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Guide reference: Overseas Records Information 16
Last updated: 23 February 2010

1. Definitions of refugee

Derived from the word refuge, a refugee is a person who has sought shelter and protection away from dangers they would otherwise be exposed to. If you use this broad definition you will find instances of people migrating who could be regarded as refugees.

However, the modern 20th century definition of 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.

This research guide is based largely on the modern definition and will help you find records on:

  • refugee crises  
  • the treatment of refugees

2. What records can I find in the National Archives?

The National Archives holds many records on refugees covering a range of topics. These include:

  • international law on refugees
  • observer reports on the treatment of refugees
  • administrative / policy papers on the relocation and settlement of refugees

These 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.

3. Where do I start?

It is important to know which particular group of refugees you are looking for, as no two refugee crises are the same. 

The best way to start is to search Discovery, 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

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' plus, for example:

  • asylum
  • immigration
  • naturalisation
  • alien's registration

For more information please consult additional research guides on:

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:

  • housing
  • education
  • employment
  • name of a local area

7. 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.

Guide reference: Overseas Records Information 16

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