This picture is of a small boy who was part of the exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece in 1923 after the signing of the “Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations.” We do not know for certain his nationality, his religion, or his name, but we know his family was a part of the exchange and he and many others were considered refugees. We have these pictures because of the efforts of the Near East Relief service and a small group of Americans and British humanitarians.
Refugee crises almost always accompany war, and World War I was no exception. The response to WWI’s refugee crisis was piecemeal and chaotic. Frederick Leith-Ross, a British economic advisor, insisted in 1943 that more lives could have been saved after World War I if there had been more planning before the end of hostilities. As a result, the international community collaborated before the end of World Wart II to create the United National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, an international effort to provide food, emergency provisions, and health services to those impacted by war. The organization had flaws and many obstacles to its effectiveness, but it provided the foundation for later international efforts to protect refugees that emerged with the Refugee Convention of 1951. According to Article 1 of the Convention, a refugee is a person who “owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality.” Refugees are by definition vulnerable populations in need of assistance. Although the US is not a party to the Convention, we are party to the Protocol of 1967. We also have obligations to refugees under the older Geneva Conventions.
Through the creation of these institutions, the United States and its presidents played important roles in shaping refugee policy. While this influence often had self-interested motives, the US was at the table providing resources, aid, and input. We knew it would be in our interest to create a mechanism to assist those fleeing persecution or war, those leaving their countries in fear for their lives.
At the same time, our leaders created a process that would vet refugees carefully with attention to their backgrounds, ideologies, and roles in combat. This policy has tightened considerably since 9/11, making resettlement in the US a lengthy and expensive process. The United States helped to set the foundation of the refugee resettlement regime, and yesterday President Trump’s actions undermined that legacy. He has reduced the number who could be allowed in, increased the timetable unnecessarily, and redefined our refugee policy to exclude refugees based on specific country of origin.
Let’s fight back. Learn about the convention and the current international and American process for vetting refugee claimants on my page about Refugee Resettlement. I will be adding more links and information as possible. Get involved with your local resettlement agencies or give money to support a national service. Call and email your Senators and Representatives. Bring attention to this issue and educate your friends and family. Fight lies with history.