How to look for records of... Refugees
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
1. Why use this guide?
The National Archives holds a large quantity and variety of records relating to refugees. This guide will help you to find them.
You can find records on:
- refugee crises
- the treatment of refugees, including observer reports
- international law on refugees
- government policy on the relocation and settlement of refugees
There is also some advice on tracking down records of individual refugees but such documents are often very hard and sometimes impossible to find.
2. Definition of refugee
The definition of ‘refugee’ on which this research guide is based is the modern definition, as follows:
- a refugee is a person who does not enjoy the legal rights and protections of citizenship
This reflects the development of national and international laws arising from examples of forced, or otherwise necessary, migrations.
3. Where to start
Our records relating to refugees are mainly in the surviving Foreign Office (FO), Colonial Office (CO), and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) records. Home Office (HO) papers also contain records on the domestic treatment of minorities, including refugees, who sought asylum in the UK.
Records relating to the Kindertransport refugee programme are available on findmypast (£). See section 7 for more details.
The best place to start a search is in our catalogue, using keywords. Try searching for the word ‘refugee’ plus the term(s) you are interested in, such as:
- a country/former country (for example, Yugoslavia)
- a nationality, religion or ethnicity (for example, Rwandan, Jewish, or Asian)
- a time or event (for example, the First World War)
- an organisation (for example, the League of Nations)
- a treaty or agreement (for example, the Geneva Convention)
You can further refine your search results by subject, date, and government department depending on your research interests.
The Foreign Office’s political correspondence in FO 371 is a key source of information about refugees. Use the detailed alphabetic indexes in the reading rooms at The National Archives to find out more about what they contain.
You can search the indexes by year for prominent names, places, events and subjects:
- card index (1906-1919)
- printed index (1920-1951)
4. Refugees and international law
Most international discussion on the treatment of refugees occurs once the emergency that caused their condition has stabilised. Therefore you should keep your date ranges broad when you search for records.
British involvement in developing international laws on the treatment of refugees is the subject of many records at The National Archives.
These files mainly cover negotiated agreements, between nations and international institutions, to help refugees.
Search our catalogue, combining the keyword ‘refugee’ with, for example:
- League of Nations
- Hague Conference
- Geneva Convention
- United Nations
- human rights
These files can provide detailed case studies on specific instances of a refugee crisis as precedence for new laws and procedures. They generally do not include personal information on individual refugees.
5. Finding a refugee
It is extremely difficult to trace individual histories. Refugees who lose their rights as a citizen often lose the documents that record their legal identity. This also means there is no comprehensive central database of refugees.
Unless there was an organised government initiative to move refugees, the main records about an individual’s journey will probably be among documents created when the person travels.
You can try searching passenger list records online:
- inward passenger lists (BT 26), which contain the names of people travelling to Britain mainly from outside Europe, 1878-1960
- outward-bound passenger lists (BT 27), which contain the names of people leaving Britain for the United States and other places outside Europe, 1890-1960
Our research guide on Passengers gives more information and suggests some other sources.
Nowadays, non-government organisations and other charitable agencies often play a crucial role in dealing with the immediate circumstances of migrating populations.
If you know of an organisation operating in a region where refugees emerged, you can try contacting them for records.
6. Refugees in Britain
Since the start of the 20th century, Britain has been a refuge for many displaced populations from around the world. Many refugees have chosen to come to Britain not only to escape persecution, but also as a right afforded to them as British colonial citizens.
MH 8 contains minutes, history cards and other documents from the voluntary War Refugees Committee. These primarily relate to Belgian refugees settling in the UK during the First World War.
Once refugees arrive in Britain, responsibility for their right to settlement is mainly with the Home Office (HO). For example HO 294 are papers of the Czechoslovak Refugee Trust, established by the British Government in 1939. The series contains specimen personal files of refugee families in many instances these provide a detailed case history.
Search our catalogue, using the search term(s) ‘refugee’ or ‘displaced person’ plus, for example:
- alien’s registration
Kindertransport records have been made available on findmypast (£). These records relate to the arrival of Jewish children in Britain at the outbreak of the Second World War. They include lists of refugees, British government correspondence and official reports. The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms.
For more information about refugees please consult additional research guides on:
- aliens’ registration cards 1918-1957
- naturalisation, registration and British citizenship
- immigration and immigrants
The Housing and Local Government (HLG) records also provide information about welfare provisions to facilitate the transition of resettlement.
Try searching for ‘refugee’ with, for example:
- name of a local area
7. Kindertransport refugees
Kindertransport records have been made available on findmypast.co.uk (£). These records relate to the arrival of Jewish children in Britain at the outbreak of the Second World War. They include lists of refugees, British government correspondence and official reports. The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms.
8. Further reading
The National Archives’ Library holds many books on refugees, which in turn cite records held at The National Archives.
Some suggestions are included in this recommended booklist.
The books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.