Historicizing concepts in refugee history

Historicizing past events is a double bind. It requires us to understand our object of interest in historical context, both in its contemporary situation and in the chronological development of history. It means, interpreting the socio-political constellation of the past and relating it to the present. Historicizing then describes an attempt at counteracting projections of current concepts into history without divorcing the relevance of the past from the present. To better understand the present through historical interpretation, we need to rethink familiar and fundamental concepts to go beyond the limits of our own historical container. Thus, refugee history forces us to re-think concepts such as ‘refugee’, ‘protection’, and ‘migration’.

Who is a refugee?

Defining its object of interest is probably the most persistent task of Refugee Studies (Turton 2003, Hathaway 2007; see also: Betts 2010). Accounting for history makes it only more difficult. Article 1 of the Geneva Refugee Convention sets forth the predominant understanding of who is a refugee today, including criteria in the country of origin and the necessity of being outside that country. Contemporary critiques of this definition (e.g. Betts 2013) point to other relevant causes of forced displacement such as wars, conflicts and economic deprivation, reasons that were particularly relevant throughout history. Others question the necessity of having crossed an international border (Shaknove 1985), which is  a problematic criterion in a historical context also, when territorial borders were ill defined, not controlled or did not exist at all (see Lambert). Since the ‘refugee’ category depends on historical circumstances of social and political organisation, studying refugee history throughout the centuries and millennia then requires a coherent and consistent conception of what the object and area of research is.

Alternative academic definitions often point to the refugee’s transforming relationship with states, losing and regaining protection (Shaknove 1985, Gibney 2004). However, this requires the existence of modern nation-states with citizenship and political rights. Inspired by ancient Athens’ absence of a state, Hannah Arendt emphasised instead political communities that could offer rights and protection (Arendt 1994). Turning refugee definitions on their head (or rather on their feet), refugee history then is not predicated on a particularly defined group of people that has not coherently existed throughout history in the first place. Instead, I suggest, refugee history studies how groups and political organisations offered non-transient protection to non-members. Thus, refugee history indirectly studies how societies organised and negotiated political belonging and rights through the category of the refugee. This included refugees themselves who played an active part in their search for protection in forming and transforming historical-political communities (Gatrell and Lachenicht). Crucially, we can discuss and compare ‘refugees’ throughout history because unlike ‘forced migrants’ they are not defined by causes of displacement but reflect historical developments of political belonging, rights and protection.

What is protection?

This shift of perspective on refugees, from emphasising displacement to rights, requires also rethinking the category of protection. Today, refugee protection is basically non-refoulement (Orchard) and in many cases, also the right to access a territory in the first place (Heather). However, if we consider past societies that are not territorially organised, protection is the inclusion into the legal system of a political community by extending a particular status of rights (Gray and Lambert). Similarly, humanitarianism offers protection of human rights without respect to territory in the context of the international legal system (Glasman). In modern states however, the legal system and the rights of refugee protection are dependent on sovereign power that is nominally tied to territory, emphasising questions of borders, access and leave to remain  (Manasek and Oltmer). Thus, refugee protection concerns a set of rights that are particular to a historical period and its political and legal system. In ancient Athens, refugees were exempt from the foreigners’ tax (metoikion) and received legal rights similar to those of citizens (Gray). Today, the Geneva Convention details a number of social and political rights that have to be afforded to refugees, while humanitarianism is aimed at protecting the human rights of refugees (Glasman). Refugee protection is inclusion in a political community, sometimes with limited rights or delayed access to full membership, to remedy a loss of protection elsewhere. The perceived or argued causes of displacement that qualify for refugee status, like loss of safety or certain rights, mirror norms and organisation of the political community – though underlying reasons may be economic or political interests (Gray, Lachenicht, Manasek and Oltmer). Thus, refugee protection is characteristic of a historical period and society while being negotiated and transformed over time along with social and political conflicts and developments (Gray, Lachenicht, Orchard, Oltmer and Glasman). The history of refugee protection is a history of political organisation.

How to migrate?

Migration, from one political community to another, is a condition to finding refuge and appears to be a constant of refugee history. However, the character of mobility changed dramatically over time and affected forced migration and access to refugee protection dramatically. Peter Heather points out  that travel times in antiquity were about ten times longer than today. Journeys that would have lasted weeks now only take a few hours by plane. This impacted who could seek refuge and how, making mass migration more likely when individual journeys were particularly strenuous and dangerous. We have seen in more recent developments how cheaper air travel and currently, mobile technologies as well as digital and social media enabled refugee movements that were previously impossible. Thus, beyond social and political particularities of refugee protection, refugee history has to consider geographic transformations due to technological limitations and developments over time. This includes technological advances in border control and migration management, from border walls (Heather) to the introduction of the passport (Noiriel 1991, Torpey 2009) to satellite and drone surveillance. Technology changes affect not only access to protection but also its delivery and character through documents, databases and provisions. Joel Glasman shows in UNHCR’s humanitarian work that technological developments indicate not necessarily progress towards better protection but novel ways of classifying refugees. Technology changes refugee history by impacting who can receive a refugee status and what that implies.


Refugee history cannot stand by itself. Examining refugee protection from a historical perspective forces us to re-think some of the fundamental concepts and categories for the present.  Social sciences need to take historiography and their narratives seriously in their complexity and incorporate them in their own works. In turn, multi-disciplinary refugee studies can help inform historiographical interpretation and narratives with social science methods, concepts and theories. Refugee Studies and historiography should grow together; historical refugee studies should be as common as any social science approach to studying refugees.


This blog post draws on an article published as “The History of Refugee Protection: Conceptual and Methodological Challenges” in the special issue “History of Refugee Protection” of the Journal of Refugee Studies 30 (2) 2017, 161-169. References without a date link to an article of this special issue.

This post is published simultaneously on Refugee History and on FlüchtlingsforschungsBlog.


Photo Credits:

(c) Joachim Schäfer – Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon.

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