Nansen - a man of action and vision

Nansen Medal, 14 September 2009

© UNHCR photo
Portrait of Fridtjof Nansen, New York, 1929

Born in Norway in 1861, Fridtjof Nansen was a scientist, polar explorer, diplomat, statesman and humanist, with a deep compassion for his fellow human beings. Nansen became a pioneer in the field of applied science with a keen interest in zoology, marine biology, oceanography, geology, anthropology and sociology.

While still in his twenties, Nansen led the first crossing of Greenland on skis in 1888 in what was to be the first of many adventures of exploration. His quest for knowledge led him to the Arctic and the Antartic and in 1893 he set off on a three-year Arctic journey aboard the Fram. As the immensely strong vessel drifted through the ice, Nansen and a companion made a dash for the North Pole, coming closer than any other person had previously been.

His intellectual ability was no less astonishing. By the age of 26 he had completed a doctoral thesis on the human central nervous system. But Nansen is also widely remembered and praised for his pioneering work on behalf of refugees.

In 1920, shortly after the end of World War I, Nansen was appointed chairman of the Norwegian delegation to the Geneva-based League of Nations, a position he held until his death in 1930. He was soon put in charge of the League's first large-scale humanitarian task the repatriation of 450,000 prisoners of war. He succeeded by enlisting the support of governments and voluntary agencies.

Recognized as a charismatic leader, Nansen was in 1921 appointed the first High Commissioner for Refugees by the League. He immediately undertook the formidable task of helping repatriate hundreds of thousands of refugees as well as helping them to acquire legal status and attain economic independence.

Nansen recognized that one of the main problems refugees faced was their lack of internationally recognized identification papers, which in turn complicated their request for asylum. The Norwegian visionary introduced the so-called "Nansen passport," which was the first legal instrument used for the international protection of refugees.

The International Red Cross and a number of governments then asked him to organize a relief programme for millions of victims of the Russian Famine of 1921-1922. For his crucial work, Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. The prize money was used to provide humanitarian assistance in the Ukraine.

He was involved in the negotiations which led to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne between the Greek and Turkish governments. He later tried to help find a solution to the Armenian crisis.

During his tenure as High Commissioner, Nansen set a high standard for action on behalf of refugees and was an example to all those working for humanitarian causes.

Nansen worked tirelessly on behalf of refugees, facing setbacks alongside the triumphs. He was saddened by the evidence of human indifference to the suffering of others. He once said that "the refugees who were regarded as an intolerable burden would comprise a rich asset." But this passionate belief in the potential of every man and woman was not always shared.

Nansen died in 1930 at the age of 69. UNHCR established the Nansen Refugee Award in his honour in 1954. It is given to a person or group for outstanding service in the cause of refugees. Fridtjof Nansen was voted Norwegian of the Millennium by the people of Norway in 2000.