The aim of the material provided here is to inform about the international conference of Evian in 1938, in view of discussing the current refugee issue and its challenges for governments. The historical experience of the Evian conference sheds a light on the difficulties in finding an adequate and humane response to the refugees’ situation Europe finds itself confronted with.
Between 1933 and 1937 alone, at least 135 anti-Jewish laws and ordinances were enacted by the Nazi Regime, banning Jews from professions, institutions, from one branch of economic life after the other and depriving them of many of their rights as German citizens. By the end of 1937, about 130,000 German Jews, one in four, had already left. After Nazi-Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, an additional 190,000 Jews were subjected to Nazi rule. The pogroms following the "Anschluss" caused a new wave of Jewish emigration. In the countries bordering on "Greater Germany" many refugees tried to eke out a pitiful existence, legally insecure and economically dependent on the aid of various mostly Jewish relief committees. Emigration from Germany and annexed Austria or in spring 1939 the former Czech Reichsprotectorate of Bohemia and Moravia meant giving up all personal property and any assets to the Nazi State and to the profiteers of "aryanization" and leaving everything behind except for a small amount of almost worthless 100 Reichsmark (later only 10) and a suitcase in the hand. Getting further away from Germany under the threat of an upcoming war required the purchase of an expensive passage by ship and in most cases a so-called affidavit (a document proving that somebody abroad would warrant financing all needs of the refugee), not to mention numerous other documents.
"Although the Nazi terror against Jews provoked public protests throughout Europe and America, it was mostly still considered by other governments as an internal affair which was not to be interfered with as long as the Germans were not trying to attack directly the interests of foreign states." (Adler-Rudel, 1968, p. 235).
The Evian Conference in 1938 and its consequences
The Evian Conference was convened at the initiative of US-President Franklin D. Roosevelt in July 1938 to respond to the increasing numbers of Jewish refugees in Europe fleeing persecution by the Nazis. In his announcement Roosevelt mentioned, that "no nation would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of emigrants than is permitted by its existing legislation", but certainly he hoped to obtain commitments from some of the invitee nations to accept more refugees.
The conference of Evian on Lake Geneva resulted in almost no change in the immigration policies in most of the attending nations but lead to the creation of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (ICR), charged with approaching "the governments of the countries of refuge with a view to developing opportunities for permanent settlement" and seeking to persuade Germany to cooperate in establishing "conditions for orderly emigration." The ICR received virtually no funding or other support from its member nations. Its achievements were minimal until September 1939; then the beginning of World War II ended all its efforts.
Commenting on the Evian Conference, the German government made use of the opportunity to state how "astounding" it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for its treatment of the Jews, yet none of them would be willing to "open their own doors". Although the violent pogroms of November 1938 ("Night of Broken Glass") were widely covered in the international press outside Germany, the United States and other countries remained reluctant to welcome more Jewish refugees and restrictions remained in place.
Development of international standards on refugee’s protection
In the early 20th century, efforts to help refugees also gained a global dimension: 1. Fridtjof Nansen was appointed in 1921 as the first High Commissioner for refugees of the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations. 2. After WW II the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA) assisted seven million people "displaced" during and after the Second World War, and 3. The International Refugee Organization (IRO), created in 1946, resettled more than one million displaced Europeans around the world and helped 73,000 civilians to return to their former homes. None of these early refugee organizations were sufficiently strong, legal protection remained rudimentary. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1950 and the following year 26 participating countries adopted the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention.