According to the United Nations’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, there are more people displaced by conflict in the world today than at any point since the second world war. An estimated 66 million people are currently displaced, either within their home countries or abroad. Since the 1951 United Nations Convention, a refugee has been defined as a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Although this has been the word’s standard legal definition after its adoption in the post-war period, the 1951 refugee convention has been subsequently expanded to come to terms with the new scenarios created by the Cold War and decolonization. More recently, the challenges posed by globalization have led to a further reappraisal of the 1951 convention, which no longer seems adequate for the reality of twenty-first-century international politics.
Precisely when the 1951 convention inserted the refugee into international law, Hannah Arendt—who had fled to the United States to escape Nazi persecution—situated refugees at the center of political philosophy. In her classic work The Origins of Totalitarianism, published for the first time in English in 1951, Arendt carefully examined the condition of “stateless” people who, in losing their nationality status, were denied the very “right to have rights.” Since then, political philosophers have debated at length the moral obligations sovereign states have toward refugees, discussing whether political communities require closure to preserve the distinctiveness of cultures, or whether it is necessary to rethink the distinction between citizens and aliens as well as the relationship between sovereignty and human rights.
While political philosophy and international relations have been at the forefront of the growing field of refugee studies, history has remained at the fringe of scholarly debate and is often accused of ignoring refugee movements. As a result, refugee studies has largely developed as an ahistorical field that lacks a historical understanding of the many questions it confronts. In reality, our epoch is not the first to struggle with how to define the status of the refugee or how to treat and manage refugee flows. Refugees shaped European and global history well before the modern age; it was only that the “methodological nationalism” of nineteenth-and twentieth-century historians and social scientists failed to see it. In fact, the term “refugee” appears in English in the late seventeenth century as a translation from the French réfugié, to indicate the Huguenots who had been expelled from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Already in the previous century the Reformation had provoked a long-term process of religious migration, forcing Christian, Jewish and Muslim minorities to flee and relocate to escape persecution.
My forthcoming book, The Refugee-Diplomat. Venice, England and the Reformation, opens a new chapter in the historical study of refugees by recovering the agency of refugees in early modern diplomacy and showing that even as they were forced into exile they also contributed to shaping the new emerging system of international relations. During the early modern period, when diplomatic practices were not yet uniform or standardized, religious refugees served many different diplomatic functions and were employed as intelligencers, cultural brokers, translators, propagandists, and, at times, even as representatives and negotiators. As I show with a series of case studies, refugees were not merely intermediaries between states or carriers of information for their patrons. On the contrary, in early modern Europe they functioned as a parallel and alternative diplomatic network outside of formal channels, reproducing the authority of states while also subverting it “through their appropriation of diplomatic practices for their own purposes.”
Diego Pirillo is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at UC Berkeley. He specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of early modern Europe and the Atlantic world, with an emphasis on Italy, England and early America.