4 Periods in the UK’s History of Voluntary Refugee Support

4 Periods in the UK’s History of Voluntary Refugee Support

As part of Refugee History’s Refugee Week 20th anniversary blog series, Calais Action co-founder Tess Berry-Hart has investigated the ‘people to people volunteer phenomenon’ that spread across the UK in response to the recent “refugee crisis”. She explains that ‘though the concept of volunteering is not new, it is hard to over-estimate the phenomenon of the “people to people” grassroots aid movement which exploded in 2015 and saw thousands of people head off to Calais, to Greece, and all over the world.’ In light of this, it is useful to identify the ways that the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ did create new and emergent kinds of solidarity. It is also valuable to reflect on the ways that the ‘volunteer phenomenon’ might link into a longer history of voluntary responses to the reception and resettlement of refugee groups in Britain. Below are four periods that illustrate the diverse and important roles voluntary refugee aid groups played in the UK over the twentieth century:

  1. 1930s-1940s: Volunteerism and refugees from Nazism 
  2. 1950s-1972: Voluntarism, the Cold War and the welfare state
    1. Refugees from Hungary
    2. Refugees from Uganda 
  3. 1973-1978: Chileans: political affinity
  4. 1979-1990s: Vietnamese refugees: NGOs take a lead
  5. Today: The legacy of Britain’s 20th Century refugee-volunteer groups

More information about the different refugee groups outlined below can be found in Refugee History’s interactive timeline and downloadable timeline of refugee movement to the UK. Here you will find details of who these refugee groups were, why they were fleeing, why they sought refuge in Britain, the localities responsible for hosting these groups, and the impact these various groups have had on British society since their arrival. 

1. Volunteerism and Refugees from Nazism

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In the build up to the Second World War, volunteer organisations had a central role in rescuing refugees and supporting them financially - specifically religious refugees from Nazi Germany. In response to a British state increasingly concerned about the financial cost of accepting such large numbers of refugees, the Anglo-Jewish community directly funded the resettlement, reception, and welfare of Jewish refugees from Europe

Initially, this responsibility was manageable, but when the Anschluss caused a significant rise in refugee numbers, the limited resources of the Central British Fund, Jewish Refugees Committee and other groups meant that a selection process had to be enforced. Pressure increased in the months leading up to war – the 10,000 Kindertransport children were granted entry on the expectation that their costs would be covered either by private sponsors or voluntary organisations, who were also expected to monitor and provide for their wellbeing. 

While Jewish organisations remained central both logistically and financially to the operation, other religious groups and humanitarian voluntary agencies increased their involvement as the rate of Nazi persecution increased. Academic, Christian, and politically orientated organisations all contributed to the sponsorship of refugees, many of whom lacked the personal funds to support themselves and were barred from taking up employment or applying for public assistance funds. As well as acts of individual humanitarianism through the donation of clothing, bedding and food, by 1939 there was an estimated 182 ‘provincial refugee committees’ in Britain.

2. Voluntarism, the Cold War and the High Point of the Welfare State

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Historians used to think that, following the creation of the ‘cradle to grave’ welfare state in the years after the Second World War, the part played by voluntary organisations in Britain shrank significantly. In fact, recent work has shown the enduring importance of voluntarism in British life during this time, and work with refugees was no exception. Even though refugees were now treated the same as British citizens after arrival, in that they could claim any necessary welfare benefits, the British Council for Aid to Refugees (BCAR) and other more localised or national-specific organisations remained vital to the process of resettlement and social support. As well as a few hundred individual refugee arrivals each year, these decades saw the arrival of three major cohorts – the Hungarians in 1956; the Czechs in 1968; and the Ugandan Asians in 1972.

The reception and resettlement of each of these refugee groups saw close collaboration between the British government and voluntary organisations. While the official reception and resettlement programmes (often funded by a combination of Home Office grants and public donations) were financially responsibility for the reception of refugees, they worked closely with voluntary organisations when it came to implementation and logistics. A government policy of ‘front end loading’ concentrated government funds in the initial reception period. This meant that voluntary organisations, in combination with local authorities and welfare services, played a vital part in receiving and welcoming refugees, and then in providing support and services once they were found a home.

Refugees from Hungary

When 21,000 Hungarians arrived in a few short weeks over the winter of 1956-7, voluntary organisations were central to reception and resettlement efforts. New arrivals to Britain were selected and processed in Austria by a combined Home Office/BCAR delegation, while in Britain the BCAR was the central contact point for the combined government/voluntary relief programme: by January 1957 the Hungarian Department of the BCAR – funded through a government grant - had 143 members, including twenty-two interpreters, forty-nine seconded civil servants, sixty-two paid employees and a fluctuating number of voluntary workers. This department managed the £2.5million raised through the Lord Mayor’s Fund and dealt with the flood of in-kind donations, receiving ten thousand offers of accommodation, clothing worth £650,000, and bedding and household goods from across the country. The BCAR also acted as the co-ordinating body for the uniformed voluntary organisations who took up particular aspects of the reception and resettlement process.

The Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) collected, sorted and distributed clothing, opening extra collection centres and sorting sessions across the country. In the first fortnight of its opening, the central sorting depot in London had an average of forty people working daily sorting nearly 100,000 garments. The WVS also organized and staffed reception hostels and resettlement camps, as well as checking and co-ordinating all the private offers of accommodation. The YMCA ran reception hostels and co-ordinated many of the language classes and the thousands of volunteers offering formal and conversational English teaching.

Refugees from Uganda

During the arrival of the expelled Ugandan Asians in 1972 we see similar co-ordinated activity between government and voluntary organisations. Following its decision to accept the majority of Ugandan Asian expellees, the government created the Ugandan Resettlement Board. With funding and leadership provided by the Home Office, and staffed by its seconded civil servants, it worked closely with the uniformed voluntary services who took on much the same role as they had done during the Hungarian programme.

However, Britain had started to change: unlike the Hungarians who found very few co-nationals already living in the country, the Ugandan Asians were coming to a country with a significant East African Asian population, who themselves were one part of the South Asian diasporic population. Just as British Jews had provided for their co-religionists in the 1930s, in 1972 arriving Ugandan Asians were not only able to draw on support from family and friends, but also found a significant number of voluntary organisations established by people from South Asia ready and willing to help. These included the Indian Workers’ Association, the Ismaili Community, League of Overseas Pakistanis, Leicester Gujarati Welfare Service, Supreme Council of Sikhs in the UK, West Middlesex British Asian Relief Committee and the Zoroastrian (Parsi) Association of Great Britain. All these worked as part of the bigger Central Committee for the Welfare of Evacuees from Uganda (CCWEU) and aimed to provide resources, advice and culturally sympathetic support which the official resettlement programme often had neither the time nor the expertise to provide. 

3. Chileans: Political Affinity

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While the government’s front end loading process continued into the reception of refugees from Chile, the unique relationship between the government and volunteers was also heavily reliant on the political relationship between Chile and Britain. When General Pinochet’s coup began in 1973, the then Conservative British government refused to accept any of these, mostly communist, refugees into Britain. With a change to Labour leadership in 1974, Chilean applications began to be accepted, although the selection process was highly restrictive. 

While the British government funded the reception and selection of refugees in this period, they did not involve themselves in the practical work of reception. This was instead left to the work of voluntary organisations, many of whom were highly political in nature. The Chile Solidarity Campaign (formed after the coup in 1973) and the Chile Campaign for Human Rights (CCHR) lobbied the government, organised letter campaigns, and assisted in the reception of refugees, with the CCHR becoming a registered charity. 

Refugees from Chile were first managed by the British Council for Aid to Refugees (BCAR), left-wing groups and Ockenden Venture (then a specialist child refugee charity). However, the limited funding from the Home Office and the logistical demands of the programme led to the creation of the Joint Working Group for Refugees from Chile (JWG), which became responsible for the logistics of refugee reception and resettlement. Home Office funding was then funnelled through this group that consisted of voluntary agencies as well as the CCHR and the Chile Solidarity Campaign. The JWG also included members from the BCAR, Ockenden Venture, Women’s Voluntary Society, Christian Aid and the Standing Conference on Refugees. Funding was restricted, with the organisations only ever able to secure funds to last six months. The financial stability of the organisation was dependent on lobbying and campaigning by the CCHR and Chile Solidarity, and on the work of these existing voluntary agencies and local groups that found accommodation, supplies and support services for incoming refugees. 

While the JWG was disbanded after the resettlement, ‘Chile Democratico’ formed shortly after to assist refugees post-resettlement. Chile Democratico was formed of many JWG volunteers as well as refugees who had been assisted by the JWG. Now named the Indoamerican Refugee and Migrant Association, the organisation operates community services, education programmes and campaigning events for Latin American migrants. This is just one example of the emergence of refugee community groups, something which has proved essential in ensuring continued support, filling the gaps in mainstream provision and to enabling refugees to help those experiencing similar situations to the ones they encountered.

4. Vietnamese Refugees: NGOs take a lead


The arrival of Vietnamese refugees in Britain signalled a further development in the state-volunteer relationship, as the severe cuts to the state implemented by Margaret Thatcher’s first government made the level of engagement which had been possible during earlier refugee arrivals no longer feasible. With limited funding provided by the Home Office, the British Council for Aid to Refugees was designated the task of arranging the resettlement and reception of all refugees. However, the decision to take at least 10,000 refugees from Vietnam in 1979 meant that the size of the task outgrew BCAR’s capacity, leading to the formation of the Joint Committee for Refugees from Vietnam (JCRV), consisting of representatives from voluntary organisations and the Home Office.

Three key agencies – the BCAR, Save the Children Fund, and Ockenden Venture, which had also played a role in the evacuation of children from Vietnam in 1975 – led the reception and resettlement movement. With government refusing to provide funds for refugee resettlement beyond their first weeks’ stay in a reception centre, the work of the voluntary agencies, and their networks of volunteers, became absolutely central to the creation and delivery of a resettlement programme.

While there existed logistical issues and sometimes poor inter-agency relations and in-fighting, it is the work of these organisations that made resettlement possible under limited support from the Home Office. The uniformed organisations located accommodation, organised reception camps, provided basic resources such as food and clothing, and supported the transition into resettlement. Hit by the impact of limited funding, pressure from local councils, and dispersal policies, the coordinated efforts of these agencies, while strained, enabled the resettlement right across Britain of what in the end was to be 19,000 refugees from Vietnam. 

Towards the conclusion of the resettlement project, the Save the Children Fund created Refugee Action to continue with post-settlement assistance and generate reports on the success of various refugee projects. The organisation thrived and was integral in the evacuation of Bosnian refugees in 1992 and the resettlement of Kosovan refugees in 1999. <See Rob Carr’s contribution to this series for more information about aid to Kosovo refugees in Europe and Australia> Today Refugee Action has an extensive range of services, from specialised advice and employment services to campaigning remits. They act as an integral agency in the continued development of refugee advocacy.  

5. The Legacy of Britain’s Historical Refugee Volunteer Groups

Volunteerism has not been without its pitfalls. Certain groups and efforts have been criticised for their colonial, neo-colonial, imperialist or assimilationist tendencies. At times, the process of volunteer humanitarianism has been misguided – an inevitable consequence of throwing well-intentioned volunteers with little understanding of the political, cultural or contextual background of the refugee populations into front-line resettlement projects. The work of volunteer agencies often ceased after resettlement was carried out, leaving refugees with little support in post-settlement life, which was exacerbated by the policies of dispersal.

Government policies of dispersal strained the capacity of volunteer organisations, particularly community groups established by former refugees, to provide specialist support during the post-resettlement years and to help individuals maintain cultural links. As dispersing refugees isolates them from essential services (often based in London) and prevents the formation of community groups, policies of dispersal are just one example of how volunteer-refugee history is tied to the history of immigration legislation. <For more information on this issue, see Refugee History’s interactive timeline of the history of immigration policy in the UK>. 

Despite these limitations, restrictions, and missteps, it remains evident that the UK’s capacity for accepting and resettling refugees was, and is, largely reliant on the willingness of voluntary organisations and NGOs to coordinate these efforts. The absence of a coordinated government plan for the resettlement and reception of refugees means that volunteer processes are individualistic and change with each new refugee group. As a result, the history of the reception of refugees in the UK is closely linked to Britain’s history of volunteerism, and in a political climate increasingly hostile towards ‘outsiders’ of any kind, it is useful to remember the role that British citizens played in supporting refugees in the past.  

For Further Information on Modern Refugee Voluntary Organisations:

British Red Cross

UK Government Signposting Resource (Syrian Refugees)

Help Refugees

IMRO (Indoamerican Refugee and Migrant Organisation)

Refugee Action

Refugee Council

Refugee Support Network

Royal Voluntary Service

St John’s Ambulance

Support Refugees

References and Further Reading:

Anheier, Helmut K. and Lester M. Salamon. ‘Volunteering in Cross National Perspectives: Initial Comparisons’. Law and Contemporary Problems, 62(4), 1999, pp. 43-65.

Bloch, Alice. The Migration and Settlement of Refugees in Britain. 2002. London: Palgrave Macmilan. 

Crowson, Nick, Hilton, Matthew Hilton and James McKay eds., 2009. NGOs in contemporary Britain: non-state actors in society and politics since 1945. Springer.

Duke, Karen, Rosemary Sales and Jeanne Gregory. ‘Refugee Resettlement in Europe’. In Refugees, Citizenship and Social Policy in Europe, Bloch, Alice & Carl Levy (eds). 2013. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp.105-132.

Cohen, Susan. ‘Voluntary Refugees Work in Britain, 1933-39’, in Insight into British Jewish Studies, Rebekka Denz, Grazyna Jurewicz & Dorothea M, Salzer (eds). Potsdam: University of Potsdam Press. 2012. pp. 21-34. 

Grant, Amy. ‘‘Angels’, ‘Aliens’, and ‘Amiable lunatics’:  the Women and the Refugees, 1919-39’, University of East Anglia, Masters Dissertation, 2017.

IRMO. ‘Our History’. IMRO. n.d. Available at: [accessed 27 May 2018]. 

Joly, Daniele. Haven or Hell? Asylum Policies and Refugees in Europe. 1996. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Knox, Katharine and Tony Kushner. Refugees in and Age of Genocide: Global, National and Local Perspectives During the Twentieth Century. 1999. London; Portland: Frank Class. 

Mamdani, Mahmood. From Citizen to Refugee: Uganda Asians Come to Britain. Second Edition. 2011. Oxford: Fahamu. 

Refugee Action. ‘Refugee Action History’. Refugee Action. n.d. [accessed 27 May 2018]. 

Sandri, Elisa. ‘Volunteers and Humanitarianism Aid in Calais’. Refugee History. 2018. [accessed 27 May 2018]. 

Taylor, Becky. ‘Good Citizens? Ugandan Asians, Volunteers and ‘Race’ Relations in 1970s Britain’. History Workshop Journal, 85, 2018, pp. 120-141. 

Taylor, Becky. ‘Don’t just look for a new pet’: The Vietnamese airlift, child refugees and the dangers of toxic humanitarianism’, Patterns of Prejudice, 52: 2-3, 2018, 195-209.  

Taylor, Becky. ‘When the British Government Expects Volunteers to Help Refugees, it’s Back to the 1930s’. Refugee History. 2018. [accessed 27 May 2018]. 

Vickers, Tom. ‘Developing an Independent Anti-Racist Model for Asylum Rights Organising in England’. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37(8), 2014, pp. 1427-1447. 

Warwick History. ‘The Joint Working Group for the Resettlement of Refugees’. Warwick University. n.d. [accessed 27 May 2018]. 

Wilkinson, Michael D. ‘The Chile Solidarity Campaign and British Government Policy Towards Chile, 1973-1990’. European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 52, 1992, pp. 57-74.


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