Paradigm shift or business as usual? An historical reappraisal of the "shift" to securitisation of refugee protection

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This article argues that enhanced understanding of the inter-war period in the development of the international refugee regime can contribute to current debates on the extent to which current practices of “burden-shifting” – in the form of the externalisation and securitisation of asylum – betray the regime’s humanitarian origins as expressed by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It demonstrates, through archival research, that rather than being characterised by the humanitarian wish to relieve the plight of the displaced – a wish which, at times, fell victim to political/ideological manipulation – the development of the refugee regime was instead primarily concerned with burden-limiting, ethnic and racial harmony, and a technocratic approach to the “disposal” of refugees. This article concludes by suggesting that historical investigation of the development of the refugee regime can reveal the ways in which our “solutions” and how we measure their success are inseparable from our understanding of what the problem, and who the refugee, is – and that this understanding is perhaps not as simple as the traditional picture of a humanitarian concern for the protection of the displaced might suggest. It also emphasises the need to recognize the extent to which continued ahistorical reification of the refugee regime can entrench rather than “solve” the refugee problem.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)69-92
JournalRefugee Survey Quarterly
Issue number3
Early online date16 Jul 2014
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2014


  • League of Nations
  • History
  • Humanitarianism
  • Securitisation


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