Refugees and Refugee Crises: Some Historical Reflections

By Peter Gatrell

The current Syrian refugee crisis provides an opportunity to look beyond the headlines and to locate it in a broader historical context. Peter Gatrell explores in this article the history of Syria as a refugee-hosting state, the historical significance of journeys made by other refugees, and the policies adopted by governments in relation to refugees.



The Syrian refugee crisis has profound political and social consequences. Obviously those consequences have been most acutely felt by the millions of Syrians who have fled their country as a result of the prolonged civil war or who have been internally displaced, and it’s worth bearing in mind this fundamental point. Powerful media images of the human tragedies unfolding in the waters of the Mediterranean have led to an outpouring of sympathy and practical assistance on the part of people in a more fortunate situation. Yet at the same time, we have also witnessed a frenzied reaction on the part of European states seeking to secure their borders against what appears to be an unstoppable ‘incursion’. In this short piece, I want to reflect on the significance of these events by adopting a historical perspective.

What are we to make of this mass displacement of Syrians? In the first instance, I would want to insist on the need to think of them as ordinary human beings who find themselves in an extraordinary situation. This may seem an obvious and even banal thing to say, but it’s all too easy to regard refugees as helpless flotsam and jetsam. In a literal sense, this is true: refugees who attempt to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa risk being drowned in its treacherous currents. But regarding refugees as helpless victims does not do them any favours, since it risks treating them as pitiable creatures rather than as men and women who aspire to a better and more secure life. Theirs is not a meaningless momentum. Thinking of them as purposeful actors draws our attention instead to their qualifications and capabilities. Yet all too often, the history of assisting refugees points to an unwillingness to bear this in mind.1

Regarding refugees as helpless victims does not do them any favours, since it risks treating them as pitiable creatures rather than as men and women who aspire to a better and more secure life.

Second, the Syrian crisis forms part of a long history of population displacement in the modern era. In considering the terrible upheaval in this unravelling state we ought to remind ourselves that Syria offered sanctuary – and land – to 100,000 Palestinians displaced by the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. After the First World War, Syria (at this time, a French mandate) hosted around 200,000 Armenian refugees who managed to escape from the threat of extermination in Turkey and who were helped by, among others, the Danish missionary and social worker Karen Jeppe (1876-1935), a longstanding resident of Aleppo. Earlier still Syria had afforded sanctuary to thousands of Muslims who had been expelled from Tsarist Russia during its conquest of the Caucasus. Yet who now remembers Syria’s history as a refugee-hosting state?2

Nor should we overlook the capacity of the current crisis in Syria to force other refugee crises off the radar. This includes the ongoing internal population displacement in Sudan, Chad, and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, from a UK perspective at least, public opinion and government action are characterised by a strong degree of amnesia and parochialism, the clearest manifestation of which is a failure to remember that most refugees are to be found in the global South and never find their way to Sicily, Budapest, Berlin or the white cliffs of Dover.

We ought to remind ourselves that Syria offered sanctuary – and land – to 100,000 Palestinians displaced by the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.

History is also a reminder that Syrian refugees are not the first ‘boat people’. Many readers will remember the images of Vietnamese refugees who took to boats in the late 1970s and afterwards following the withdrawal of American troops and the reunification of Vietnam under communist rule. At the time, the media reports dwelled upon the fragility of the vessels, the risks from storms and pirates, and the rescue efforts that were made. We are now in a better position to understand how the experience of being detained by the authorities in Hong Kong was for many Vietnamese refugees no less frightening than the voyage itself. But we can now also appreciate how an Orderly Departure Programme involving 600,000 Vietnamese refugees enabled many of them to make a decent and fulfilling life for themselves in other countries that were prepared to admit them.3

We can find even earlier examples of refugees for whom a difficult journey by boat eventually became a means of self-affirmation. Perhaps as many as 20,000 refugees from the Spanish Civil War in 1936-39 travelled across the Atlantic in order to find sanctuary in Mexico. Hundreds of Baltic refugees sought to escape the communist takeover of their counties after the Second World War by commandeering boats to take them to Canada where they characterised their journey not as an ordeal but as a triumph.4 Which register Syrian refugees adopt remains to be seen.

To be sure, not all journeys had a positive outcome or could be given a positive spin. Infamously, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany were turned back when they attempted to reach North America. This reminds us that the power vested in the hands of governments with the potential to offer sanctuary is always discretionary.5




History shows that the exercise of discretion by states is of fundamental importance in determining the outcome of refugee crises. From time to time, progressive thinkers including international lawyers debate the need to recognise an absolute right to asylum, but governments continue to insist that the determination of admission is a basic element of state sovereignty. The discussion of refugees’ rights emerged in the debates that took place after both world wars about how to address the crises of population displacement that resulted from prolonged warfare. During the 1920s, the new League of Nations opted for a series of limited measures designed to protect refugees who had ‘lost the protection’ of their state, by which was meant primarily Russian and Armenian refugees who had been rendered stateless by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and by the actions of Turkey. Being recognised collectively as refugees, they could not be returned to their country of origin against their will. They were given travel documents (the famous ‘Nansen passport’), but this did not give them an absolute right to settle in a country of their choice.6

After the Second World War, the new United Nations again debated the issue, against the backdrop of the calamity that was the Holocaust – a consequence, in part, of the failure of international cooperation to protect Jews during the 1930s – and in the light of the extension of Soviet power in Eastern Europe. The most significant outcome was the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, according to which a refugee was recognised as an individual with a ‘well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. But again, discretion was the watchword: signatory states reserved (and continue to reserve) the right to determine whether the claim of persecution was credible or not. Furthermore, the signatories decided after much debate to limit the scope of the Convention chronologically and geographically: it applied only to refugees in Europe who were affected by events prior to 1951. In other words, the Convention looked backwards rather than forwards.

Historians have discussed the origins and operation of this ‘international refugee regime’, with its core emphasis on protection.7 It’s worth remembering this word in the light of what is happening in Europe in 2015. Sometimes it seems as if the protection of refugees has taken second place to the ‘protection’ of the citizens of countries through which refugees seek to pass or to which they seek to gain admission. Such tension regularly featured in twentieth-century refugee crises, and opting to prioritise state protection clearly had the potential to leave vulnerable people stranded.

Sometimes it seems as if the protection of refugees has taken second place to the ‘protection’ of the citizens of countries through which refugees seek to pass or to which they seek to gain admission.

One way in which the language of protection operates is that governments draw a distinction between ‘genuine’ refugees and those who are deemed ineligible or ‘bogus’, an insidious term that appears to gain credence in public opinion and the media. History shows us that attempts to distinguish refugees from ‘economic migrants’ or other categories of displaced persons have a long genealogy. As mentioned above, the diplomats and lawyers who framed the UN Refugee Convention placed political persecution at the heart of the new system of protection. In the Cold War, Western governments decided to extend protection to Hungarian refugees who fled following the uprising against communist rule in 1956. But when men and women arrived from Yugoslavia and Albania claiming refugee status, governments refused to admit them, on the grounds that they were ‘merely’ looking for a better life.8 This has always been a get-out clause for governments, even though the distinction is not as clear-cut or meaningful as we are led to believe. We’ve also been reminded that by sending remittances back to family members who are exposed to violence of some kind, so-called economic migrants may help to dissuade them from fleeing their homes.9

Right now it’s difficult to predict the outcome of the events that took place in the summer of 2015, and especially what good will come of government initiatives. History suggests that most refugee crises are eventually resolved, but this is precious comfort to those who are most directly affected at the time. History also points to a default position on the part of governments in what used to be called the ‘first world’ to draw firm yet problematic distinctions between those who are ‘genuine’ refugees and those who have no claim to asylum. Finally, history suggests that it is incumbent upon those of us in a more privileged position to remind ourselves that a refugee is not a category but a human being.

About the Author
peter-gatrellPeter Gatrell
is the author of a trilogy of books on refugee history, most recently The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford University Press, 2013). He teaches at the University of Manchester where he is co-director of the Centre for the Cultural History of War and affiliated to the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute.

1. I have explored this history in Peter Gatrell, The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford University Press), inspired in part by the work of anthropologist Liisa Malkki, ‘Speechless emissaries: refugees, humanitarianism, and dehistoricization’, Cultural Anthropology, 11, no. 3, 1996, 377-404.
2. An excellent guide to these histories is Dawn Chatty, Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
3. Gatrell, The Making of the Modern Refugee, pp. 207-11.
4. See Lynda Mannik, Photography, Memory, and Refugee Identity: the Voyage of the SS Walnut, 1948 (University of British Columbia Press, 2013).
5. Jessica Reinisch, ‘History matters.. but which one? Every refugee crisis has a context’, 29 September 2015, at
6. Gatrell, The Making of the Modern Refugee, pp. 55-58.
7. Irial Glynn, ‘The genesis and development of Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 25, no. 1, 2012, 134-48.
8. Peter Gatrell, Free World? The campaign to save the world’s refugees, 1956-1963 (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
9. Georgia Cole, ‘Refugee or economic migrant? Join the dots Theresa May’,

Cover photo by: © Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty Images


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.