Our History - Refugee Council

Our History

Founded in 1951, the Council has a long and storied history of providing support to refugees from across the world.

The charity was founded in 1951 in response to the UN Convention for Refugees, which was created after World War II to ensure refugees were able to find safety in other countries. Since then, the Refugee Council has provided practical and emotional support to refugees from across the world to help them rebuild their lives and play a full part in society.

After World War II, millions of people were displaced across Europe and the rest of the world. It became apparent that an international agreement was needed to govern the treatment of refugees in Europe. 147 countries signed the Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, which extended the Convention’s remit to the rest of the world.

The Refugee Council’s work is anchored to the tenets of the 1951 Refugee Convention. The right to claim asylum is an international human right and the Refugee Council believes that all those who come to the UK seeking protection should be treated equally with others in society.

Today the Refugee Council is the leading charity working with refugee and asylum seekers in the UK. We provide the widest range of services for asylum seekers and refugees. For as long as we are needed we will strive to ensure that refugees can find protection and are given the opportunity to rebuild their lives in safety and dignity, just as we have done since 1951.

In 1951  Refugee Convention was adopted . Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as:

A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

  • In the UK, the two charities which would later merge to become the Refugee Council, are founded: the British Council for Aid to Refugees (BCAR) and the Standing Conference on Refugees (SCOR)
  • Following the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, BCAR was responsible for providing support for over 2,000 east and central European refugees from World War II, and 17,000 Hungarian refugees to Britain
  • A residential home, Agnew House, was set up in 1957 for older refugees, many of whom were Holocaust survivors
  • In 1968 and 1969 BCAR assisted over 900 Czech refugeeswho had come to the UK following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechslovakia

Spontaneous asylum began to eclipse formal resettlement programmes as the most common form of entry into the UK for people fleeing persecution. The BCAR settlement section assisted over 2,000 such refugees from 48 countries, mostly African, but also from the Middle East, Asia, Latin and Central America.

  • BCAR helped Ugandan Asian refugees after their expulsion from Uganda in 1972, providing housing, welfare and family reunion support
  • The aftermath of the Chilean coup saw BCAR receive over 100 refugees, and seeing there was a need to resettle greater numbers of people, the charity set up the Joint Council for Refugees from Chile in partnership with the UK government and Christian Aid. The group’s remit was expanded to cover other South American countries and by the end of 1979 over 3,000 Latin American refugees were resettled in the UK
  • BCAR received 5,619 out of the total of over 12,000 refugees from Vietnam and South East Asia admitted to UK, working with Save the Children, Aid to European Refugees and other agencies. Starting in 1979, around 15,000 Vietnamese refugees were resettled in the UK under the Vietnamese programme. In 1988, an additional 500 Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong camps were allowed to join family members in the UK

In 1981 BCAR and SCOR merged to form the British Refugee Council. Lord Alf Dubs, a refugee who had come to Britain from Czechoslovakia as a child in 1939 on one of the first of the famous Kindertransport, became Chief Executive in 1988 and led the organisation until 1995.

  • In the early 1980s, around 20,000 Iranians – most of them students – and 1,500 Poles were given permission to remain in the UK in view of the situation in their countries of origin
  • In the mid and late 1980s, significant numbers of Tamil, Ghanaian, Ugandan and Somali asylum seekers arrived independently in the UK
  • During two months in 1989, more than 3,000 Kurds came to seek asylum. Issues around admission policies, detention and removal of Tamil and Kurdish asylum seekers in particular, had a considerable impact on the Refugee Council’s decision to strengthen its advocacy work as well as supporting refugee communities to enable them to receive refugees

The 1990s saw changes to the origins of those claiming asylum, as world events triggered large scale population movements. Numbers of people seeking asylum from around the globe continued to grow, while particular resettlement programmes emerged to deal with the ongoing crisis in the Balkans.

  • In November 1993, the Refugee Council together with the British Red Cross set up a programme to receive and settle Bosnian refugees. The Government agreed to allow 1,000 Bosnian men, who had been detained in Bosnian Serb camps, to come to the UK with their families (a total of 4,000 people). Reception centres were established in various parts of the UK to arrange initial accommodation and support for the refugees prior to moving into more independent living arrangements
  • In 1995, a further 500 Bosnian refugees were offered temporary refuge in the UK, plus some 20 medical evacuees. However the majority of refugees from Bosnia did not arrive under the programme: around 14,000 Bosnians applied for asylum independently after the war in Bosnia broke out at the beginning of 1999 led to the largest exodus of refugees of the decade. Some 900,000 people were forcibly expelled from Kosovo. As part of a contingency plan, the UK government asked the Refugee Council and three partner agencies, the British Red Cross, Refugee Action and the Scottish Refugee Council, to organise a reception programme for Kosovan evacuees. The evacuees were placed into available accommodation in clusters around UK. By the time the war ended, 4,346 refugees had arrived in the UK
  • As months went on, the pressure on all evacuees to return increased, and by July 2000 55% of the evacuees had done so. As with Bosnians, the majority of Kosovan Albanians in the UK arrived independently
  • The Refugee Council worked to alleviate some of the consequences of the , campaigning on behalf of destitute people to establish their entitlements under the 1948 National Assistance Act, and opening the Karibu centre in Vauxhall in 1996
  • In 1994 Refugee Council started the only national service working to improve the lives of unaccompanied child refugees in the UK

In response to the government’s proposals to disperse asylum seekers nationally, the Refugee Council opened three new One Stop Services in Ipswich, Birmingham and Leeds, becoming a national organisation with offices in several regions across the UK.
Working with partner agencies, we established the to coordinate support arrangements for asylum seekers nationally.


2004: The Gateway Protection Programme started in March 2004 and was an extension of existing schemes operating around the world under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  Together these schemes resettle around 100,000 recognised refugees every year, allowing people to rebuild their lives safely and securely. The first group of refugees who came to be resettled in the UK were from West and Central Africa. Many had fled the war in Liberia and had been living in West African refugee camps. Later, Gateway welcomed Burmese refugees, who had been living in Thai refugee camps and refugees from the conflict in Iraq.

  • 2005: Home Secretary David Blunkett announced the scrapping of the voucher system for asylum seekers after a vigorous campaign run by the Refugee Council and other supporters
  • 2004: Sheffield becomes the first city in the UK to resettle refugees through the Gateway Protection Programme. A group of Liberian refugees arrived and the Refugee Council starts to provide specialist support to help them to integrate

This decade saw an increase in the numbers of displaced people across the world, and reached levels that are the highest they have been since the end of the Second World War. The conflict in Syria began in 2011, and since then over 5 million people have fled the country in search of safety. Ongoing conflict and human rights abuses in many countries led to this increase in the refugee population, most of whom remain in developing countries.

In 2015, refugees began to reach Europe at a rate that had not been witnessed in recent memory with over one million people arriving in the territory, many of whom had risked their lives on flimsy boats from Turkey to Greece or Libya to Italy. The situation quickly became dubbed ‘the Refugee Crisis’ and the publication of the photograph of the body of three year old Alain Kurdi being carried off a Turkish beach highlighted the risks that people were forced to make to reach safety.

  • 2011: 60th Anniversary of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and of the Refugee Council.  The Refugee Council launches its ‘Proud to Protect Refugees‘ campaign and secures over 10,000 signatories.
  • 2013: The Refugee Council launched a campaign calling on the UK Government to create a resettlement programme for people fleeing Syria. In January 2014, we secured a u-turn and the Government announced the introduction of this life-changing programme. In 2015, this programme was expanded to resettle 20,000 people by 2020.
  • 2015: Refugee Council resettles refugees from Syria across Yorkshire & Humber and Hertfordshire.
  • 2014-2017: We published three research reports highlighting the experiences of newly-recognised refugees who routinely experience homelessness and destitution as asylum support payments and accommodation are cut off after 28 days. As a result of this evidence, the Home Office agreed that the 28 days would only start once the Biometric Residence Permit has been issued and the National Insurance Number is now included on that Permit. Refugees need to have both of these to be able to access mainstream support.
  • 2016: The Refugee Council worked with a law firm on a case that resulted in the Home Office’s policy of judging the age of unaccompanied  children seeking asylum based on their appearance being ruled unlawful by the High Court.
  • 2017: As part of the Families Together Coalition which is campaigning to expand refugee family reunion, thousands of people contacted their MPs to urge them to make it easier for refugee families to be reunited in the UK. As a result, in March 2018 131 MPs voted in favour a new law that would do this