The region’s encounter with refugees go back to the late 1850s when the Ottoman Empire was flooded by the influx of Muslim refugees running away from violence and warfare that ran havoc to the Caucasus. Thereafter, each successive cycle of warfare only repeated this pattern of displacement, as the Ottoman Empire not only continued to receive but only also began to generate refugees of its own. By the end of the First World War, displacement had already emerged as an urgent international problem with the flood of refugees that originated from the sites of collapsing empires, civil wars, and massacres. Against this backdrop the League of Nations—a new organization in and of itself—responded by establishing what one may call a “global refugee regime” by introducing standardized paperwork and procedures, complete with a range of relief programs designed for the accommodation of the displaced.
Through this workshop we are interested in exploring how this global episode came to unfold in the interwar Middle East. By the early 1920s, the postwar settlement introduced a precise territorial order to the region with a new set of international boundaries. The introduction of sovereign territoriality was accompanied by the efforts of the emerging ruling elites in the region to re-define who belonged to the nation and thereby what determined the criteria of citizenship. These terms of inclusion, however, also specified the terms of exclusion, as some groups were defined out of state, leading to their categorization as refugees and aliens. Both the League of Nations and local elites perceived refugeedom not only as an opportunity to minimize the prospects of ethno-religious conflict but also as a means of consolidating the nation-state. As such, creating refugees and welcoming them was a mutually constitutive process that reproduced discourses of governmentality and justified modern territorial state, while redefining the limits of belonging.