Nansen passports may soon be making a comeback as a means of coping with the possibility that thousands of Belarusians and potentially tens of thousands of Russians will be left without statehood due to actions by their governments and their flight abroad (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 13, 2022). These passports were originally given out by the League of Nations to Russians and others who had become stateless in the 1920s and 1930s. Such a development would address the immediate consequences of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s decision to block Belarusians abroad from renewing their passports at Belarus’s diplomatic missions (see EDM, September 13). It would also provide a response to Moscow’s increasing hostility directed at those who have left Russia out of opposition to President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. Anti-Putin Russians, in turn, could issue these documents to “good Russians” in setting themselves apart from those Russians who remain loyal to the Kremlin leader. Overall, the return of the Nansen passport could exercise powerful influence on the policies of many countries in dealing with refugees and others who might be classified as stateless.
Nansen passports were part of a system operated by the League of Nations that provided both identity and travel documents to those who were deprived of citizenship by the Soviet or other governments. The passports are named after the great Norwegian explorer and humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen. They were set up in 1922 after the Soviet government a year earlier had stripped 800,000 former subjects of the Russian Empire of their citizenship for fleeing abroad. The documents continued to be handed out until 1938. Most of those who received a Nansen passport lacked both legal status in the countries they fled to as well as the basic necessities of life. Thus, the Nansen system involved not only the distribution of identification documents but also the provision of humanitarian and social aid. (For a useful discussion of the program, see Theconversation.com, November 6, 2017.)
The Nansen passport has been viewed as a historical issue with no application to the present or future. Three key developments in the past two years have changed that, however. First, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whose “provisional cabinet” is effectively trying to establish a Belarusian government-in-exile, recently announced her decision to offer “new Belarus” passports to those who may lose their citizenship due to Lukashenka’s tightening of passport renewals abroad (Zerkalo, August 6). Second, two Russian opposition politicians, Gary Kasparov and Dmitry Gudkov, presented a proposal to create special passports for “good Russians” to distinguish opponents of the Putin regime from its supporters (Current Time TV, May 23, 2022). Third, international concern has been growing in considering what might happen to the residents of small island countries likely to be submerged due to climate change (Statsvet.uu.se, accessed September 26). The Nansen passport concept has been held up as a possible solution to this potentially dire situation.
These developments could introduce additional complexities into international law regarding standards for the issuance of citizenship documents. This has been the case with the distribution of non-citizen passports in countries such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The process was initially fraught with problems, which international legal specialists often tried to minimize. In recent years however, the program has become more effective as the status and rights for non-citizens have improved (see EDM, October 19, 2021). The use of such documentation is actively spreading beyond the original purpose of dealing with those who were relocated under Soviet occupation. Consequently, there has been a growing, albeit still relatively small boom in interest for using the Nansen passport as model for the future. (See Friendsofeurope.org, October 19, 2021.)
Perhaps the most compelling arguments in favor of the Nansen system emanate from Russia. Such reasoning reflects the all-too-real concerns of many Russians that their government will soon follow Lukashenka’s in making it more difficult for those abroad to retain their Russian citizenship. One of the most convincing cases for reinstating the Nansen passport comes from Boris Grozovsky, editor of the “Events and Texts” Telegram channel. In a major essay for the Russian outlet Important Stories, he recounts how much good the Nansen passports did for Russian émigrés, sustaining some of the most prominent members of the first Russian emigration (Istories.media, September 11). Grozovsk also points out that they “were salvation not only for Russian émigrés.” The documents were also given to refugees from the Ottoman Empire and to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. In 1926, 26 countries recognized the passports as official documentation; in 1942, 52 countries recognized them. “For the majority of people,” the Russian editor continues, this passport was “a temporary and palliative solution until the individuals involved could obtain citizenship in another country.”
The Nansen passports were also critically important in providing international legal status and defense for stateless persons. This category has exploded since World War II and thus reduced the willingness of states to extend such identification documents. Grozovsky, therefore, enthusiastically welcomes the decision of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in June 2023 to open discussions on whether something like the Nansen passports should be instituted (Istories.media, September 11).
Revival of the Nansen system may indeed be a constructive solution in dealing with refugees and stateless persons more globally. New Nansen passports, Grozovsky suggests, “could become a universal solution that would be called upon to help not only Russians and Belarusians but all refugees” (Istories.media, September 11). The number of countries that would actually agree to such an arrangement very much remains an open question. Strong opposition to immigration in some countries means that, even in Europe, not all states are likely to go along with the program, especially if it involves a commitment to providing humanitarian and social assistance. And, as was the case for the League of Nations, each country would have the right to decide whether to recognize a convention on Nansen passports or not.
UN discussions on reinstating the Nansen system are likely to be prolonged. Nevertheless, the more actions Belarusian and Russian officials take against those who were fully recognized as citizens before they moved abroad, the more likely these talks are to move forward. An old idea most had consigned to the dustbin of history may be revived to help those from Belarus and Russia initially, and may ultimately provide assistance to refugees and stateless persons across the world.