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The History of Refugees

This blog post provides a very brief summary of the history of refugees between ancient times and the early 20th Century. It includes some examples of individual asylum seekers and of larger refugee crises.

We are beginning as far back as ancient times to emphasise that throughout history there has always been the need for safe places that people fleeing war, persecution and natural disaster can seek refuge. Our ‘What do religions teach about refugees?’ blog post from April shows that widely read texts mentioning these themes have existed for many centuries. We would recommend taking a look at this for more information.

Despite refugees having existed for hundreds of years prior to the medieval period, this was the first time that the right to seek asylum became codified in law. One example of this is King Æthelberht of Kent decreeing in the 7th Century that a person could not be arrested within a church. This idea of seeking sanctuary within a church was particularly utilised during the 15th Century Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars fought over control of the English throne. During these, Edward IV’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville, sought refuge in Westminster Abbey on two occasions, and the leaders of the Stafford and Lovell rebellion against Henry VII claimed sanctuary at Colchester Abbey. (Wagner & Schmid, p. 271)

In the 17th Century, Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, outlawing Protestantism in France. This caused many of the hundreds of thousands of French followers of this religion to flee to other countries where they could practice freely. (Chambru) Another refugee crisis was seen over the next two centuries, during the early modern period, due to organised massacres of Jews known as ‘pogroms’. These caused millions of Jews to leave their homes in Eastern Europe. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The First World War made refugees of many groups of people from all over the world. One example is the Armenian people, who were subjected to many awful experiences, including death marches, forced conversion, massacres, deportation, and imprisonment in concentration camps, resulting in 50% of the population being classed as refugees in May 1918. (Payaslian, pp.150-151) Also during the First World War, Tsar Nicholas II was denied political sanctuary in any other country, ultimately resulting in his execution. (Service, pp. 51-52 & pp. 68-69) This was one of the earliest events of the Russian Revolution that began more than 70 years of Communist rule in Russia.

This blog post will end with the League of Nation’s establishment of the Commission for Refugees in 1921, as this marked a significant turning point in refugee affairs due to being the first international coordination of support for displaced people. This was very much needed in the wake of the First World War, as evidenced by 425,000 of the two to three million ex-prisoners of war having been helped to return home during the two years after its establishment. (Scott, p. 59)


Chambru, ‘What consequences did religious intolerance against the Huguenots have in France?’, LSE, (2020)

King Æthelberht, The Laws of Æthelberht (Kent, 7th Century)

Payaslian, The History of Armenia: From the Origins to the Present (London, 2007)

Scott, The Rise and Fall of the League of Nations (London, 1973)

Service, The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution (London, 2018)

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, ‘Pogroms’, Holocaust Encyclopedia,

Wagner & Schmid, Encyclopedia of Tudor England (New York, 2011)

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