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The history of our refugee support

For over a century, the British Red Cross has been helping protect and support people in the UK and abroad who have been forced to leave their country fearing persecution.

Our first refugee service

In 1897, religious tension on the island of Crete led to a war between Turkey and Greece, creating a large number of Thessalonian and Cretan refugees. The National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War – the organisation which would become the British Red Cross – provided the refugees overseas with food.

The First World War

During the First World War, the Joint War Committee –  made up of the British Red Cross and the Order of St John of Jerusalem –  established the Boulogne rest station to feed French and Belgian refugees. Between March and June 1918, over 10,000 people were fed there. When enteric fever became prevalent among the Belgian refugees, a hospital was opened in Malassise to treat them. Many nurses at the hospital were trained by the British Red Cross.

We also helped Serbian refugees, providing food, clothing and disinfectant to prevent the spread of typhus. In 1916, the Joint War Committee gave funds to set up a Serbian refugee camp in Salonika.

As armies advanced and retreated across what was then Mesopotamia and northern Persia, a huge number of people were displaced. Our supply depots provided refugee camps with food, clothing, and medical equipment to treat dysentery, fevers and influenza.

The Second World War

Throughout the Second World War, the Joint War Organisation – again consisting of the British Red Cross and the Order of St John – traced displaced people and put them back in contact with their families. Between August 1944 and August 1945 the section in Italy alone registered 106,220 displaced people.

The British Red Cross also continued to work directly with refugees, operating camps for displaced people throughout Italy and Austria. From 1944, our personnel provided medical care in Greek and Yugoslav refugee camps in the Middle East.

The 1951 refugee convention

On 28 July 1951, a UN conference approved the convention relating to the status of refugees. The convention defined who is a refugee and the kind of legal protection, help and social rights a refugee should receive from countries who have signed up to it. The UK was one of the first countries to sign the convention.

Refugees flee Hungary and Uganda

The Hungarian Uprising in autumn 1956 and the subsequent invasion by Soviet forces left over 2,500 Hungarians dead. A further 200,000 fled as refugees into Austria and Yugoslavia. The British Red Cross provided practical support as refugees arrived in Austria, assisting with the transportation and distribution of supplies from other Red Cross National Societies. We also arranged for the transportation, reception, accommodation and welfare of 7,500 Hungarian refugees coming to the United Kingdom.
In 1972 Idi Amin decreed that the 60,000 Asians who were not Ugandan citizens be expelled from the country. The decree was later amended to include all 80,000 Asians, except for professionals such as doctors, lawyers and teachers. Most Ugandan Asians had settled in Uganda while it was a British colony and held British passports. Our volunteers helped thousands of the Asians who were expelled from Uganda when they arrived in the UK. They arranged transfers from airports to reception centres and distributed comfort bags.

The Vietnam War

Hong Kong was one of the first countries to grant asylum during the Vietnam War. By August 1979 it was accommodating 65,000 in its refugee camps. In total, over 100,000 refugees passed through the camps in Hong Kong and around 19,000 came to the UK to be resettled.

Both during and after the Vietnam War, we helped Vietnamese refugees through our Branches in Hong Kong and the UK.

Many of our Branches in the UK helped Vietnamese refugees arriving in the UK. Teams of volunteers trained in first aid and nursing – and equipped with blankets, nappies and drinks – met newly arrived refugees off the plane and accompanied them to reception centres.

Helping Bosnian refugees

As the conflict in the former Yugoslavia increased in intensity in 1992, significant numbers of refugees fled their homeland. When the British government announced on 6 November that it would allow 1,000 refugees to enter the UK, we were one of the agencies which set up reception centres providing accommodation and welfare support.

The Red Cross helped the refugees register with local doctors, enrol their children in school and learn English. We also handled applications from refugees to be reunited with their families and operated a tracing and message service.

Our refugee services now

In certain parts of the UK, we provide a range of services for refugees and asylum seekers. Our orientation service gives refugees short-term support in a wide range of languages, helping them adapt to life in a new country. For people who are destitute, such as new arrivals or failed asylum seekers, we provide emergency items and expert advice. We also offer tailored support to young people and refugee women.

Our tracing and message services help  people re-establish contact with their families around the world. In some cases, we help with travel costs for refugees whose families live overseas and have been granted a visa to come to the UK.

When large numbers of people arrive in the UK following a political or humanitarian crisis, we can offer practical care and support.

Another important part of our work is advocacy. A bimonthly newspaper, called ‘New Voices’, was launched by our refugee unit in Scotland in 2005. It provides refugees and asylum seekers with a mouthpiece. In 2010, the British Red Cross launched its report ‘Not gone, but forgotten’ to highlight destitution among asylum seekers in the UK.

Read more about our services for refugees

Find out how to become a refugee support volunteer


Refugee stories

When Ibrahim was reunited with his wife and sons, they became the 1000th family to be reunited by the British Red Cross.

After two years separated from her children, Sokonan was ecstatic when the Red Cross helped reunite the family.