Refugees are involuntary migrants forced to leave their home countries to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.
Refugee groups have been coming to London for centuries. When England became a Protestant country, it attracted Protestant refugees fleeing persecution in Catholic Europe, notably French Huguenots, large numbers of whom arrived in London in the late 17th century.
During the 19th century, the largest groups of refugees to arrive in London were Russian and Polish Russian Jews, fleeing persecution from the Tsarist regime in Russia. Concern about overcrowding led to the Aliens Act of 1905, which tried to control the numbers of destitute arrivals but kept the door open to those fleeing religious persecution.
After the First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917, the plight of millions of international refugees was too pressing to ignore. The League of Nations Office of High Commissioner for Refugees (later named the Nansen Office after its founder, Norwegian scholar Fridtjof Nansen) was established in 1921. It was the first worldwide institution to come to the aid of refugees. Nansen organised repatriation wherever possible; in other cases he arranged for the distribution of Nansen passports, recognised in 28 countries, which gave the holder the right to move freely across national boundaries.
Refugees arriving in London during this period included large numbers of Belgians who had been driven from their homes by the First World War.
Europe’s next refugee crisis was caused by the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s. Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria arrived in London, followed by families from occupied countries such as Holland and France. Children arrived through the ‘Kindertransport’ initiative. The Spanish Civil War created a new movement of refugees.
In response to the 12 million German and Austrian refugees fleeing the Nazis during and after the Second World War, the League created an Office of High Commissioner for Refugees from Germany, which helped resettle these displaced populations. In 1938, 32 countries met to establish the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees (I.C.R).
By 1944, all the functions of the Nansen Office and the I.C.R. were assumed by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in an office that was later called the International Refugees Organization (I.R.O). The I.R.O. helped one and a half million European and Asian refugees. It was dismantled in 1951, and its duties were taken over by a new Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R).