Peter Gatrell answers your questions about the history of refugees

For each Project, we give you the chance to ask questions to experts on the topic.

Meet Professor Peter Gatrell from the University of Manchester.

Peter is a historian of population displacement (this means when people are forced to leave their home country or region). Most of his current work is focussed on migration in/to Europe since 1945. We'll let Peter introduce himself...

You can read Peter's replies below!

Comments (50)

  • British Council.jpg appreciative_pear | Shouka Prep Girls School | Occupied Palestinian Territory
    14 Apr 2022

    Hello Peter!
    My questions are:
    1- Being ordinary people, how can refugees be helped?
    2- How do we protect the rights of refugees?

  • British Council.jpg willing_imagination | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
    14 Apr 2022

    1) Who is a refugee?

    2) What does refugee resettlement mean?
    3) How can I help refugees?

    1. Peter Gattrell thumbnail EXPERT: Peter Gatrell
      willing_imagination's comment 28 Apr 2022

      Thanks so much for your questions. I'm going to answer your first question, which is very important but not so easy to answer! When you ask, "who is a refugee", my response is that we should distinguish between everyday speech and international law. What I mean is that most of us would agree that a refugee is someone who has been forced to leave their home because they have been targeted, whether by enemy invasion, by an oppressive regime in their own country. We might add that their lives may have become intolerable for other reasons, such as poverty, although some people argue that they are not "refugees" but "economic migrants". In practice, the distinction can be very blurred. This takes me to the other aspect of "who is a refugee", which is international law. In 1951 the United Nations agreed on a Refugee Convention, which remains the foundation of international refugee law, even though some countries have not signed up to it. The Convention defines a refugee as a person who has crossed an international frontier (so it doesn't apply to those called "internally displaced persons", IDPs) and who can demonstrate that they have been persecuted or fear persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political views, or membership of a social group. If you are recognised as a refugee on these grounds - and remember that the host state decides whether to recognise you or not - then the state that grants you asylum undertakes not to send you back to your home country against your will. I hope that answers your question!

  • British Council.jpg creative_seahorse | Beit Lahya Prep Girls | Occupied Palestinian Territory
    14 Apr 2022

    My questions are
    1_What country has the largest number of refugees? What is the country from which the largest number of refugees left?
    2_What motivated you to study the issue of asylum, and do you find any excitement or fun in studying it?

    1. Peter Gattrell thumbnail EXPERT: Peter Gatrell
      creative_seahorse's comment 28 Apr 2022

      I appreciate your questions and interest in this topic! To answer your first question about the main countries from which refugees come and where they go, I suggest you look at the website of UNHCR, which has a lot of useful information. See https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/
      As to my interest in the subject, I began (many years ago!) by looking at the history of the First World War (1914-1918) when millions of people were forced from their homes, either because they fled in fear of enemy invasion or because their own state persecuted them. I was particulary interested in what happened in the Russian Empire. I then started to teach the subject - inviting my wonderful students to think about refugees across the globe in the 20th century. I wrote books about this and about campaigns to support refugees. More recently, I have been working in the archives of UNHCR in Geneva, where I am reading about refugees who wrote to the High Commissioner between 1951 and 1975 - lots of letters from European refugees (Russian, Hungarian, and others) as well as from refugees in sub-Saharan Africa (Rwandan, Congolese, Sudanese, and others). Not many Palestinian refugees, because they were the responsibility not of UNHCR but UNRWA, the UN Refugee and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees. I am always amazed and moved by what refugees have to say about their situation and about what they wish for.

      1. British Council.jpg willing_imagination | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
        Peter Gatrell's comment 28 Apr 2022

        Thank you, my friend, for the clarification. We agree on the name of the refugee, and I am of the opinion that the refugee is not only from across the international borders. There are many displaced persons within the country itself. He is considered a refugee according to the definition of the concept of a refugee since he does not have the necessities of a normal life

  • British Council.jpg nice_coconut | Beit Lahya Prep Girls | Occupied Palestinian Territory
    14 Apr 2022

    Ar there any international laws that defend the rights of refugees all around the world? If there are, are they enough to protect the refugees?

    1. Peter Gattrell thumbnail EXPERT: Peter Gatrell
      nice_coconut's comment 28 Apr 2022

      Great question, thanks! Yes, there is international law (the 1951 UN Refugee Convention) that is designed to protect refugees. States that signed the Convention agree to provide refugees with basic rights and not to return them to their country of origin against their will. But as I said in another post here, the state itself decides whether to recognise whether an individual has a valid claim to have been persecuted. Your question is also important because some countries have not signed the Convention, because they don't want to be told what to do (I'm putting it crudely - another way of saying it is that some states think it would undermine their sovereignty). A state that hasn't signed may well have a responsible attitude towards refugees, offering them protection and certain rights.

  • British Council.jpg nice_coconut | Beit Lahya Prep Girls | Occupied Palestinian Territory
    14 Apr 2022

    What can be done to ensure the refugees' rights and the sustainability of their issue and just cause over years?

  • British Council.jpg inspired_cherry | Beit Lahya Prep Girls | Occupied Palestinian Territory
    14 Apr 2022

    hello peter
    My question is.
    1. How can we eliminate the phenomenon of asylum, as it is a big problem that must be resolved quickly and work to return to the lands?
    2. Why did the United Nations not abide by its laws when “it decided that return should be permitted at the earliest and that compensation should be paid for the property of those who decide not to return to their homes and compensation for the loss and loss of property so that the damage is compensated by the responsible governments and authorities” text of United Nations Resolution No. 194?
    3. Will the problem of asylum remain with the world in every place and time?
    4. What is the biggest solution.

    1. katie.jpg Katie @ Topical Talk
      inspired_cherry's comment 14 Apr 2022

      Do you mean eliminate asylum (people being able to move to a safe place)? Or the problems that cause people to seek asylum?

      1. British Council.jpg inspired_cherry | Beit Lahya Prep Girls | Occupied Palestinian Territory
        Katie @ Topical Talk's comment 15 Apr 2022

        I believed that asylum is the removal of people from their land. I spoke based on my experience, but I researched and learned that asylum is a legal right that gives a person who is persecuted for his political opinions or religious beliefs in his country the opportunity to express his opinions.

        1. British Council.jpg willing_imagination | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
          inspired_cherry's comment 02 May 2022

          Yes, it is true that everyone whose lives are in danger because of wars or conflicts, as well as those who are opposed to the state, which views do not correspond with the state, should be considered refugees.

    2. British Council.jpg willing_imagination | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
      inspired_cherry's comment 04 May 2022

      I don't think the refugee problem can be eliminated. Wars and conflicts are ongoing and occur in most regions of the world. Therefore, it is very necessary to search for alternatives that contribute to reducing the damages. The world is not under the control of one person by deciding whether there is war or conflict between two parties. It is an issue of differing opinions and views between the parties that may lead to the outbreak of wars so that the people will be the victims

  • British Council.jpg inspired_cherry | Beit Lahya Prep Girls | Occupied Palestinian Territory
    14 Apr 2022

    I mean that the problem of asylum is a big problem. The refugees are deprived of their country, of their lands, of their homes.
    They must live safely.
    Safety and comfort do not come except for the refugee in his country.

    1. Peter Gattrell thumbnail EXPERT: Peter Gatrell
      inspired_cherry's comment 28 Apr 2022

      Thank you very much for these important questions. Let me focus on the United Nations. Remember that there is a general assembly of member states: states might reach agreement on a particular issue, but an individual state might still decide to go its own way in implementing a decision or not. In other words, a state might not be bound by a UN resolution. The other element here is the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (or UNHCR), which acts on behalf of the UN to protect recognised refugees, as per the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. I've written about this elsewhere in this forum. But, yet again, you have to remember that the individual states have their own interests to protect - and they also pay for UNHCR! So UNHCR treads quite cautiously when it deals with states, including states that create refugees or treat refugees poorly, because it tries not to offend those who contribute to its work. Likewise, regarding compensation - the UN can say one thing (i.e. pass a resolution), but this doesn't mean that each and every member state will follow/abide by it.

    2. British Council.jpg willing_imagination | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
      inspired_cherry's comment 02 May 2022

      Yes, he was forced to leave the house that he built or lived in to live in a completely different place than he was in the past, so he will not feel comfortable or safe.

    3. British Council.jpg willing_imagination | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
      inspired_cherry's comment 04 May 2022

      Yes, I agree with you. Every person feels safe in his country, and the asylum process because of wars reduces the chance of feeling safe because of the difficulties and problems that accompany it.

  • British Council.jpg strong_bird | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
    14 Apr 2022

    my question:
    Have you experienced asylum, or have you seen one of your acquaintances or relatives as a refugee?
    And what made you work at work?
    What is the benefit to you and society?

    1. Peter Gattrell thumbnail EXPERT: Peter Gatrell
      strong_bird's comment 28 Apr 2022

      I appreciate your questions, thank you! Although I am not a refugee, I believe that everyone has a right to live in safety and to be treated equally and with dignity. I do have friends who are refugees, and I think we have learned from one another about the world in which we live. But I know that I am very privileged compared to many other people. I try through my work as a teacher and researcher to communicate the need to respect refugees and to understand their perspectives. I hope that answers your questions.

      1. British Council.jpg strong_bird | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
        Peter Gatrell's comment 29 Apr 2022

        That's great, I also have another question
        Does the refugee have a special place in society or the place to which he is seeking refuge?

        1. British Council.jpg willing_imagination | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
          strong_bird's comment 02 May 2022

          I think that a large group of refugees are forgotten and do not know much about them and suffer from poverty

  • British Council.jpg trusting_pear | Shohour High Public School | Lebanon
    14 Apr 2022

    Why there are some countries that don't accept refugees? What are the reasons? Even though they are great countries

  • British Council.jpg sceptical_crow | Beit Lahya Prep Girls | Occupied Palestinian Territory
    15 Apr 2022

    1_ As an expert on the issue of the displaced, what solutions do you offer to this issue? Do you have the appropriate conditions to implement these solutions?
    2_ What do the countries that receive the displaced in Europe demand?

    1. Peter Gattrell thumbnail EXPERT: Peter Gatrell
      sceptical_crow's comment 28 Apr 2022

      I appreciate your questions, thank you! They are not easy to answer ... As far as "solutions" are concerned, the UNHCR (see other posts) describes these as (a) repatriation (b) resettlement and (c) local settlement or "integration" in the country of first asylum. What is important in my view is that refugees should be consulted - asked what they want, in other words - rather than treated as if they had no say in the matter. There have been instances where refugees were more or less forced to return to their homes ("repatriation") against their will, because they felt that conditions in their homeland were not safe enough. That cannot be a good "solution".
      As to Europe and current policy towards refugees, I am sorry to say that governments are not treating refugees at all well. They discourage refugees from arriving to claim asylum. You may have read that the UK government plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, thousands of miles from Britain. It may not happen - there is a lot of opposition here in the UK to such a hostile approach - but it is one indication of how the atmosphere has become toxic. Unfortunately, this is not a recent development - British governments in the 1980s onwards have put up more and more obstacles to people who wish to claim asylum. Politicians claim that Britain has "a proud tradition of asylum", but this is really a myth rather than an informed statement. Not that other countries in Europe are any better ...

  • British Council.jpg willing_imagination | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
    15 Apr 2022

    I will ask you the following questions dear: 1) What is the difference between refugees and immigrants? 2) Can you tell me who the asylum seeker is?

  • British Council.jpg pioneering_wilddog | Jabalia Prep Girls A School | Occupied Palestinian Territory
    15 Apr 2022

    The question I would like to ask is: When talking about people who were forced to leave their homes, is there a responsibility on the party (a person or a state) who make them leave to find another place for them or to secure a future for them??!

  • British Council.jpg fabulous_flight | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
    15 Apr 2022

    Hello Peter, I would like to ask you some questions first, what are the rights granted to a refugee? How are they received?

  • British Council.jpg aware_painting | Shouka Prep Girls School | Occupied Palestinian Territory
    16 Apr 2022

    Mr. Peter, my first question: Do you deal with the refugee crisis as a crisis or as human beings??? My second question: Do you think that the amount of assistance provided to the refugees is parallel to the amount of oppression and humiliation they experienced during the refugee journey??

    1. Peter Gattrell thumbnail EXPERT: Peter Gatrell
      aware_painting's comment 28 Apr 2022

      Thanks for such great questions! I do worry about the way in refugees are turned into a "crisis". Yes, of course the situations caused by war and persecution create enormous difficulty and suffering, but when politicians and the media talk about a "crisis" it has the effect of turning people into "problems", if you know what I mean? A crisis can have some positive consequences, such as encouraging people to offer money and other support to refugees, so you need to bear that in mind as well. But the use of photographs for example to amplify the "crisis" is often demeaning and disrespectful to fellow human beings. As to your other question, a lot of the explanation for offering assistance is related to political considerations and not to the degree of suffering that individual refugees or groups of refugees have experienced. Certainly, politics explains why some refugees are treated more favourably than others - you have only to look at the support of most European governments for refugees from Ukraine compared to refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world.

  • British Council.jpg respectful_tennis | State Experimental Basic 2 School | Ghana
    16 Apr 2022

    How do we help the refugee to leave a comfortable life

    1. Peter Gattrell thumbnail EXPERT: Peter Gatrell
      respectful_tennis's comment 28 Apr 2022

      Thanks for such an important question! One answer is that everything possible needs to be done to help refugees enjoy basic rights that should be taken for granted: the right to a place to live as freely as possible, the right to work, the right to education, the right to medical care, and so on. Unfortunately, some people who are not refugees think that refugees should not be entitled to these rights because (in their view) they don't have the same claim as citizens of the country. But another way of looking at it is to say that refugees contribute in all sorts of ways to the countries in which they settle - they just need to be given the opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, asylum seekers (people who have claimed refugee status but not been recognised as refugees) are often prevented from working. Everyone loses in those situations, it seems to me.

  • British Council.jpg victorious_sparrow | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
    17 Apr 2022

    Thanks for your post

  • British Council.jpg victorious_sparrow | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
    17 Apr 2022

    How many refugees are found in countries?

  • British Council.jpg skillful_cranberry | School of Excellence Sector-23 Rohini | India
    19 Apr 2022

    I would like to ask Peter Gattrell about the changes he has observed over years in population displacement ,such as the changes in numbers,causes, facilities etc., Has it became severe or better?

    1. Peter Gattrell thumbnail EXPERT: Peter Gatrell
      skillful_cranberry's comment 28 Apr 2022

      This is such a good question! We hear so much about the situation today, and forget that there is a long history of refugees, of people being forced from their homes against their will. It is misleading when some people (including people in the United Nations) describe what is happening today as "unprecedented". The numbers are certainly very large - some estimates suggest that there are 84 million people who can be regarded as refugees (in 2021), including people who are displaced within their own country as well as those who have crossed an international frontier. But I worked out that the figure in the 1940s was twice as high! That's because of the impact of the Second World War in Europe and especially in South Asia (the Partition of India), in East Asia (civil war and revolution in China), and the Middle East. Then you also have to remember that the world's population has grown rapidly, which means that the numbers were also relatively much greater in the 1940s than today. And public opinion was certainly very aware of these post-1945 "refugee crises". You ask about causes too. In my view, the causes are fundamentally the same: war, including civil war; revolution (think Arab Spring, but then think of Russia, China, Cuba, Ethiopia in the 20th century); also environmental change is sometimes thought to be new - yes, we are now aware of climate change, but previous environmental disasters such as earthquake and flood have also led to massive loss of life and displacement - China's history provides lots of examples.

  • British Council.jpg genuine_memory | Shouka Prep Girls School | Occupied Palestinian Territory
    20 Apr 2022

    Hello Peter Gatrell, my question is very simple, how can citizens in other countries help refugees and what is this path that citizens will offer to their fellow refugees that will work to alleviate their suffering in life for their struggle and struggle for their rights that go from them while they are arguing but they can do nothing about that.

    1. Peter Gattrell thumbnail EXPERT: Peter Gatrell
      genuine_memory's comment 28 Apr 2022

      Your question is terrific, but not so simple to answer! The important thing to remember is that even when governments (as in Europe) adopt harsh and restrictive policies towards refugees, there are at the same time numerous communities and non-governmental organisations that provide support at a local level. Think of this as solidarity towards fellow human beings. This is as true today as it was in the past, and it is important that we remember these efforts. Apart from offering practical advice and assistance, which are essential, these groups can also help to amplify the voices of refugees - in other words, help to ensure that refugees are given as much opportunity as possible to say what they want and need. It's all about standing together rather than being isolated and disenfranchised.

  • British Council.jpg outspoken_shrimp | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
    20 Apr 2022

    Nice and interesting topic. Thank you for your interest in this topic 😚

  • British Council.jpg easygoing_flower | Kfarhatta Secondary Public School | Lebanon
    20 Apr 2022

    Hey sir! My question is:
    1. Why does discrimination against refugees exist? Like refugees from the middle east for example and refugees from Ukraine.

  • British Council.jpg appreciative_pear | Shouka Prep Girls School | Occupied Palestinian Territory
    20 Apr 2022

    Hello Peter!
    my questions
    Being ordinary people, how can we support or provide assistance to refugees?
    Do refugees in moving from their country to other countries face difficulties and challenges?

  • British Council.jpg honorable_crow | Dr. Nazih El Bizri High School | Lebanon
    20 Apr 2022

    Why the topic of refugees should be a big issue!?

  • British Council.jpg outspoken_shrimp | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
    22 Apr 2022

    Beautiful and different topic 🌹❤️

  • British Council.jpg outspoken_shrimp | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
    22 Apr 2022

    Thank you for your interest in this topic, it is a very useful topic 🤗❤️

    1. katie.jpg Katie @ Topical Talk
      outspoken_shrimp's comment 22 Apr 2022

      We are glad you're finding it interesting! Can you explain why people should learn about this topic, outspoken_shrimp?

  • British Council.jpg bright_conversation | Shouka Prep Girls School | Occupied Palestinian Territory
    25 Apr 2022

    Mister peter , what motivated you to set up this institution, what difficulties did you face now do you help refugees and how do you feel while doing so

  • High Lawn Primary.jpg optimistic_starfish | High Lawn Primary School | United Kingdom
    26 Apr 2022

    What happens to refugees, after the main conflict is over, but their house may be destroyed. Would the government give them a place to live?

  • British Council.jpg appreciative_pear | Shouka Prep Girls School | Occupied Palestinian Territory
    30 Apr 2022

    Hello Mister Peter!
    1- Can education be a tool and a means to alleviate the psychological problems of all refugee segments of society?
    2- In your opinion, when will the refugee crisis end?
    3- Is there a difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?

  • British Council.jpg willing_imagination | Marka Prep. Girls School 2 | Jordan
    04 May 2022

    Hi Mister Peter, I have some questions I would like you to answer. First: Who is eligible for cash assistance from UNHCR? Second: Is providing cash assistance to refugees linked to the process of resettlement or asylum? Third: In the event of work for refugees, will the Commission continue to provide their cash aid?

  • British Council.jpg entrepreneurial_hurricane | Pantang Presby Basic School | Ghana
    02 Jun 2022

    Hi Mister Peter I want to ask you a few questions about the refugees.
    Which country has the largest refugee in the world
    Which country helps the refugee in business and education
    Which country feeds the refugee in the world

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