Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 22, Issue 2, 1 June 2009, Pages 133–154
The repatriation of Russian refugees from Bulgaria between 1922 and 1924 under League of Nations’ supervision represents the earliest international attempt to organize a co-ordinated refugee return. Drawing on new archival research, this article argues that enhanced understandings of the historical development of repatriation contribute to the contemporary political theorization of repatriation. It demonstrates the long-standing liberal-international commitment to the ethical corollaries of ‘voluntariness’, ‘safety’ and ‘protection’ in repatriation, despite the manipulation of these terms by political émigré groups interested in resisting Soviet state power. This exposes the complex connections between the early 20th-century rise of the sovereign European nation-state and consequent refugee exodus. Repatriation was thus a fundamentally political project concerned with restoring the relations between state, nation and citizen: it ultimately failed in the Russian–Bulgarian case not because of any disagreement over repatriation’s liberal corollaries, but because of disputes between the League of Nations, the Soviet State and the Russian refugees themselves regarding the nature of both inter-state and intra-state sovereignty. The article concludes by suggesting that it is these questions of political community which continue to pose the greatest challenge to repatriation as a durable solution to contemporary refugee crises.