This hook suggests how events of the First World War led to a legal definition of “refugee”, how this definition has changed, and how it may change in the future.

One of the original legal definitions of a refugee

One of the original legal definitions of a refugee from “Arrangement of 12 May 1926 Relating to the Issue of Identity Certificates to Russian and Armenian Refugees”, League of Nations, Treaty Series vol. 89, no. 2004.


The First World War created many displaced persons. The German occupation of Belgium led to 250,000 Belgians leaving for Britain, and the Russian occupation of East Prussia in 1914 caused many Germans to flee. 500,000 Serbians fled to Albania after Serbia’s defeat by Austria; it is estimated that 200,000 died on the way. Around 6 million refugees (from many countries) ended up in Russia alone. It is estimated that the war displaced more than 10 million people either internally or across borders. The size and abruptness of this displacement caused significant problems for countries that were ill-equipped to deal with the influx of people. Many refugees were poorly treated, and many died. A legal framework for the treatment of refugees was proposed by the League of Nations to ensure that this situation was not repeated. 

The original legal definition of a refugee only applied to certain people of Armenian or Russian origin. They needed protection because of the Russian Revolution or persecution within the Ottoman Empire. This definition was widened over the years to include people of other backgrounds who required refuge and then, in 1951, the current legal definition was created, which removed any reference to particular people groups. 

Recently, some people have considered whether the definition of a refugee should be further widened to include those whose homes or livelihoods are at risk because of climate change. Rising sea levels may cause the displacement of some groups, particularly people from low-lying islands in the Pacific, such as Tuvalu and Kiribati. 

Possible discussion questions: 

What groups do you know that may fit into the current (1951) definition of a refugee? 

Do you think the definition should be changed to include those displaced by climate change? Why or why not? If not, how might New Zealand help our Pacific neighbours deal with rising sea levels? 

Do you think New Zealand has a responsibility to accept refugees? 

How has New Zealand helped refugees in the past? 

How does New Zealand help refugees today? 

How might New Zealand best help refugees in the future? 

How might young people support refugees in their communities?

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