Humanitarianism and support for refugees

Today, August 19, marks World Humanitarian Day. Here Sam Sum talks about the history of humanitarianism and its links with support for refugees:


Today, the word “humanitarianism” is commonly associated with refugee crises. In one of the most prominent recent examples, German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended her open-door immigration policy in 2015 by saying that the country had a humanitarian duty to assist war refugees[1]. However, this association is a relatively new development in the long history of humanitarianism.


Humanitarianisms, Not Humanitarianism:

Broadly, Humanitarianism can be understood as a desire to provide support to those experiencing hardship and endangerment.  It is an attempt to alleviate the suffering of distant strangers, typically living in other countries[2]. Generally governments’ response to disasters or situations within their own borders is not classed as “humanitarian”.

Humanitarianism is perceived as a universal concept for two reasons. Firstly, humanitarianism is a manifestation of compassion, kindness, and empathy. These moral sentiments are seen as innate human qualities[3]. Feeling sympathy for the suffering and misfortune of others is natural for all of us, regardless of gender, race, and religious differences. These sentiments are fundamental traits that define mankind and distinguish mankind from animals. Secondly, many – if not all- religious, philosophical, and spiritual texts speak of the importance of having compassion for others and practicing kindness towards fellow human beings. For instance, Confucianism holds “ren” (benevolence in English) as the highest moral ideal. This means that people cannot simply be concerned about their own family. On the contrary, people are encouraged to offer their compassion to those with whom they do not share blood ties[4]. This affection then extends from family to community, from community to society, from society to state and from the state to the world at large. This concern for other people’s well-being needs to be exercised by helping strangers in need. Similar messages can also be found in religious texts such as the Bible and the Quran, which calls followers to help foreigners and strangers in need[5]. Since compassion is an innate human trait enshrined in many philosophical and religious texts, it could be argued that humanitarianism transcends both history and culture.

Although compassion, kindness and empathy may be universal, the way that humanitarianism has been interpreted and applied has varied throughout history. The understanding and definition of humanitarianism has been shaped by the social and political context of each historical period. In sixteenth-century Europe, humanitarianism meant bringing salvation to so-called heathens, as it was believed that those who went against the natural laws (those of Christianity) were condemned to eternal damnation. Missionary work and conversion were deemed as humanitarian activities. Today, few would consider these activities as “humanitarian”.

The interpretation of humanitarianism changed significantly during the Enlightenment period in the late eighteenth century because of a fundamental shift in people’s way of thinking that made them abandon the idea of salvation to focus on the notion of happiness[6]. This major social change also redefined humanitarian activities, redirecting them towards the alleviation of physical suffering. Such change led to a growing discontent towards the slave trade in Britain. The appalling conditions and the cruelty that slaves had to endure inspired the abolition movement[7]. The focus on physical suffering has since remained fundamental to humanitarianism, carrying all the way through to the 21st century.


Modern Humanitarianism as an antidote to conflict:

The inhumane consequences of conflicts are the very raison d’être of modern humanitarianism. The current form of humanitarianism can be traced back to the origins of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), established by Henry Dunant to help injured soldiers. His desire to help distant strangers was driven by his witnessing of the bloodshed at the Battle of Solferino between Franco-Sardinian forces and Austrian troops in 1859.  More than 6,000 soldiers were killed and another 40,000 were wounded. As both sides were ill-equipped to tend to their wounded soldiers, many were left on the battlefield to suffer until they died. Driven by compassion, Dunant threw himself into relief work and organised local residents to help the wounded regardless of the side they had been fighting on[8].  This experience inspired him to publish “A Memory of Solferino” in 1862. He ended this memoir with two proposals: one was to establish relief societies, and the other one was to adopt an international treaty to protect emergency medical services in the battlefield[9] . The memoir marks the beginning of an international humanitarian movement aimed at mitigating the effects of conflicts.

A series of international laws were codified to protect wounded soldiers and civilians in times of war. With the help of ICRC, the First Geneva Convention (GC I), which set how soldiers should be treated when they were injured in the battlefield, was adopted in 1864. The convention specifies that “wounded or sick combatants, to whatever nation they may belong, shall be collected and cared for”[10]. To facilitate the protection of and welfare of wounded military personnel on the battlefield, the convention recognizes “the neutrality of ambulances and military hospitals, hospital and ambulance personnel, and citizens who help the wounded”[11]. By the end of the 1860s, most European States had become signatories to the convention. The GC I laid the foundations of how wounded soldiers and civilians would be protected in the future. Over the years, a series of international agreements were reached, gradually expanding the scope of protection to military personnel in naval warfare, prisoners of war, civilians and those engaged in internal armed conflicts.

In addition to the codification of international agreements, the humanitarian concern for war victims inspired humanitarian movements. For instance, the Commission for Relief to Belgium, created in 1914, raised over 20 million USD to address the food shortage in occupied Belgium in the First World War. The Fight the Famine Council, established in 1919, put pressure on the British government to lift the blockade of Germany. This blockade, a prolonged operation carried out during and after the First World War to prevent all imports from entering the Central Powers, caused the death of millions of children in Germany and Austria-Hungary[12].  This type of humanitarian movement mushroomed during and after the Second World War. Well-known organisations such as Oxfam and Care International were set up during that period to address the inhumane consequences of war.


Refugees as an International Humanitarian Concern:

The consideration of refugees as an international humanitarian concern is a relatively new development in humanitarianism. Prior to the 20th century, states did not exert strict legal and physical control over their borders.  No immigrants or visitors could be legally prevented from landing in Britain between 1826 and 1905[13].  However, as the sense of sovereignty and nationalism grew, governments began to introduce immigration laws, passports, and other legal and administrative barriers to entry in the early twentieth century[14]. The UK established the passport system to regulate entry and distinguish their citizens from those considered foreign nationals in 1915 under the British Nationality and Status Aliens Act of 1914. These new state controls meant that those who were forced to flee their countries could not seek sanctuary or obtain legal residence in other nations and were therefore left in limbo. This set the stage for the refugee crises[15]. The scale of involuntary migrant movements grew substantially in the twentieth century. It is estimated that almost 2 million Russians were uprooted by famine and the revolution, and approximately the same number of Greeks fled the country during the Greco-Turkish War[16]. These large outflows of people were unprecedented in European history.  Many countries were affected and it soon became clear that no country could absorb such a volume of migrants by itself, which highlighted the need for international cooperation.

The scale of this misery placed enormous pressure on the international community. Seeing the desperate poverty that refugees were living in and noting their lack of legal protection, the President of the ICRC, Gustave Ador, called on the League of Nations to appoint a general commissioner to assist them[17]. The League responded by calling an international conference to address the refugee crisis in Europe. If governments had not had any humanitarian motivations, they could have refused to take moral responsibility and left refugees to starve. However, this was not the case.  Sir C. Alban Young, British Minister to Belgrade, rejected the idea of cutting services to refugees because it would expose them to “privations and hunger” and would damage the “standard of humanity”. This humanitarian sentiment generated support from many countries, including Belgium and Spain[18].  Ador’s proposal was adopted and the High Commission for Refugees (HCR) was created. The HCR articulated a set of refugee rights, including access to the courts[19], non-refoulment[20], education[21], social security[22] and the right to work[23]. These rights would allow refugees to have some sort of livelihood and protection outside of their homeland.


The creation of the HCR marked the beginning of the international refugee regime, which continued to develop in the aftermath of the Second World War. Driven by humanitarian concern, international institutions were created to respond to the needs of the millions of people who were displaced in other countries. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was created in 1943 to provide material assistance to refugees and displaced persons in Europe and other areas and run a repatriation programme[24]. The UNRRA was succeeded by the International Refugee Organization (IRO) in 1946. The IRO had a more comprehensive mandate than its predecessor, dealing with “repatriation, identification, registration and classification, care and assistance, legal and political protection, transport, resettlement and re-establishment”[25]. In 1950, the IRO gave way to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), tasked with providing “international protection for refugees” and “permanent solutions to the problem of refugees by assisting governments to facilitate their voluntary repatriation or their assimilation with new national communities”[26].  The UNHCR outgrew its initial three-year mandate. Over the next few decades, it extended its activities from legal protection to other forms of assistance such as clean water, sanitation, health care and shelter[27]. It also helped non-statutory refugees like stateless people and internal displaced people[28]. The UNHCR is now the primary humanitarian institution that advocates for the rights of refugees and offers them assistance.


Refugee protection took legal form. It informs the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its Protocol of 1967. The Convention defines the term refugee and sets a minimum standard for the treatment of refugees, while the Protocol removes the temporal and geographic limitations of the Convention[29].  They are “the most comprehensive instruments which have been adopted to date on a universal level to safeguard the fundamental rights of refugees and to regulate their status in countries of asylum”[30].  These legal instruments grant refugees a series of rights including the freedom to practice their religion; the right to public education; freedom of movement; and the right to access public relief. To complement the Convention and its Protocol, regional refugee laws were codified to respond to regional specificities. These included the 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, and the 1994 Arab Convention on Regulating Status of Refugees in the Arab Countries[31]. These international and regional treaties created a comprehensive legal framework for the protection of refugees.    


The grim situation of refugees also triggered a domestic response in many countries. Many local organizations were established to provide assistance, advocate for their rights and ensure governments complied with the 1951 Convention and the subsequent Protocol.  The Welsh Refugee Council is one these local organizations. It provides advice, practical support and advocacy services to refugees and asylum seekers in Wales, helping new arrivals to adapt to the new environment.  Local Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) like the WRC play a key role in the growing international refugee regime, as they facilitate the delivery of the UNHCR objectives and support governments to ensure compliance with the refugee conventions.


However, the work of these local organizations cannot be fully effective without the support of the help of housing and social care system and sustained and sufficient funding from donors and governments. More support from the local authorities and general public will be required if NGOs like WRC continue to serve this most vulnerable group of people.


Sam Sum is Compliance and People Development Officer at Welsh refugee Council. He has recently completed his PhD at Cardiff University which focused on the Evolution of Humanitarianism. 









[1] Independent, ‘Angela Merkel vows to tangibly reduce refugee numbers – gets seven-minute standing ovation from Party’, available at

[2] Michael Barnett, ‘Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism’, p. 19 and p.49

[3] Eamonn Butler, “The Incredibly condensed theory of Moral Sentiments”, p.77

[4] Mengzi VII A 15

[5] Daniel Maxwell and Peter Walker, ‘Shaping the Humanitarian World’, p. 14

[6] Roy Porter, “Enlightenment: Britain and the Making of the Modern World”, p.22

[7] Roger Anstey, “The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition 1760-1810”

[8] Francois Bugnion, “Birth of an Idea: the Founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross and of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement: From Solferino to the Original Geneva Convention (1859-1864)”, p. 1303

[9] Henry, Dunant, “A memory of Solferino”

[10] Article 6 of GC I.

[11] Articles 3 and 5 of GC I

[12] Mike Aaronson, “Are Children’s rights history”, available at

[13] Elina Multanen, ‘British Policy towards Russian Refugees’, p.45.

[14] Michael Barnett, ‘Refugees and Humanitarianism’, p. 246

[15] Michael Barnett, ‘Refugees and Humanitarianism’, p. 246

[16] Eduardo Arboleda and Ian Hoy, ‘The Convention Refugee Definition in the West: Disharmony of Interpretation and Application’, p. 70

[17] Claudena Skran, ‘Refugees in Inter-War Europe: The Emergence of a Regime’, p. 85

[18] Claudena Skran, ‘Refugees in Inter-War Europe: The Emergence of a Regime’, p. 86

[19] Article 4 of Convention Relating to the International Status of Refugees of 1933

[20] Article 3 of Convention Relating to the International Status of Refugees of 1933

[21] Article 12 of Convention Relating to the International Status of Refugees of 1933

[22] Article 9 of Convention Relating to the International Status of Refugees of 1933

[23] Article 7 of of Convention Relating to the International Status of Refugees of 1933

[24] UNHCR, ‘The State of the World’s Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action’, p. 14

[25] UNHCR, ‘The State of the World’s Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action’, p. 16

[26] UNHCR, ‘The State of the World’s Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action’, p. 23

[27] UNHCR, ‘What We Do’, available at

[28] UNHCR, ‘What We Help’, available at

[29] LiLi Song, ‘The Door Behind the Bamboo Curtain – Chinese Law and Policy on Refugee Status ’ P.37

[30] UNHCR, ‘Implementation of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees
EC/SCP/54’, available at

[31] UNHCR, ‘A Guide to International Refugee Protection and Building State Asylum Systems’, p. 19.