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By Charalampia Armpounioti and Amanda Stovall 

© UNHCR/Jose Cendon

The idea of travel documents for refugees dates back to Fridtjof Nansen, first High Commissioner for Refugees, who introduced the Nansen passport. An exhibition aimed to shed light on the history of refugee travel documents and highlight their role in global refugee mobility throughout the years. 


Refugee Travel Document exhibition at the 2024 CRCP

In the context of the 2024 Consultations on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways (CRCP), the UNHCR Resettlement and Complementary Pathways Service together with the UNHCR Records and Archives Section and the United Nations Library and Archives organized a captivating exhibition on the history of refugee travel documents. The exhibition featured travel document specimens for refugees and stateless persons, along with historical records and documents opening a window to the history of refugee mobility throughout the years.  

The exhibition

“We wanted to take CRCP participants including representatives of States, international organizations, academia and other key actors on a historical journey and highlight how travel documents for refugees have evolved over time,” explains Amanda Stovall, Resettlement and Complementary Pathways Officer at UNHCR. “We also aimed to showcase how the need for travel documents that facilitate safe travel and open up opportunities for refugees remains largely unmet in many countries around the world until today.” 


Fritdjof Nansen

The idea of refugee travel documents dates back to Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees. A visionary and charismatic leader willing to find pragmatic solutions to the challenges of his time, Nansen started promoting a passport-like document for refugees who did not have internationally recognized identification papers after World War I. First issued in 1922, the “Nansen passport” served as both an identity document and a travel permit allowing its holders to seek work in other countries. By the time the Nansen passports were discontinued in 1942, over 50 countries had recognized them and 450,000 refugees had received one. “Given the historical importance of the Nansen passport, we featured an original Nansen passport specimen, in its characteristic accordion-like format, as the central item of our exhibition,explains Amanda.

The exhibition featured document specimens issued based on the 1946 London Agreement, signed after World War II as a testament to early international efforts to protect refugees by providing a form of identification and ability to travel across borders. Travel documents issued based on the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol and the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons were also displayed. Both Conventions (Article 28) feature access to travel documents as a distinct right for refugees and stateless people. Machine-readable refugee travel documents and electronic Convention Travel Documents (e-CTDs) that are in use today were also part of the exhibition. 

“Going through the UNHCR archives collection while setting up the exhibition was a unique learning experience for my colleagues and me. It helped us put our current advocacy efforts on this issue into perspective,” says Amanda. In addition to country-issued travel document specimens, the exhibition featured historical records including preparatory documents for the 1946 London Agreement, a seal that was once used by the Government of Tanzania to print travel documents, and a sample emergency travel document, which is issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in urgent cases. 

Speaker's corner on refugee travel documents at the 2024 CRCP

In a speaker’s corner that accompanied the exhibition, UNHCR and United Nations personnel took the stage to emphasize the value of archival records for advocacy. “Archives help inform the future by reminding us of the past. When used strategically, archival records can effectively boost advocacy efforts to drive policy changes,” underscored Montserrat Canela Garayoa, UNHCR Chief of Records and Archives, in her intervention during the speaker’s corner. 

Refugee travel documents: where are we today? 

“Almost a century after the Nansen passport, our world is a very different place, but the challenge remains,” underscores Amanda. “Without a travel document, many refugees have limited options to travel, migrate to work or study in another country, visit family, travel for leisure and culture, and enjoy many of the possibilities that the 21st century has to offer,” she adds. 

Countries have the potential to change this. State-issued machine readable travel documents that refugees can use to travel safely and on an equal footing with national passport holders boost refugee self-reliance and ease the pressure on hosting countries.