist drive of Turkey to "purify" its territory lead to an outright genocide against the people of Armenia, in which at least 3 million people were marched to the desert and killed. Approximately 200,000 Armenians were able to flee Turkey, settling primarily in France, Greece, Bulgaria and Syria. Like the Russians, the circumstances of their emigration resulted in the absence of any proper documentation- they truly were a stateless people.

These two incidents occurred against the backdrop of the mass migration patterns that accompanied World War I, a war in which civilian areas were targeted just as readily as military capacities. Unlike the majority of post-war refugees, however, the Russians and the Armenians either did not want to be or could not be repatriated. Their lack of documentation, however, made it impossible for them to have any kind of normalized relationship with their host country, or even to leave the country if they so wished. It was in answer to this crisis that the League of Nations was called upon, by the International Committee of the Red Cross, to organize and enact humanitarian reform.

Fridtjof Nansen and the High Commission for Refugees

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Young Fridtjof Nansen
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Opening of the League of Nations. Nansen is seated second from the left in the fourth row.

Successes and Failures

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Early Nansen Passport of farm laborer Niktin Constantin- note that the form directly refers to the bearer's Russian citizenship
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First three pages of a blank French Nansen Passport, which is now folded into a booklet and contains more categories to be used for identifying information.

Death, Media and the Document

The Trouble of Definition, or Lincoln's Ax

The Nansen Passport provides a unique challenge to its analysis as a medium, dead or alive. Like Lincoln's proverbial ax, which had both its handle and head replaced several times yet was still held to be a single continuous entity, the Nansen passport is a chimerical entity that while giving the impression of definitional finality is in fact a loose convergence of policy, paper and personal information. First, the physical content of the passport is hardly unique, for it is nothing more than a sheet of paper (or, in its later iterations, a booklet) with printed categories to be filled in by the issuer, along with space for a photograph and the signature of the holder. There are no patents directly associated with the Nansen passport- unless one were to count the paper that was used for as subjectile, the printers used to inscribe the documents, the pens used to fill out the form, or the camera used to capture the holder's photograph. How, on a material level, is it possible to differentiate the Nansen passport from other printed material, or even worse, from other passports?

Even more disconcerting is the fact that the Nansen passport was not issued by a single governing body, but rather by the 52 governments who had ratified the original Arrangement. While there was a degree of uniformity in these documents (in particular, the "Nansen Stamp" which officiated the document and also helped to pay for the administrative costs of the Refugee Committee), there were no requisite similarities between the various Nansen passports produced by the different countries. As there is no defining unity at the material level, or even necessarily in the form of the document, one could argue that Nansen passports could at least be distinguished by their use and purpose- given to refugees to be used as identification when traveling outside of the host country. Yet even this definition is problematic, for the Nansen passport was ostensibly only given to Russian and Armenian refugees, and their power and worth varied depending on the host country and over time (later Arrangements granted greater rights to passport holders, but fewer countries ratified these Arrangements).

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Nansen by another name? Affidavit of Identity in Lieu of Passport for Hannah Arendt. These Affidavits allowed many refugees fleeing Nazi oppression to emigrate to the United States, including Arendt and her husband.

Further complicating matters is the UNHCR, which encourages host countries to issue temporary travel documents to the stateless, and the International Red Cross, which is able to issue emergency travel documents in particular circumstances (Torpey, 144)- is a Nansen passport by any other name not a Nansen passport? A tissue that is not a Kleenex is still considered a tissue, and is often called a Kleenex; plasma screen televisions have little to nothing in common with their original ancestors, yet in common language and in concept they are the same media. How then is it possible to draw a clear line between refugee passports issued in the interwar period and those created after World War II? It is difficult to argue that this is a case of remediation, for the purpose, materials, and even form of the modern refugee documents are no more or less varied than those issued under Nansen's name. Can a form, or more to the point, a form of forms be delimited as finite media that transcend the grouping of "documents", regardless of its historic importance? As somewhat whimsically (yet with deadly seriousness) Jacques Derrida describes the various forms of paper- from toilet paper to identity documents- and wonders if they can be reduced to a "paper principle" (Derrida, 47-48). If the very material with which a document is formed is malleable and unstable, how can one expect the document itself to maintain a coherent being?

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Nansen's Funeral Procession in Olso- Is the passport in the crowd or the coffin?

It seems that the Nansen passport is then best described using the agency and policies that commanded and shaped its production- the High Council for Refugees and the various Arrangements. In other words, the Nansen passport can only be differentiated from other forms, papers and passports by its affiliation with Nansen. This is an oddly Platonic argument, in which the passport is merely the physical manifestation of the ideal created by the High Council. In a way, it is the same as arguing that a traditional media such as a television is not the physical artefact or its use, but rather its patent. This definition provides a definitive socio-historical context for the document, which may in fact be of greater utility than observing similarities or differences between physical artifacts. The Nansen passport represents a particular technical response to an emergent problem- the existence of stateless persons- that embodies in its deployment the particular constellation of institutional and cultural pressures of that era. It is highly significant that the passport was only granted to people of certain nationalities, for even the stateless were incorporated into the totality of the nation. The Nansen passport is dead, for the legal and social conditions of its creation are no more. Just as the explorer-hero embodied by Dr. Nansen is a ghostly figure of a past age, the Nansen passport is a document that can no longer be produced. The documents produced at the behest of the UNHCR and the International Red Cross are simply temporary interventions in an international regime that has systematically incorporated the stateless through prohibition- the refugee camp is no longer a horrific, ephemeral transit point, but rather a permanent aspect of the modern experience- for example, the camps of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The Nansen passport was an important turning point in these relations, for while his passport offered the possibility of incorporation of the stateless into the nascent state system, it in fact paved the way for permanent disenfranchisement- the inclusion through exclusion of the modern camp.


Arendt, Hannah. 1968. The origins of totalitarianism. New York,: Harcourt.

Marrus, Michael Robert. 1985. The unwanted : European refugees in the twentieth century. New York: Oxford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2005. Paper machine, Cultural memory in the present. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Skran, Claudena M. 1995. Refugees in inter-war Europe : the emergence of a regime. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press.

Sørensen, Øystein. 1993. Fridtjof Nansen : mannen og myten. [Oslo]: Universitetsforlaget.

Torpey, John C. 2000. The invention of the passport : surveillance, citizenship, and the state, Cambridge studies in law and society. Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.