Student Report on Meredith Oyen’s “The international politics of refugee settlement in Shanghai”

Reported by Chloe Alimurong, Class of 2025

The international politics of refugee settlement in Shanghai by Meredith Oyen: Associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)

This lecture is part of Statelessness Conference that tells the story of statelessness in Asia and the Pacific during the Second World War.

In her paper (currently under development) on Statelessness in China and The International Politics of Refugee Settlement in Shanghai, UMBC’s Associate Professor Meredith Oyen described how China navigates the situation regarding different populations of stateless persons after WWII. The international port of Shanghai brought in a mass influx of refugees in 1938. From then, local organizations formed in order to aid these populations, especially Jewish refugees. Oyen studied how China responded to the different mix of refugee situations.

She begins with China’s decision to immediately repatriate German people in China. Despite the decision by the state, stateless Germans with passports were still met with great sympathy. Oyen asks, “What makes this population different from other stateless persons?” Determining the types of refugees was her next step in which she differentiated into the categories of; refugee, displaced person, stateless, quasi-stateless, Jewish, white Russian and more. She questioned if ‘truly’ stateless can be defined. Nevertheless, China planned to continue the decolonization and demobilization process. Ensuring the safe removal and relocation was the outcome of negotiations with the stateless organizations in place. The relocation process prompted the creation of and help from four international organizations.

Firstly, the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration that lasted from 1943-1947 dealt with the repatriation of displaced persons, often of Korean, Taiwanese, and overseas Chinese backgrounds. Following was the Intergovernmental Committee of Refugees, organized from 1938-1947. Then, the Preparatory Commission or the International Refugee Organization turned to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The People’s Republic of China, Oyen claims, used organizations, specifically the IRO, in order to not only decolonize Asia after the Cold War, but for legitimacy as well.

One example of this is through the PRC’s global cooperation with the US and England through the IRO. The PRC knew that international help would be needed, especially with Southeast Asian holdouts, to continue their Overseas Chinese Repatriation process. The PRC ensured that the money spent on the IRO would create a sense of legitimacy for the nation. Since China wanted to quickly transition to decolonization during the civil war, mandates to send refugees elsewhere was a top priority and expanded to include different populations like white Russians The PRC was also sensitive to criticism as they were doing everything in their power to advocate for these populations, making IRO cooperation more important in maintaining recognition. After dealing with mass amounts of unique refugee situations in China, Oyen claims the IRO left its workers with a specific skill set unlike any other.