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How the Russian Revolution Turned Refugees into Political Pawns

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The Supreme Court last week allowed parts of President Trump’s travel ban to go into effect and agreed to review the legality of the controversial order in October. The ban, which broadly restricts travel from six predominantly Muslim countries and suspends refugee resettlement to the United States, is in line with Trump. inflammatory remarks during the presidential campaign, branding refugees from Syria as potential terrorists whose arrival threatened “the destruction of civilization as we know it”.

When the court hears the case, the administration will argue that the president has the power to stop refugee resettlement in the interest of national security. Opponents will claim that the ban violates religious freedom, exceeds the limits of presidential power and neglects international and national legal obligations towards refugees.

At first sight, it would seem that the two camps are diametrically opposed. Yet both arguments take for granted the rather limited concept of refugee that arose after the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in 1917.

A hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution transformed the migrant into a refugee—a political actor. During the Cold War, the West took in refugees fleeing communism and turned them into powerful symbolic weapons. The politicization of the refugee facilitated movement through the Iron Curtain, but it masked the complexities motivating migration. Today, this simplified refugee narrative has reinforced the barriers for those forced to flee in the 21st century.

The Russian Revolution triggered a flood of migrants pouring into European cities. In doing so, he also gave the world a new vocabulary of international migration by creating terms such as refugee, escaped and defector describe the reasons why people fled and define the rights they enjoyed abroad. The Bolsheviks denounced the departure of the socialist state as a betrayal, while their opponents sheltered those who claimed to leave for ideological reasons. Both sides framed the decision to migrate as a political act, giving rise to a global refugee regime that reigns to this day.

Those fleeing Soviet rule had their citizenship stripped, but became the world’s first legally recognized refugees, recognized by the League of Nations as a group facing persecution and deprived of state protection. Being classified as a refugee entitles migrants to certain benefits, including a Nansen passport, a travel document that allowed people without nationality to cross international borders.

The tumultuous period in Europe that included two world wars ended in 1945 with the greatest refugee crisis in history. The rapid dawn of the Cold War turned this crisis into a political showdown between East and West for the hearts, minds and bodies of the more than 5 million Soviets languishing in established displaced persons camps. hastily. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which recognized persecution on the basis of an individual’s “political opinion” as grounds for flight, further fueled global competition for refugees.

While the Soviet Union sought to repatriate its citizens and prevent others from leaving, the United States and its allies encouraged their exit. Even more than before, any unauthorized movement across the borders of the Soviet state – whatever the motivation – was interpreted as a political decision: depending on one’s point of view, either a betrayal of socialism or a choice for capitalist democracy.

This new battle sidelined the old racial hierarchies that had governed resettlement in the West. Instead, a new system of privileges developed, prioritizing migrants fleeing communist states, including countries like China and Cuba, whose residents had previously faced severe entry restrictions. in the USA. While “escapees” from communist regimes were privileged, “defectors” were particularly celebrated.

The term defector, which caught on in the United States, was officially defined as someone who escaped from a Communist-controlled country, was unwilling to return, and was of “special interest” to the US government. In practice, “special interests” encompassed just about anything that furthered the goal of winning the Cold War. The defectors included disgruntled KGB agents as well as ballet dancers who sought better opportunities abroad, minorities who felt oppressed by Soviet rule, and Soviet sailors who “jumped ship” in foreign ports in looking for adventures.

Unlike other refugees, the defectors were chased from vulnerable border areas by interagency committees, pumped for information, offered financial assistance, and used for propaganda purposes. Congress welcomed their arrival in the United States by passing special laws to grant them permanent residency.

The idea of ​​migration as a black-and-white choice between communism and capitalism, however, grossly simplified the motivations of even the most politicized defectors. On closer inspection, instead of mere ideological calculations, we find more ambiguous and ultimately more human stories of migration: Soviet soldiers who entered the American zone after a night of drinking; a 16-year-old student who snuck aboard a ship in Odessa bound for Crete; a diplomat who fell in love with a stranger abroad; a mother who hijacked a plane in search of a more prosperous life for her children.

With the end of the Cold War, defection – which once captured the popular imagination – faded. Today, we rarely hear the term. It is sometimes used to describe people leaving socialist states like North Korea, but very rarely applied to other migrants.

It is even difficult to imagine defectors from the ranks of foreign terrorist organizations, and even more difficult to imagine the United States celebrating their arrival. The borders of the war on terrorism do not conform perfectly to state borders, and our fear of terrorism does not seem to allow for the possibility of switching sides. As a result, in the absence of Cold War rivalry, we lack a cohesive narrative that compels us to help refugees.

While states once clamored to speak on behalf of those fleeing the socialist world – often to the point of drowning out the individual voices of those who left – many refugees today are greeted by a potentially deadly combination of apathy. and mistrust. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the right of citizens to leave their own state is widely accepted, but the barriers to entry into Europe and the United States are higher than ever.

Looking back over the past 100 years, we have learned the wrong lessons from history if we believe today’s refugees are vastly different from those who came earlier because they are fleeing failed states, environmental devastation and economic deprivation instead of socialism.

While legal arguments in the Supreme Court may be limited to the concept of refugee that developed over the course of the 20th century, as a society we must grapple with the historical limits of the term, expanding the protection it can offer those forced to flee while recognizing the wide range of factors that have always driven humans to move.

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