What is a government, and what are the essential elements for statehood? To what extent can sovereignty be disentangled from jurisdiction over territory? In this episode, we approach these enduring questions by focusing on a unique and under-appreciated player in the international community: governments in exile. We explore the causes of governments in exile, their various forms, their differences with traditional governments, and their future paths.

Unestablished Definition, Various Causes, and Worldwide Cases

Governments in exile are a contemporary geopolitical anomaly whose definition is still up for debate. We define such a government as a governing entity that provides civil services and military protection to its constituents or citizens and was forcibly driven out of the territory that it currently claims. Governments in exile come into being for a variety of reasons, including invasion of external power, domestic upheavals, and opposition to oppressive ruling.

Historically, World War II gave rise to a wave of governments in exile. As many countries fell under the Nazi heel, London became home to governments and royalty from across Europe, including Poland, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Greece, and Yugoslavia. A typical contemporary example would be the Tibetan government in exile. The so-called roof of the world was occupied by the PRC in 1950, from which the then ruling form of the Tibetan government was ultimately exiled to the Himalayan provinces of Dharamsala, India in the late 1950s. Yemen is another ongoing case. As conflict with local Houthis rebels has intensified since 2011,  the Yemeni government was forced to leave the capital of Sanaa for exile in Saudi Arabia in late 2014.  It returned to Yemen later in 2015, but not in the capital. Rather, the government in exile returned to the city of Aden in southwest Yemen.

Struggle to Maintain Relevance

A serious government in exile often operates as a state within a state. The Tibetan government in exile, for instance, enacts a wide range of governmental functions: the organization of democratic elections, the operation of executive, legislative, and judiciary branches, the provision of health and education services for Tibetans in India and Nepal, the management of a taxation system, the issuing of Tibetan travel documents, and the establishment of embassies or outposts. However, it also faces severe limitations that all governments in exile have: lack of recognition, lack of legal coercive power, and restricted decision-making. The political relevance of a government in exile, including the prospect of returning to power, hinges on a range of factors such as its own government-building, the legitimacy of the cause, the strength of international support, and its relations with the host state.

While governments in exile have so far formed out of political necessity, we may see them form out of environmental necessity in the future. Small island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives could one day be the first governments in exile due to rising sea levels. Listen to our sinking states episode for more information.

Dig Deeper

Take a look at some of our favorite articles that we came across while researching this topic:

About the Author
Pengqiao is the Editorial Assistant with the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Pengqiao earned his master’s degree in Asia security from the Elliott School of International Affairs, as well as a BA in international trade and economics from Shanghai International Studies University. His research interests include East Asian regionalism, Japanese politics, and Cross-strait relations.