Last week the Supreme Court 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 largely restricts travel from six predominantly Muslim countries and suspends the resettlement of refugees in the United States, dovetails with Trump’s incendiary remarks during the presidential campaign, singling out 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 authority to halt refugee resettlement in the interest of national security. Opponents will claim that the ban violates religious freedom, exceeds the boundaries of presidential power and neglects international and domestic legal obligations to refugees.
At first blush, it would seem that the two sides are diametrically opposed. Yet both arguments take for granted the rather limited concept of the refugee that was born after the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in 1917.
One hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution transformed the migrant into the refugee — a political actor. During the Cold War, the West embraced refugees fleeing from communism and turned them into powerful symbolic weapons. The politicization of the refugee facilitated movement across the Iron Curtain, but it obscured the complexities motivating migration. Now, this simplified refugee narrative has heightened barriers for those forced to take flight in the 21st century.
The Russian Revolution unleashed a flood of migrants streaming into Europe’s cities. In the process, it also gave the world a new vocabulary of international migration by creating terms like refugee, escapee and defector to describe why people fled and to define the rights they enjoyed abroad. The Bolsheviks denounced departure from the socialist state as treason, 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 revoked, but became the world’s first legally recognized refugees, acknowledged by the League of Nations as a group who faced persecution and were deprived of the protection of a state. Being classified as a refugee entitled migrants to certain benefits, including a Nansen passport, a travel document that allowed those without citizenship to cross international borders.
The tumultuous period in Europe that included two World Wars concluded in 1945 with the largest refugee crisis in history. The rapid dawning of the Cold War transformed this crisis into a political tug of war between East and West for the hearts, minds and bodies of the more than 5 million Soviets languishing in hastily established Displaced Persons camps. The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, which recognized persecution on the basis of an individual’s “political opinion” as grounds for fleeing, further fueled the global competition for refugees.
As 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 Soviet state lines — regardless of the motivation — was interpreted as a political decision: depending on one’s perspective, 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 that prioritized migrants fleeing communist states, including countries such as China and Cuba whose residents had earlier faced severe restrictions on entry into the United States. While “escapees” from communist regimes received preference, “defectors” were particularly celebrated.
The term defector, which gained widespread currency 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 U.S. government. In practice, “special interest” encompassed just about anything that advanced the goal of winning the Cold War. 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 search of adventure.
Unlike other refugees, defectors were whisked away from vulnerable border zones by interagency committees, pumped for information, proffered financial assistance and used for propaganda purposes. Congress greeted 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, crudely simplified the motives of even the most politicized defectors. Upon closer inspection, instead of straightforward ideological calculations, one finds more ambiguous and ultimately more human stories of migration: Soviet soldiers who drove into the American zone after a night of drinking; a 16-year-old student who sneaked aboard a ship in Odessa bound for Crete; a diplomat who fell in love with a foreigner abroad; a mother who hijacked an airplane seeking a more prosperous life for her children.
With the end of the Cold War, defection — which once captured the popular imagination — faded from view. Today we rarely hear the term. It is sometimes used to describe people leaving holdover socialist states like North Korea but very rarely applied to other migrants.
It is difficult even to conceive of defectors from the ranks of foreign terrorist organizations, and harder still to imagine the United States celebrating their arrival. The borders of the War on Terror do not neatly conform to state borders, and our fear of terrorism does not seem to permit the possibility of changing sides. As a result, in the absence of Cold War rivalry, we lack a coherent narrative that compels us to assist refugees.
While states once clamored to speak on behalf of those fleeing the socialist world — often to the extent of drowning out the individual voices of those who left — many of today’s refugees are greeted by a potentially lethal combination of apathy and mistrust. As a consequence of the Cold War, the right of citizens to leave their own states is broadly accepted, but the barriers to entering 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 think 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 at the Supreme Court may be limited to the concept of the refugee that developed over the course of the 20th century, as a society we need to grapple with the term’s historical limitations, expanding the protection it can offer those forced to take flight while acknowledging the wide range of factors that have always led humans to move.