Logo Leipzig University

Modern Refugees as Challengers of Nation-State Sovereignty. From the Historical to the Contemporary Leipziger

|   Comparativ - Journal of Global History and Comparative Studies

Gilad Ben-Nun (Leipzig U) and Frank Caestecker (Ghent U)

Publication Date2017
PublicationComparativ 27, Vol. 1
PublisherLeipziger Universitätsverlag



The image of refugees cramming at an armed border post of a neighbouring country, pleading entry so as to avoid being sent back to the horrors engulfing their place of origin, is profoundly associated with the 20th Century. The modern consolidation of national borders, coupled with States’ ability to unabatingly exercise sovereign control over who enters them, has turned border posts the world over, whether on land or at the parting of territorial waters, into flashpoints of the global refugee crisis. Elapsing a century since the 1915 Armenian exile, this volume explores the challenge posed by refugees to sovereign nation states, as they are faced with the dilemma of inhumanely refusing their entry thus rendering themselves morally-repulsive, or allowing their entrance thus ipso facto qualifying their own sovereignty.


The first two contributions of this volume explore the clash between refugees and nation state sovereignty, during the naissance of international space under the establishment of the League of Nations – a period in which the parallel development of modern international law took place.

In her chapter on Russian refugees, Elizabeth White explores the origins of our current international refugee regime, through a detailed examination of the actions of the League of Nation’s first High Commissioner for Refugees – Fridtjof Nansen on their behalf.

In his contribution concerning the Jewish and political refugees who fled the Third Reich, Frank Caestecker explores how states reacted to an ongoing refugee crisis. In contrast to the Russian refugee crisis where states agreed to international obligations after the refugee crisis, in the case of the Reich’s refugees, policy makers intervened before and during this crisis.

The adoption of the 1951 Convention represents a watershed moment in the history of refugee law, being the first instrument that truly universalized the rights of refugees versus nation states. These rights were considerably strengthened with the adoption of the non-refoulement principle, which entailed restrictions over border policy. In his contribution, Gilad Ben-Nun substantiates the argument that the drafters of the 1951 Refugee Convention understood the implications of their decision to endorse the non refoulement principle in its most stringent prohibitive form, as it imposed upon states the negative duty of not returning refugees back into the hands of their tormentors “in any manner whatsoever”.

In his contribution, Irial Glynn comparatively examines the fundamentally-different responses of Italy and Australia to the incoming influx of boat-fairing refugees towards their shores in recent decades.