Introduction: Refugee History

Refugees and asylum-seekers have been dominating headlines across the globe. Two crises in particular have contributed to the spate of news stories about refugees, and History Workshop Online has posted articles prompted by the plight of the millions who have fled Afghanistan and Ukraine as a consequence of war and political upheaval. Often, the narratives adopted by the news media emphasise the sanctity of borders and sovereignty and express concerns about the supposedly illegitimate motives for seeking asylum. This is often given precedence over the profound personal ordeals of those seeking safety in a new home. It is against this backdrop that the field of refugee histories has come of age. This Virtual Special Issue curates History Workshop’s contribution to refugee studies.

Refugee history was born from an interdisciplinary approach to research, evident in such hugely influential works as Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World by Aristide R. Zolberg, Astri Suhrke and Sergio Aguato and published in 1989.  By the early years of this century, as Liza Schuster writes, the refugee’s place in constituting the nation-state was an increasing focus in historical writing.

By the late 2010s, refugee history was embracing narratives that extend beyond Europe and beyond the nation-state, to histories that emphasise internationalism and transnationalism.  In many ways, that historiographical journey is mirrored in the way History Workshop Journal has told those stories over the past twenty years, and more recently in the more topical and urgent interventions of History Workshop Online.

Overcrowded train transferring refugees during the partition of India, 1947. Wikimedia Commons.

Internationalism, the Cold War and the Refugee Convention

The modern idea of the refugee was born out of two world wars. The League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was first appointed in the 1920s to support (mostly) White Russians fleeing Soviet Communism. After the second world war, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention came into being to afford a legal status to those Europeans displaced by war – but failed to offer that same privilege to those from Korea, South Asia, Palestine and elsewhere beyond Europe. A 1967 protocol made the earlier definition of ‘refugee’ universal, thus applying globally a designation shaped by western experience.

Neither the idea of the refugee nor assistance to refugees were initially conceived of as universal. Support for refugees was always governed by concerns beyond the immediate welfare of those displaced and Ruth Balint notes how the sanctity of family, western nations’ ideas of purity, and older concepts of disability came together to govern how parents with disabled children were resettled by the International Refugee Organisation. The Cold War added another layer of complexity. As Eilish Hart recounts, Moscow demanded that repatriation should take precedence over resettlement with regard to defectors from the Soviet bloc. Refugees such as those Hungarians fleeing Soviet incursions received a warm welcome in the UK and other western nations in large part due to the binary logic of the Cold War. The definitions and practices enshrined in the United Nations world order simply failed to address the decolonising world’s experiences with displacement.

Empire, Postcolonialisms and the View from the South

The earliest piece explicitly about refugees in History Workshop Journal is about the development of the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata) in India. In a very personal refugee story, Manas Ray traces how, after Partition in 1947, refugee squatters from East Pakistan became key in developing oppositional voices, including their role in Maoist violence in the 1960s and ‘70s, and how by the 1980s, these refugee ‘colonies’ or neighbourhoods had embraced respectability and been absorbed into the postcolonial state. The refugee-citizen, the city, and the postcolonial state were thus constitutive of each other.

Nearly twenty years later, I wrote about how the present-day Indian state is using its narrative of Partition and memories of the 1971 refugee crisis – when Indian troops helped East Pakistan break away to become the independent nation of Bangladesh –  to reshape what it means to be Indian.

Just as former colonies were shaped by their experiences of refugees, so too on occasion was the former imperial metropole. In the 1970s, Britain offered resettlement to some of the Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin. Welcoming these non-white ‘refugees’ to the UK exposed tensions and intergenerational political differences among Britons themselves in what Becky Taylor describes as a conflict between colonial officials and a new generation of more liberal-minded activists in the postcolonial era.

But the effects of empire, of ongoing decolonisation, and the establishment of a postcolonial order is not just a bounded national story. As Ria Sunga points out, newly independent colonies in the process of achieving statehood understood that ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ were loaded political and bureaucratic terms. Keeping a distance from internationally accepted definitions allowed new states selectively to support refugees in their national interest, rather than be governed by the concerns of East and West. This poses the question: whose idea of the ‘refugee’ are we talking about.

Piecing Together Refugee Histories

To be recognised as a refugee means to be observed, to be catalogued, to be made legible – and acceptable – to the state. Refugee case files can both reduce refugee lives to the process of seeking recognition of that status and also open refugees to the invasive scrutiny of contemporary officials and, subsequently, of historians, as Peter Gatrell observes. These appeals to and assessments of legitimacy have the power to shape both the lives of refugees, but also, as Antoine Burgard notes, redefine the meaning of other categories of human experience, such as childhood.

Almost twenty years ago, Roger Zetter emphasisied the importance of oral history and the stories of the journeys undertaken by exiles and migrants. The recent History Workshop Online podcast on refugee histories takes up the challenge of considering whose stories are preserved as refugee archives, and how to conserve and curate the testimonies of those experiencing persecution, violence and displacement – whether in history writing, in archival form, or as oral histories.

Exiles, Intellectuals

Refugees’ and exiles’ stories are not just limited to their own displacement, but stories of the intellectual and material worlds that we inhabit. Hannah Arendt, one of the last century’s most prolific political thinkers, rooted much of her work in her own story and experience of exile and totalitarianism.

In a biographical article on the historian of the Soviet world, Moshe Lewin, Ronald Grigor Suny explores how Lewin’s multiple journeys – from Lithuania to the USSR to Israel to the West – shaped his intellectual trajectory. Yael Sternhell tells a similar story – her own – of living between Israel and the USA, and recounts how her family history in Eastern Europe prompted her own research interest in war.

These refugee stories extend far beyond the ranks of historians and academics. Two of the most widely read stories of alienation and exile are the Diary of Anne Frank and C.S. Lewis’s chronicles of Narnia. Margaret Reynolds points out that these stories of childhoods interrupted by violence have played a formative role in many of our childhoods. Our discipline is shaped by exiles and migrants, just as our world is shaped by exile and migration.


In our current discourse, the refugee is too often made marginal, when in truth their stories are a microcosm of much bigger forces: the end of an empire; war and violence; new social and political formations; spaces and cities; and the nation and the international order. Refugee history, in short, is the story of the construction of the liberal world order. To be a refugee in a world of human rights, in a world of nation-states and their citizens, is to turn a mirror towards these universalising principles.

The two most recent turns in refugee history, towards asking whose version of events is preserved and told as well as the new emphasis on global approaches, point to the question: how can a world order be shaped that respects the realities and the humanity of all peoples?


The Virtual Special Issue includes free access to all of the articles below for a period of 6 months.


Growing Up Refugee
Manas Ray | 53 (2002)

Fleeing Dictatorship: Socialism, Sexuality and the History of Science in the Life of Aldo Mieli
Cristina Chimisso | 72 (2011)

Living in the Soviet Century: Moshe Lewin, 1921–2010
Ronald Grigor Suny | 74 (2012)

Children Left Behind: Family, Refugees and Immigration in Postwar Europe
Ruth Balint | 82 (2016)

Good Citizens? Ugandan Asians, Volunteers and ‘Race’ Relations in 1970s Britain
Becky Taylor | 85 (2018)

The Lion, the Children and the Bookcase
Margaret Reynolds | 91 (2021)

Contested Childhood: Assessing the Age of Young Refugees in the Aftermath of the Second World War
Antoine Burgard | 92 (2021)

Raw Material: UNHCR’s Individual Case Files as a Historical Source, 1951–75
Peter Gatrell | 92 (2021)

Historic Passions

Roads, Runaways and Recollections
Yael A. Sternhell | 80 (2015)


‘Returning to Yerussalem’: Exile, Return and Oral History
Roger Zetter | 58 (2004)

Kindness to Strangers
Liza Schuster | 68 (2009)

Report Back

The Forty Years’ Crisis: Refugees in Europe 1919–1959, Birkbeck College, University of London, 14-16 September 2010
Mira L. Siegelberg | 71 (2011)

History Workshop Online

‘Everyone here wants to help you’: international cooperation, refugee rights, and the 1956 Hungarian refugee crisis 
Becky Taylor (2015)

Non-Returners: forced repatriations of Soviet citizens and the development of refugee protections
Eilish Hart (2015)

Refugees and Citizens in India: memories of 1947 and 1971 in 2020
Ria Kapoor (2020)

Refugee resistance and the persistence of ‘ingratitude’ 
Becky Taylor (2021)

The Limits of Refugee Policy
Ria Sunga (2021)

Afghan Civil Wars and the Location of a Nation
Elisabeth Leake (2021)

Ukraine: histories and boundaries of a refugee crisis
Jo Laycock (2022)

History Workshop Podcast

Creating Refugee Archives